John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Etsy acquired the city of Portland; Boulder's electric company cut off service for residents who voted against it; Philadelphia unveiled a pedestrian lane for distracted texters.
It's hard to call a winner this year among the handful of U.S. cities that deployed novel, well-crafted pranks on April 1.
We can begin by eliminating this fake school shooting in Roseville, California, the result of a phone call from a "30-year-old autistic man from Virginia." Haw haw, someone just wound up on the no-fly list!
A better joke, sans pipe bombs: Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and his band of public-works Pucks created a professional-looking video for an fanciful "E-Lane Initiative." Located on a single block of John F. Kennedy Boulevard, it was allegedly the world's first pedestrian lane devoted to texting addicts. Anybody caught not totally engrossed in a smartphone to the point of plunging into an open manhole would be kicked out of the lane. "The E-Lane is a safe and convenient option for those distracted walkers and should make sidewalks safer for the rest of us," Nutter explained on camera, while a distracted texter bumped into him.
Take a look at the fake E-Lane promo, which some people have chosen to believe is real. (YouTube commenter: "i text and walk, but i pay attention. How ridiculous. What a waste of time, energy and money.") Philadelphia is hoping the gag will get its populace to walk more safely; as it stands, a car hits a pedestrian about every four hours in the city. Maybe foggy-headed drivers should get their own lane, too?
Then there were these utility-shut-off letters in Boulder, Colorado. The anonymous jester who penned them showed a deft understanding of a political issue that's not on the radar of most Americans. In a nutshell, Boulder voters decided last year to form a municipal electric company separate from the area's historical provider, Xcel Energy. The idea is that the new city-run utility would focus more on renewable energy and on reducing Boulder's carbon footprint.
When locals opened their mailboxes this weekend, they found letters stamped with Xcel's logo saying that the company had sifted through election records and discovered that they had voted for municipalization. So, it was shutting off their electricity out of spite, because "legal counsel informs us that we are no longer bound to provide our services to households such as yours." While widely viewed as a hoax, at least one person was left wondering if the threat wasn't real after the power went out for a couple hours last night.
The residents of Portland, Oregon, meanwhile, found themselves suddenly owned by crafting giant Etsy. As the Brooklyn-based website announced on Sunday, Etsy was assuming control over the economically struggling Oregon city for the next 5 years under the so-called "Etsy Plan." The company would attempt to make Portland profitable by forcing its unemployed masses to work – "many of them for the first time in their lives" – knitting twee hats, iPod cozies and butt covers for dogs. Here's an excerpt from Etsy's surprisingly acerbic press release regarding the hostile takeover:
Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson says he conceived the idea after reading a news article about the dire financial straits of Michigan cities which turned to private “emergency financial managers” to reduce crippling deficits at the expense of local autonomy.
“I thought, ‘why can’t that happen in Portland?’” Dickerson said. “Aside from the zipcode of our office building, Portland has been the bedrock of our customer base for years. Etsy practically invented bird-on-apparel technology, so this is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to a city that literally helped put us on the map by making feather hair-clips and steampunk goggles socially acceptable articles of clothing.”
But for sheer effort, I'm giving the prize for Best 2012 Urban April Fool's Folly to Austin, Texas. Mayor Lee Leffingwell, assisted perhaps by his LeeTeam, threw out a bulging bag of "far-reaching new policy proposals" that deserves to be mentioned in full. You can find them and a few constituent reactions on Leffingwell's Facebook page. It's about time someone took a firm stance against dumb British pronunciations; I would add in "lee-ver" and "ad-vert-tis-mint" as well:
* A limit on the total number of buttons on all TV remotes
* Restrictions on the use of oddly-sized business cards
* A prohibition against the British pronunciation of the word “schedule” and the fancy pronunciations of "harassment" and "mature"
* A requirement that bowl depths not exceed spoon lengths
* Strict penalties for using car-horn sounds in radio commercials
* An immediate citywide ban on name-dropping using first names only
* A prohibition against the use of abbreviations IMHO and FWIW
* A requirement that mustard be available on the table at all Austin restaurants
Leffingwell said he will also push to move Fox News out of the “news block” on local cable and place it near QVC, cut back on the use the Helvetica font, cap wait times at Franklin BBQ, and work toward the implementation of universal voicemail commands.
“Everywhere I go, people ask me to focus on universal voicemail commands,” said Mayor Leffingwell. “Folks say, my delete button on my cell phone is my forward button on my home voicemail and the pause button on my work voicemail, and I can’t take it anymore. I feel their pain. What I’m saying today, on April 1st, is that these basic quality-of-life issues are now my top priorities.”