His mission: To rid Philly of 'bandit' signs

Christopher Sawyer removes a "bandit" sign at 6th Street and Montgomery Avenue.
Christopher Sawyer removes a "bandit" sign at 6th Street and Montgomery Avenue. (KATE McCANN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: April 02, 2012

HE'S NOT LOOKING to sell gold or to unload extra diabetic test strips. He has no interest in selling his home in a few seconds, doesn't need a new roof, and doesn't own a junk car that he can donate to help a needy family.

But Christopher Sawyer, 34, sure has a thing for the so-called "bandit" signs that advertise these offers and services on utility poles all over the poorer sections of the city. Bandit signs pollute Sawyer's eyeballs. The Texas native hates them so much that he's dedicated a website - banditproject.org - to eradicating them and to calling out the people who post them.

"This whole proliferation of bandit signs is like recession porn," Sawyer said recently. "They're frickin' everywhere."

Sawyer's an industrial-software engineer, an occasional skydiver, and an avid follower of city legislation. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sawyer, in sunglasses and wearing a Phillies hoodie, spotted more than 100 signs - most offering deals for junk cars - nailed and stapled to telephone poles in the Kensington area and Northeast Philly.

He tears off just about every sign he can reach, with little concern for personal safety. "I carry my ice pick with me to pry the signs off, so I don't really worry," he said.

You wouldn't know it by driving through Philadelphia, but bandit signs on utility poles and streetlights are illegal. Sawyer was surprised to learn that a few years ago, but ever since, he's been repeating his "Yes, you can tear them down" mantra to a growing number of community groups, activists and average citizens sick of looking at them.

"I first thought, 'I can't touch them, they belong to somebody,' " Sawyer said.

About 20,000 bandit signs are up in the city, Sawyer estimates, and if the city enforced the ban and collected the fines for posting them, it could generate much-needed revenue, he says. The city should emulate the Parking Authority, he argues, and hammer the people who post them. In 2010, the city issued only eight tickets at $75 apiece for bandit-sign violations.

"I just want the city to get more creative in dealing with the problem," he said.

A bill introduced in January by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell wasn't exactly what Sawyer had in mind.

That proposal would allow bandit signs on utility poles or streetlights with the purchase of a $1 official city stamp. Signs would have to be removed within 90 days and couldn't be affixed with nails or staples. The stamps could be returned by the applicant for a 50-cent refund after they expired.

"They wouldn't even make enough money to pay one part-time employee," Sawyer said. "They'd be better simply enforcing the current law."

Jones could not be reached for comment, but his spokeswoman, Michelle Wilson, said the bill was an effort to streamline and clean up the bandit signs in Philadelphia, not legalize them.

"My boss is not looking to promote bandit signs," Wilson said. "He doesn't like them."

Sawyer said the bill was "nonsense" and had to be quashed, but a recent announcement that the Nutter administration was considering a different, enforcement-based approach left him hopeful.

Sawyer said he moved to Center City because salaries were higher than in his native San Antonio. Then his rent on Chestnut Street skyrocketed, so he moved to Mayfair. Now he owns a three-story home in east Kensington, where the proliferation of bandit signs a few years ago inspired a neighborhood pride that's gotten stronger.

Kensington now has a veritable army of residents who don't think twice about tearing down a sign, and many credit Sawyer as an inspiration. Recently, Sawyer set up a contest to reward people who tore down the most bandit signs in the 19125 ZIP code, encompassing parts of Kensington, Port Richmond and Fishtown. Winners will get an Amazon Kindle and cash prizes, he said.

"Chris has helped me out a lot. He's really resourceful," said Gary Summerfield, 41, of Kensington. "It's good to see people like that caring about the neighborhood when so many don't."

The anonymous names behind each bandit sign aren't nearly so appreciative, though, namely because Sawyer has no problem outing them.

"If it was such a big deal, he could have called me instead of trying to embarrass me and talk crap and dig up dirt," said Al Slafman, who is included in Sawyer's "Hall of Shame" for his "I'll buy your house in 7 seconds" signs.

Slafman said bandit signs were effective at first but he no longer uses them. He's particularly angry at Sawyer for posting pictures of his house and questioning his business ethics.

"It's easy for him to sit back on a computer and snipe at people and hide," Slafman said.

Lenny Trexler, who Sawyer said is responsible for many of the "junk cars" signs in the city, hung up when asked to comment.

Sawyer offers no apologies. He said he has spent thousands of dollars on his website, hired an attorney to fight off frivolous lawsuits, and is creating a limited-liability corporation, all to improve the city.

"This is just like one little story in a much bigger picture," Sawyer said. "The city of Philadelphia is a colossal failure in the issue of property, zoning, and taxes. The whole outdoor environment, what you see on the street, is a miserable failure."


Contact Jason Nark at 215-854-5916 or narkj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @jasonnark.

|
|
|
|
|