Billboard House Gets into Good Trouble in the Suburbs

A homemade sign and a projector is all it took to create a little good trouble in a Richmond suburb in recent months. 

Bon Air, located in Chesterfield County, is a suburb of Richmond known for its tree-lined streets that was named for good air once believed to provide its residents with restorative properties. It looks nothing like the false picture of American suburbs that President Trump has long painted as being under siege and ravaged by crime. 

In fact, at dusk the Bon Air neighborhood lights up with powerful statements thanks to the Billboard House, complete with a large Black Lives Matter sign and vivid projections displayed across the entirety of a resident’s home depicting Civil Rights hero John Lewis, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, voter registration messages, and more. Next to the projections stands the large “BLM” sign in tall, yellow letters that started it all.  

“With everything happening this year, my wife and I felt powerless and hopeless, like much of the country,” explains Tim Barry, the homeowner and co-creator of the Billboard House. Barry says the idea to turn his residence into a form of expression began with the homemade sign in response to racial injustice and police brutality. “We didn’t feel that we could march and demonstrate safely due to Coronavirus but wanted to find a way to be a part of the movement and support Black Lives Matter.” 

That’s when Tim and his wife, Lauren Barry, made a pivotal trip to Lowe’s to purchase a reciprocating saw and supplies to create a sign that would serve as one part of their efforts to stand against racism in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans. The BLM sign quickly became a family project as Tim and Lauren enlisted the help of their two kids to spray paint and erect the lettering over the course of a weekend.

“Right out of the gate we began to get a lot of honking and positive feedback from neighbors. People began looping around and pulling into our driveway for a second look,” says Tim Barry. It was the next morning, however, when his wife stepped outside to retrieve the newspaper that the impact of their roadside sign became most apparent when a motorist pulled into the driveway to share how the message had made her feel seen and recognized.

Over the days that followed the Barry family continued to see an increase in interest with a noticeable uptick of those traveling from out of town for a glimpse of the sign and to show their support. On July 17, however, the family received a Notice of Zoning Violation from the Chesterfield Department of Community Enhancement. The letter stated that the family project was in violation of the Chesterfield County Zoning Ordinance, Section 19.1-276. B.1.[9] Specifically, the aggregate area of a noncommercial signage in the Barry’s district may not exceed 8 square feet.  

“Like several area municipalities, Chesterfield County has ordinances that apply to signage in residential areas,” said Chesterfield County spokesperson Teresa Bonifas by email. “In this particular case, the sign does not meet the size and setback requirements in the ordinance. Our standard practice is to work with the resident to obtain voluntary compliance.”

Tim Barry acknowledges that Chesterfield County officials promptly responded to an apparent complaint from a neighbor and have been helpful in outlining three options that he can pursue, including filing an appeal within 30 days of the notice of violation, requesting exceptions to the size and setback requirements, or bringing the sign into compliance with the ordinance. 

“Everyone I have delt with at the County has been professional, courteous, and helpful. They are public servants doing their job. I would expect them do the same if I filed a complaint. Local government works,” says Barry, who plans to petition the Board of Zoning Appeals to keep his sign standing firmly in place. 

For his part, Barry says that he has also contacted Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, to help navigate the process of responding to the zoning violation. 

No stranger to politics, Tim Barry has worked extensively on presidential campaigns, in disaster areas with FEMA, and has logged in countless hours on bus tours around the country discussing healthcare issues. While Lauren Barry is known for her creative direction for companies like Markham, where she creates dynamic visual identities for events and political campaigns and nonprofits worldwide. 

The couple’s combined skills came into use when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September and they looked for ways to create a tribute. Though their BLM signage was still in question by Chesterfield compliance officials, the family began to create a separate statement, this time using the front of their home as a canvas. 

With a borrowed Epson Projector in hand, the Barry family once again went to work by creatively commemorating Ginsburg with a moving image pristinely projected on their entire home with the words “Dissent” repeated hundreds of times. Every evening since, the Barry’s residence has become a backdrop used to honor civil rights leaders, victims of police violence, and other pressing issues of our times. 

Recent nightly projections have included National Voter Registration Day, a large $750 image in reference to President Donald Trump’s reported Federal Income Taxes, and a “Will you shut up, man” quote depicting an image of Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden. Last night’s projection simply stated, “Swift Recovery, Mr. President” with an image of a mask covering the front of the home. 

“We want to respect our original intent of the BLM letters as well as the separate message from the projections that are more about current political commentary,” says Tim Barry. While the lettering remains the focus of the Notice of Zoning Violation, Barry reports a steady a rise in interest on a nightly basis as residents and out of town visitors arrive as the sun goes down to take photos of both the projections and signage.  

“This is the same as other residents projecting holiday images and Christmas lights,” says Barry, who is careful to turn the display off every evening by 10:30 pm. As the crowds have grown, Barry has added multiple security cameras but says that he has only experienced one incident in which a passerby left a can of red paint in an unsuccessful attempt to vandalize the signage. 

Photo by Ed Holten

Today he is referring to his home as the “Billboard House” and an Instagram page, @billboardhouse2020, has been created to document the inspiring projections. 

“All you need is a house, an extension cord, and a projector,” says Barry, while hurrying off to create his next projection to light up the suburbs. 

CategoriesCommunity Builders, General, Live

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