During the Fall election cycles, Earth is hidden beneath dried leaves and sprouting political signs. Street corners are blanketed with names of local and national candidates alerting the neighborhood of an upcoming vote. Neighbors begin to plant their chosen signs, puncturing the soil with metal spokes, aligning themselves to a team, and as a way for the neighborhood to gauge how opinions are growing.
I take a weekly commute down Hummel Avenue in Lemoyne, a street and quaint town composed of double houses and local businesses where it’s safe to assume most people know each other.
In early September, a double home on the corner began a passive political rivalry. The physically left neighbor flew a loud Trump flag on a porch mounted flagpole. Next week’s drive, I noticed the physically right neighbor adorned an equally sized BLM flag. The following week, a pink “Women for Trump” flag outdid the neighbor’s attempt, and most recently, the right neighbor included a Progress Pride flag.
The close proximity of these neighbors could appear to be a divided family. The comical chess match of opposing flags was a saga I kept friends informed with. I became invested in the story behind these neighbors; what drives them to publicize their opinions, what about these organizations is important to them?
One espresso and personal pep talk later, I found myself at the doors of those neighbors to ask the questions that stuck with me every week I drove by. No one answered. But I had prepared a note for them to contact me and left the identical letters, emphasizing my interest in recording oral history, folded on the front steps. (update: no call back)
The early October climate still warmed the air. It brought some of the locals out to their porches or to clean their square flower gardens. Plenty had political signs on their front lawns.
I met Linda, who was busy tending to both her and her neighbor’s weeds. Linda has a sign supporting the local police, along with her neighbor who also displays support to Biden. She introduced me to her other neighbor, Sam sitting on Linda’s porch, and the neighbor’s dog she was watching. After 24 years living on the block, Linda says this community is close, practically an “extended family.”
Linda’s answer is simple when she’s asked about why she displays her personal beliefs. “It’s my right.” She mentions putting a Biden or Trump sign may cause problems but the West Shore Police sign, she believes in supporting. “My political views are mine. I don’t discuss my political or religious views with my neighbors but everyone is entitled to have them like I am with mine.”
Her soil-covered hands pointed to the neighbor’s house, the one whose dog she is watching, to tell me about recent vandalism.
“The neighbor had a Black Lives Matter flag and somebody stole it, twice. So she puts it up during the day but at night takes it down and flies the American flag. Someone actually came onto her porch between one and four in the morning, climbed up on her banister, and stole her flag. She had a sticker on the back of her car and they peeled the sticker off.”
I confided to her I was nervous to put any signs in my yard and that I have a deep respect for people willing to display their beliefs. She agrees that she might believe in the way her neighbors do, but she is also leerier than they are because of what happened next door. Linda and her neighbor discussed the possibility of facing worse damage; a trashed porch, broken windows, or a spray-painted car and therefore, considered her lucky.
Viewing these parade of signs down the avenue, I wondered the impact it has on swaying voters to a particular candidate or if rather, it’s simply a way for neighbors to easily find allies or generate defiance.
A study done by Columbia researchers of political science found a 1.7% increase in persuasion for a certain candidate, a finding they were even surprised by considering the general consensus is it’s a waste of time, researchers told POLITICO.
Testimonies from campaign workers across the internet can be summarized to “Lawn Signs Don’t Vote” and have been said to be a bearing and expensive task for the campaign committee.
However, a study by Fordham University sent out volunteers holding deliberate nonpartisan signs to remind the community to “Vote Tomorrow” which had a significant impact on voter turnout in the locations they chose.
So why, then, do people continue to decorate lawns with flat plastic logos if researchers and political professionals find marginal use for them?
Another neighbor on Hummel Avenue has a garden placed with familiar liberal signs. While enjoying his shaded porch, he told me he displays these signs to “To be a voice for the people that won’t speak up. I mean, to say this is what we stand for. It’s our first amendment, might as well use it.” He begrudgingly compares the evolution of political signs to choosing a football team but admits it offers a conversation starter to those on the “same team.” Aside from a few petty comments, he hasn’t encountered backlash for his curated garden of ideals, ideals like environmental protection, equal rights, and the future for his son which, for him, can be entrusted to democratic principles.
Next, I visited a Trump supporter who caught me as I was walking away from her door and down the street. I ran back to question her reasoning for displaying two conventionally conservative signs. “Well, I love America for one thing and it’s important for me to let people know President Trump also loves America, and we are his first priority.” The economy, pro-fracking, and pro-life are her reasons for committing to Trump. Like her liberal neighbor, she is concerned about the future if it’s not aligned to the right party.
“I have no reservations about putting out a sign because I have the facts to back it up.” She goes into her second lecture on the rising price of gas, Joe Biden’s “racist” political career, and the republican role in the civil rights era. The only retaliation she heard on the block was a combative verbal exchange at a pro-Trump home, an exchange she was hesitant to tell me about.
Her parting message, one I imagine the entire avenue can agree on, was her scheduled colonoscopy the next morning and the two days preparation “is really bad.” If one crisis both factions can unite over is the disinterest in doctors probing your anus, maybe we can all begin our political parley there.
My final visit on Hummel Avenue was arranged by Linda to a woman across the street who actually didn’t display any political signs. Her neutral stance in the political realm is intentional, “I think politics should be private. Especially in the world today, it deters people from even getting to know one another if they think that you are in one party, which is ridiculous.” The only signs ever displayed are those in support of her son’s weightlifting championship or daughter’s volleyball team. In the past, she has supported her friends running for local elections but “only because they are my friend.”
Near the other neighbors, I encountered a man gleefully waving a Biden flag on a “hot corner” and with an impromptu interview, I recorded his reasons for waving this flag.
There is one house in the Harrisburg area easily described by “the giant fetus sign on Walnut Street” and everyone knows which house. The 6×6 sign changes frequently and stirs controversy between the rotating displays of aborted fetuses, Obama as the antichrist, PA Governor Tom Wolf symbolized by a cartoon wolf biting a fetus, and other bold messages on a popular commute to the state capitol.
I’d end my afternoon of interviews at the final boss of yard signs. Their home, situated on a 35mph street, has the sign front and center, the large Trump flag, American flag, and pro-life bumper stickers on the door became white noise against the main attraction. I was preparing to be turned away, even yelled at as I passed the Virgin Mary and an even larger anti-abortion sign in the back lot, although the folkish wooden sign carved with “The Snells” hanging above the door was comforting.
The woman who answered was wearing pink and carefully took the time to do her makeup and curl her white hair. I gave her my spiel, asking if I could interview people about their political signs. “Hold on a moment, I’ll ask.” she appeared back with her husband who shuffled slowly to the door eager for a guest. I held up my phone and asked if he would mind if I recorded our audio. Without waiting for a response, my fingers were already unlocking it. “Yes,” he smiled. I shot back a look still computing his response. “You’ll have to remember it.” He said, then looking at my phone with dissident glee, “I have to be careful.” For a moment, I thought I’d be able to sneak on the recording button anyhow. My darting eyes and guilty sigh gave me away. “You didn’t just start recording, did you?” “No!” I put the phone away after proving it wasn’t recording and took a breath to prepare my mind to soak in every sentence.
My first question, and the question I assume those who drive by wonder, “Why do you put up these signs?” His story began with the media hating Trump, and living in a world where finding the truth is hard to come by. My mind saved room for more personal information about him.
Mr. Snell began as a Catholic pro-life advocate working for many branches that were closing down, popping up, and closing down again. With these chapters out of business, there wasn’t any organization to spread “an important message.” He also felt the Catholic church wasn’t doing enough to take a stance. So one day, in 1988 the first sign went up.
The current signs he said, are a creative brain-child he worked on himself. On one side; Trump, Pence, and where Nancy Pelosi should be, a photoshopped Wicked Witch of the West, and on the other side, a blown-up photo of Rush Limbaugh and the information for that afternoon’s radio interview with Trump. “It will be the most important one ever” he claimed. These signs are mild in comparison to past presentations.
His eyes lit up when I asked if there was any neighborhood retaliation. He motioned for me to look at the corners of the home where at least 5 cameras are set up. “We got these nest cameras after a boy on a skateboard smashed our abortion sign in the back lot.” Apparently, the times he mentioned those burning and (yes, literally) bulldozing his signs were pre-security camera era.
Suddenly, he turned to his wife who had been resting against the doorway nodding her head as her husband explained their history. “Can we trust her to let her in?” They smiled, I did my best to give an innocent smile. “These nest cams caught a man driving 50mph into one of our signs. I want to show it to you.”
The wife and I realized we would both be waiting together outside as he gathered his evidence. I asked if she could remember the first sign 32 years ago, “It was probably a pro-life one.”
We both watched the bees nestle their bodies into her flower bush and fly out bathed in pollen. She told me she loves watching them, being near them when most people tell her they are afraid. I asked if she often answers the door for people, “With my business as a tailor, I will often open the door. In fact, many people after seeing our sign for years will finally build up the courage and come to thank us.” I was surprised and also immediately adamant that I showed up with an unbiased curiosity. In our eyes we both agreed that we probably viewed the world differently, burying our heads in different types of flowers.
After only three short small talks, her husband came back with a rewarding smile. They led me through their home that had multiple rooms connecting off the main, dark hallway but I was focused on our destination at the end of the hallway, a sunless small room with a large, almost TV-sized computer monitor. A portrait of her family and 13 grandkids and two paintings with geese and a winter farm scene hung nearby.
The 54-second video was mainly watching cars drive by. I waited to hear the engine of the culprit car. “Look at the traffic and it’s broad daylight.” Mrs. Snell repeated. We all were eagerly silent, each passing car building up the suspense until the blue sedan appeared, clearly driving on their lawn and ramming straight into the sign sending pieces of their propaganda and wood structure flying into the road. Cars came to a halt. Mr. Snell swirled around with excited adrenaline to watch my gaping reaction. I now understand why they only change their signs in the middle of the night. This video seemed to be a prized possession, one that they even shared with a Scranton news channel, they told me. They can’t remember which sign was up at the time but “it was probably a good one.” he boasts. I can’t recall if the driver was caught or not.
As we left towards their front door, still in animated conversation over the daylight vengeance, I tried to remember small details of their home that might explain the distinct couple better; a wallpapered hallway decorated with old photos and wooden crosses and a small sunlit tailor shop at the front. I thanked them for their time and they were pleased with my questions. They had me promise I would send them a copy when I was finished. She handed me her tailor shop business card, a simple yellow card with no fetus images to be found.
As surprised as I am for a home displaying a 6×6 sign, I’m more surprised by the passion it takes to sacrifice one’s own vehicle to annihilate a political sign. When I began to edit the photos, I noticed an added security measure in front of the Rush Limbaugh side, a cinderblock almost hidden within the grass to protect the sign from any more daring opposition.
My reoccurring, final conclusion is to speculate where these discarded lawn signs will turn up after November 3rd. As plastic material, these signs are recyclable when the metal spokes are removed. Consider saving the metal spokes for another election cycle. Efforts to clean up public spaces after the election are encouraged.