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The road to Microsoft City, Missouri

Monday, July 6, 2009 | 12:50 p.m. CDT; updated 4:56 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 6, 2009

Ads, ads everywhere: I can hardly think.

Sure, we expect to see advertisements in our media, and we can live with them being awkwardly planted in films, but there’s got to be a line drawn between what space is for sale and what isn’t.

The constantly evolving spectrum of advertising makes it hard to pinpoint that line’s exact coordinates, but New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority seems to have landed somewhere on the wrong side. Their offense? Pimping out one of Brooklyn’s subway stops to Barclays.

The transaction is taking place via the developer Forest City Ratner. That company purchased MTA-owned property around the stop at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues as part of the “Atlantic Yards Project,” an endeavor to make money by revitalizing the area. A big chunk of that plan is building a sports arena for the New Jersey Nets NBA franchise, and that arena will be known as the “Barclays Center.” Hence the entrance of pommy moneybags into the mix.

According to documents from the MTA, the big-picture aim is to make the area “a vibrant, mixed-used, mixed-income community” by capitalizing on one of the borough’s busiest transit hubs; at the intersection of those streets, there is access to the Long Island Railroad, 12 subway lines and 11 bus lines. Point being, the amount of people who would see the Barclays name (and be reminded that the city sold out) in a given day is as grains of sand in the Sahara.

I remember there being heated talk of selling stops when I lived in New York three years ago, but the assumption on the ground seemed to be that it would never happen. The people of New York City, the collective sentiment went, had far too much pride to let their avenues become billboards for burger-hawkers and banks.  

But, as it turns out, the people of New York City weren’t really asked. The MTA board had an opportunity to make $4 million — $200,000 per year for 20 years of naming rights — and they simply took it.

The easy excuse for the MTA is to pull their pants pockets inside out, helplessly shrug their shoulders and cite economic recession as the impetus, but that doesn’t quite work with the time line. They, along with transit authorities in other cities, were trying to sell businesses on these costly ad-investments long before credit default swaps started raining on parades. And their talks with Forest City Ratner started in 2005.  

Another justification could be asserting that, say, new tracks would have to be made out of corrugated cardboard if they didn’t get the money. But the MTA is getting almost $100 million for the real property and air space involved in the project. I find it hard to believe that a relatively paltry $4 million is going to make or break the system.

Comments on the New York Times Web site showed the local public to be squarely disenchanted with the transit authority's sale. “This is just pathetic,” one wrote. “Instead of addressing their inefficiencies, they are just reducing the entire value of the service. This is bad, bad, bad.”

So why the fuss about a subway stop? Certainly more surprising space has been given over to advertising in recent history. Air New Zealand used bald passengers as “cranial billboards” in 2008. KFC recently filled in potholes around the country, on the condition that they could stencil a temporary ad on top of the fresh asphalt.

One of the unique objections here is that renaming subway stops is not only distracting but is messing with people’s sense of direction. This point is well-embodied by a cutline from a New York Times editorial. It goes, “When you get off the train at a subway station, you want to know where you are, not who your sponsor is.”

Another is that the sale of this subway station seems to be a harbinger of more distressing and confusing sales to come. Another commenter satirically encapsulated this worry in “Modern Subway Directions”: “Get on at McDonalds and go five stops to Starbucks. Transfer to the Walmart and continue on to Staples.” And if subway stops are for sale, why not streets? If streets are for sale, why not whole towns? Will Missourian legislators be someday casting votes in Microsoft City?

Surely that line would be drawn before we lost capitals to companies, but the worry is that we're setting the wrong precedent for where the line might be. A lot of people, including me, would like to have it thickly laid on the other side of historic New York City locales.

There is a certain unquantifiable romance that is lost when symbolic bits of life are given over to sponsors. Unpopular though soccer already is in America, I wanted to support the sport a lot less when the New York Metro Stars became the energy-drink sponsored Red Bulls. And the magic of seeing a favorite band is inevitably tainted when you have to do so at a Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

Granted, it’s not a great business model to consider prime assets as sacred, but there are other ways to make money. Here’s hoping that creativity can outplay greed before the 42nd-Street stop becomes “The New York Times Square.”

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.


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