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March 6, 2009
?A Plague of Advertisements,? and a Pile of Litter

by Saki Knafo

A FEW weeks ago, Gale Brewer, a councilwoman representing the Upper West Side, wrote a letter to the commissioner of the State Department of Transportation. ?A plague of advertisements,? as she put it, was spreading through her district and beyond.

?Perhaps you are familiar with them,? she wrote. ?They purport to advertise ?moving companies,? and are taped to street light poles in a systematic way.?

For many residents of the Upper West Side, these advertisements, which often end up in tatters on the street, have indeed become a ubiquitous and irritating sight. Ms. Brewer?s staff has accumulated a large collection of posters torn down and brought in by annoyed constituents. ?Piles of them,? she said the other day, speaking from her office.

Yet, however annoying these signs are to Upper West Siders, they are even more annoying, perhaps, to the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization whose workers, clad in royal blue jumpsuits, are deployed daily on the streets of Manhattan with garbage cans and brooms.

?Every day we?re confronted anew with these posters,? said George McDonald, the organization?s president and founder. ?We literally spend thousands of man hours taking these things down.?

So why doesn?t the city crack down on the companies that put up the signs? It is illegal, after all, to post advertisements on public property in New York, and the companies? phone numbers are printed on the posters.

But as Ms. Brewer said wryly, ?We?ve got a little mystery.?

The problem, according to Ms. Brewer, is that the phone numbers are not for the moving companies, but for what she described as referral agencies, mysterious middlemen who collect customers? information and pass it along anonymously to legitimate movers.

Ms. Brewer said she became aware of this situation in January, when she met with officials from the city?s Department of Sanitation, who told her that they had conducted a ?sting operation? in an attempt to catch the poster culprits.

Undercover enforcement agents, posing as potential customers, called one of the moving companies. ?The guy who showed up was a regular licensed mover,? Ms. Brewer said, ?and he didn?t know where he had gotten the referral.?

Matthew LiPani, a spokesman for the Department of Sanitation, would not comment on the operation.

Ms. Brewer has since turned elsewhere for help. She hopes that the State Department of Transportation, which licenses moving companies, will work with her to identify the middlemen.

As for the people whose numbers are listed on the fliers, at least one of them claims no wrongdoing.

?We don?t do anything illegal,? said a man reached by phone the other day. But when asked for his name and that of his business, he hung up.

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