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'Bandit signs' bloom like city flowers in spring

The Streets Department plans to tackle illegal ad benches, then zero in on bandit signs.

DAVID PERRI became streets commissioner on Monday. By yesterday he'd gotten the Junk Cars guys to remove their junky signs.

Well, that was quick. Only the day before, the Junk Cars guys - they say their names are Joe and John - had no intention of removing their 8-by-11 posters, which offer $200-$450 for beaters.

"We know they're illegal, but we need to make a living," said Joe. I'd called him at 215-278-1161 to ask why he'd papered Fairmount and the Lower Northeast with the forbidden signs. "Everybody puts up signs. Politicians. 7-Eleven. If you're not gonna go after Bob Brady, why go after me?

"We're not taking 'em down," he repeated, with the confidence of a man who has long laughed at the law without consequence.

At least Joe has fabulous color sense. The signs are as deep pink as the azalea blossoms that explode to life this time of year.

Long after the petals drop, though, those signs will remain on the poles as the weather reduces the card stock to slime.

My neighbor Alison will have none of it.

"These are an eyesore," she said, shuffling 36 of the bandit signs, which she ripped from three dozen poles around the 'hood. She'd been doing the City Hall Shuffle, calling different departments as she tried to figure out whose job it was to go after the Junk Cars guys.

"Each one equals a $75 fine, which could help the schools. Why isn't the city doing anything about this?"

By Thursday, she'd heard from Perri. He explained that his department was in the midst of launching a new campaign to confiscate the 300 illegal advertising benches that have sprouted around the city like mushrooms after a big rain.

Nothing telegraphs "This is a crappy neighborhood!" like one of those filthy, broken and rotting structures. Especially the ones that are dropped on highway medians, far from any bus stop.

As if anyone's gonna actually play Frogger with Roosevelt Boulevard traffic to plop on a seat advertising gutter repair.

Starting May 11, says Perri, owners who don't remove their benches will be fined $75 a day. Given how badly the city needs bucks, I kind of hope the owners procrastinate for 2,666 days. That would raise the $60 million we need to keep the schools operating.

But it would take seven years. So maybe not.

Anyway, Perri promises that, once the benches are handled, his department will tackle the illegal pole signs in earnest. Not just the ones hung by the Junk Cars guys, but the ones pushing roofing services and diet schemes and offering money for dumpy houses.

"They're a blight," says Perri. "They degrade the neighborhood and lower real-estate values."

But how to find and fine the sign owners? Their phone numbers can't be traced, since they're attached to disposable phones that ensure user privacy.

"The least we can do is frustrate them," suggests Kensington's Chris Sawyer, founder of, which tracks rogue signs around the city.

He's figured out how to sign up the bandit numbers to receive text alerts all day long from traffic, news and weather services. He's also had fun listing the numbers on phony international Craigslist ads where he pretends to offer a great Manhattan apartment to rent. ("The international phone charges can really add up," he says, because sometimes those charges are shared by both the caller and recipient.)

And sometimes, when he comes home at 3 a.m. after a night out, he'll dial the bandit number, just to wake whoever answers.

"My lawyer says this isn't harassment," he says.

Besides, he adds, who would the bandit-sign guy complain to without outing himself?

Perri plans to be less of a Lone Ranger. Once his bench-removal program is complete, he says, he'll partner with police, the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services and residents to decide how to respond when neighborhoods are hit with bandit signs.

Meantime, though, he put the Junk Cars guys on the city's swift-reach robo-call system. Starting Thursday at 3 p.m., the Junk Cars phone started receiving a recorded call from the city, every 15 minutes, saying that the signs are illegal and subject to that $75-per-sign fine. The recording promised that the calls would continue until the signs were removed and gave a contact number to call to "discuss" things.

By Friday morning, Perri says, "John" had called to say the signs were gone. So Perri suspended the calls, pending verification by his department that John isn't lying through his teeth.

Are you going to fine him? I ask, thinking of our underfunded schools.

"I don't want to say at this point," Perri says. "But depending on his attitude, we might try to work with him."

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly