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"Human Directionals"—The Cheap Wage/Expensive Land Economy Personified
This meant relatively high wages and low land prices, so Americans could afford to buy their own farms and homes.
Which made Americans even richer and more independent.
In that harbinger of the American future, Southern California, once the Promised Land of the middle class, unskilled labor has become so plentiful that now a common weekend sight is people who are paid to stand on corners and try to catch your eye by randomly wiggling brightly colored directional arrows, typically pointing to real estate open houses.
And it's just as depressing.
Susan Abram of the Los Angeles Daily News reported on Friday:
"In the multibillion-dollar advertising and marketing world, all signs point to the human directional business as a trend for development companies, small businesses and real estate agents to get their products noticed. 'This is a way of advertising that is very common in the new-home industry,' said Erika Kaufmann, sales manager for the Olson Co.'s Burbank Village Walk, a mixed-use housing development with 140 condominium units on Olive Avenue." ("Spin City: Twirling advertisements a sign of the times", December 16, 2005)
With American teenagers increasingly driven out of traditional jobs, such as fast food, by employers' preference for a staff that speaks a common language (i.e. Spanish), many California teens are turning themselves into living signs. A young man in exurban Lancaster, CA offered an insider's perspective:
"'My official title was 'Human Directional.' Confused? I'll explain: I was a sign. Yep, a human sign. Every weekend for 4-6 hours, I'd stand on a corner (hey, be nice) with an enormous arrow-shaped sign and wave it at cars passing by in an attempt to get them to go look at models of homes in new housing tracts in the area. Really, this was my job. I can't begin to describe how utterly mind-numbing it was. I did this for an entire year! See, in my city there is an over-abundance of teenagers, and a severe lack of jobs. People literally have to fight to get jobs at Burger King… Being that there's nothing to do, a favorite pastime of a few people here was to torment me while I worked.' "
Then again, perhaps they had their reasons. Abram writes:
"But some who study marketing are less than impressed with the tactic. 'I find it irritating,' said Harold Kassarjian, professor of marketing at California State University, Northridge. 'It's an in-your-face ad. To me, it's just junky clutter that we're forced to look at.'"
You may not be surprised to learn that this "vibrant" addition to our culture apparently originated in that Ground Zero of inefficiency, inequality, and underemployment: Mexico.
"Human directionals possibly came to Southern California from Mexico, where the practice flourishes, Kassarjian said. In the past few years, San Diego has been inundated."
The economics of the "living sign" says something disturbing about Southern California's present and America's future.
Blaine Harden wrote in the Washington Post (8/11/05):
"The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land. And Los Angeles grows more crowded every year …"
The median price of a home in Los Angeles' suburban San Fernando Valley is now $600,000.
Your $600,000 buys typically a 40-year-old stucco three-bedroom ranch house (no basement) of merely about 1700 square feet on a one-fifth acre lot in a fair-to-middling neighborhood with mediocre-to-miserable schools.
That pays for a lot of sign twirlers.
But it also raises more questions than it answers about the long-term prospects for our economy and for our once solidly middle-class society—in a 21st Century where the well-off increasingly make their living selling houses to each other; and the less lucky make their living, such as it is, jiggling signs.