The Trumpian Origins of New York’s Floating Billboard Problem
Several times a day, a catamaran rounds the Battery with a great, glowing billboard on its back. The L.E.D. screen—sixty feet long and almost two stories tall—flashes with ads for Broadway plays, beer, and children’s movies, as the boat circumnavigates lower Manhattan. On Twitter, the boat has been branded as “a piece of digital garbage”—an assault on our inner Whitmans while crossing Brooklyn IKEA ferry. New Yorkers have called for the city to impound the floating billboard, or, better yet, “sink that fucking thing.” “Anybody got a spare torpedo they don’t need?” one commenter wrote, on a Gothamist article.
Last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo, seemingly unable to find a torpedo, signed a bill banning any craft operating “a billboard that uses flashing, intermittent, or moving lights” from the navigable waters of New York State. The days of the billboard boat, it seemed, were over. But Adam Shapiro, the C.E.O. and president of Ballyhoo Media, said that he is “undeterred” by the legislation, which doesn’t prohibit his company from operating the boat, but rather places limits on what can be displayed on it.
Ballyhoo is a small family startup led by the Shapiro brothers, Adam and Nate. In 2016, the Shapiros launched the company in Miami. Then, in October of 2018, they expanded to New York, where they were hit with zoning lawsuits after just three months of operation. In January, a judge ruled that Ballyhoo had the right to operate so long as its craft stayed fifteen hundred feet offshore when in sight of a highway—ostensibly to avoid distracting drivers. This ruling effectively barred Ballyhoo from the East River, but the Shapiros simply changed the boat’s route, and continued on.
The brothers have been slammed online as the “scourge of our waterways,” but they’ve also been heralded—begrudgingly—as pioneers. The Gothamist article, citing industry experts, wrote that “it’s the first time that a watercraft dedicated to advertising has taken up station on the city’s rivers.” Ballyhoo’s website claims that it’s “changing the landscape of outdoor advertising.”
But someone beat them to the punch, about eighty years ago. When Cuomo signed the recent ban into law, he stated, “These floating billboards are a nuisance that blight our shores and distract from the great natural beauty of our waterways.” Those words could well have been spoken by Robert Moses, circa 1939, when an analog version of the Ballyhoo battle played out in Brooklyn. For much of that summer and the one after it, Moses fought a pitched sea battle with a real-estate wheeler-dealer whose giant billboard boat was playing the shores of Coney Island and Brighton Beach. That man, not yet thirty-five years old, was already one of the biggest developers in Brooklyn. His son currently occupies the White House.
Fred Trump was a creative dynamo, as skilled at inventing new ways to create and market real estate as he was at absorbing the good ideas of others. In the decade before the Second World War, he built thousands of single-family brick-bungalow homes in Brooklyn and Queens. He was called the “Henry Ford of the home-building industry” for his mass-production building techniques, even though he had almost certainly copied them from William Greve, an earlier Brooklyn developer whose ads for “Henry Ford Houses” nearly got him sued by Ford himself. Trump sent staff to scour exhibits at the New York World’s Fair for ideas that might make his houses “more modern, more comfortable, more livable.” He reeled in new residents by offering cash prizes for babies born in his homes, equipping kitchens with “domestic science cabinets” and organizing resident softball leagues. A few years after the war had broken out, he generated good will—and free advertising—by turning idle building lots into victory gardens.
Trump’s most memorable marketing campaign took place not on land but on sea. On July 8, 1939, a sweltering summer day, hundreds of thousands of people crowded Brooklyn’s beaches seeking respite from the heat. Trump chartered a sixty-five-foot motor yacht out of Shell Bank Creek, on which his men installed a P.A. system and fifty-foot-long back-to-back signboards. On these, ten-foot-tall letters spelled out TRUMP HOMES. It was christened the Trump Show Boat. That day in July, the skipper Robert Woods guided the yacht up and down the beach. Trump’s “floating broadcasting station,” as the Brooklyn Eagle called it, unleashed a music-and-infomercial sound storm so loud that it could be heard nearly a mile away.
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As the Trump Show Boat cruised the beach, the crew tossed hundreds of inflatable swordfish toys overboard. “Along the whole shoreline there was a series of near-riots just outside the surf,” the Eagle reported, “for possession of the big balloons as they floated in.” This was because each was stamped with a dollar value, from twenty-five dollars to two hundred and fifty dollars, acceptable “as a payment on a new Trump Home.” By late afternoon, Moses, the city’s autocratic park commissioner, had learned of Trump’s antics, and a police boat was sent out to end the show. A Parks Department official delivered two summonses—one for sailing within a bathing area, the other for advertising without a license. But the boat was back the next day, this time farther off the beach and with Trump himself on board. His lawyer had advised him that the city had no authority beyond a thousand feet offshore. The fishing was better there, anyway: Trump and his buddies fished all day long, hauling in fluke, weakfish, and porgies, while beachgoers admired the boat from afar. “When the music stopped playing,” reported Trump, “the fish stopped biting.” The Show Boat was out again the following weekend, blaring aquacade music to eager formations of swimmers.
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The Show Boat worked. By early August, more than half of the two hundred homes that Trump built in East Flatbush had been sold. Meanwhile, the Park Department tickets piled up. Trump’s attorney, Walter Butler, contested the charges in nine separate appearances at the Coney Island Magistrate’s Court, citing case law suggesting that city land ownership ended at the low-water mark. (The arm of Robert Moses was long, but it had limits.) “The controlling and policing of all navigation waters,” Butler argued, “lies in the hands of the Federal authorities.”Magistrate Francis Giaccone disagreed, and fined the boat’s owner three hundred dollars. By the weekend of September 2nd, the Show Boat was back on the water. Trump invited Moses to join him on board, to see for himself that the ship was cruising sufficiently far from shore. It is not known if Moses responded.
The following summer, the Show Boat plied the Brooklyn shore again, blasting patriotic tunes instead of dance music and collecting a stack of new summonses for noise-ordinance violations. In a court appearance, the Park Department counsel argued that the playing of patriotic music was disturbing the peace “inasmuch as every bather felt it necessary to rise to attention whenever the band played ‘Star Spangled Banner.’” One inspector testified that bathers who didn’t rise to their feet were shouted at and called Fifth Columnists, and thus compelled “to get up at once.” Judge Jeanette Goodman Brill—Brooklyn’s first woman magistrate—ruled against Trump, but marvelled at his idea to “advertise homes on the ocean.” She then asked Butler whether his client had any more units for sale on East Thirty-Seventh Street and Foster Avenue. “I have a friend who is very much interested in purchasing a home,” Brill said, “and I will send her over to see Mr. Trump personally.”
Unlike the Show Boat, the Ballyhoo boat plays no music; it twinkles and bobs quietly about the harbor. I often see it from my window in the Standard Oil Building, in the Financial District, where my college has a teaching facility. The boat silently appears, and then quickly vanishes from view. The same cannot be said of the jet skis tearing through the bay, or the tour helicopters flying overhead.
But in the face of Cuomo’s ban, the Shapiro brothers might want to borrow a page from Fred Trump’s playbook, perhaps by inviting the governor and Attorney General Letitia James on board for some angling. (The two killed it salmon fishing on Lake Ontario last month.) The Shapiros certainly played a smart hand on August 28th when a craft of a different sort entered New York harbor—the zero-carbon Malizia II, carrying aboard Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. Thousands gathered to welcome the sixteen-year-old at North Cove Marina in Battery Park City. On hand, too, was the Ballyhoo, which photo-bobbed the event flashing not ads for Heineken or Uber but the United Nations’ Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, as if to show its haters that the medium is not necessarily the message.