IN THE FIRST HALF of the 20th century, if you bought a wall to advertise your business, you made a statement. That sign on that wall, painted by hand by men on scaffolds, was going to be there for a long time, for years, possibly for decades. It took confidence in your product or your service to buy a wall and tell the world in five- or ten-foot letters that you were the Columbia Photo Engraving Company and you were going to be in the business of photo engraving for many, many days ahead. You were Arrow Press, goddam it, "Salesmanship in Print," and you wanted Manhattan to know it.
Now, in Baltimore, I drive southbound on Interstate 83, known in these parts as the Jones Falls Expressway, each workday morning and pass a digital billboard. When my father was a wall dog, he painted billboards by hand. They were not meant to last like a wall—he always called them "bulletin boards," indicating their relatively short life, just long enough to deliver a bulletin about whiskey or beer or a new model car—but they still had permanence compared to the digital sign that changes three times in the 20 seconds it take me to approach and pass it, ephemera that speaks no more commitment than a promise to call after a one-night stand.
I like the sturdy belief in yourself that a wall demanded. Except for the Navy, all of the businesses who bought bricks on this wall in New York are no doubt gone. But they have a memorial.