On a St. Petersburg block, neighbors stay neighborly despite opposing signs

Yard signs escalate, but neighbors say the tensions in their neighborhood have not.
Neighbors display their support for either, Donald Trump or Joe Biden with political yard signs and flags, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Neighbors display their support for either, Donald Trump or Joe Biden with political yard signs and flags, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 28, 2020|Updated Oct. 28, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The guy with the skeleton lounging in the bathtub on his lawn believes the political party his neighbors belong to should be “abolished” for the good of the nation.

The lady with the mint green siding and the foster puppies named Freddy, Chucky and Jason thinks those who support her neighbors' favored presidential candidate seem “like a cult.”

Outside, the neighbors smile and wave to each other and talk about dogs, which may outnumber humans on this short stretch of 49th Avenue North. The block turns heads due to how many opposing political signs fill the yards.

At one end, two homes with multiple signs for one presidential candidate sit sandwiched between four houses with signs for the other guy. At the other end, a lone house flips back to the other candidate. It really is a lot of signs in a row.

The houses are modest, tidy and close together. Non-residents drive this street and wonder, How do these people get along?

“I love my neighbors," said Lexi Gonsales, the 58-year-old owner of a pet-sitting business who believes those who don’t support her preferred candidate are “illiterate on politics,” “not quite as smart as some who do the research" and easily swayed by unreliable news sources.

“We all watch each other’s houses," she said. "We’re old school, if you want to borrow a cup of sugar or you need anything.”

Standing on the front porch with Deedee the English bulldog and a couple rocking chairs, Gonsales said her top political issue relates to the social movement that started after the death of George Floyd. Then she gestured toward her neighbor’s sign for a presidential candidate she does not trust.

“Does that stop us from talking? No," Gonsales said. “This is normal, like it used to be, when you could support a different candidate and still get along. It’s the American way."

That next door neighbor, Cindy Crane, said “all my neighbors are very nice. We have not talked about politics. That has, you know, not come up.”

The 58-year-old executive assistant said her yard signs promote the candidate she feels will help the U.S. garner respect from the rest of the world. This election marks the first time in her life she has ever put a political sign in her yard.

She just wanted like-minded people to know that it’s not all about the other guy, who, from her point of view, seems to have too many yard signs up locally.

The signs on the block vary. So do the people. But some things overlap.

The nurse in the house with the planter shaped like a giant frog, who was forced to retire when multiple sclerosis left her disabled, misses her grandkids. She says health care is her top issue.

She believes the candidate on her neighbor’s sign condones violence, and he has not done enough to denounce it.

Two doors down, a neighbor with a sign for the other guy said she misses her grandkids, and that health care is a top issue, especially since her husband just returned from the hospital after being diagnosed with blood clots.

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She believes the candidate she’s against — the one the former nurse is voting for — condones violence and hasn’t done enough to denounce it.

Everyone on the block can agree that the patrons of the nearby Mexican restaurant taking up all the parking on their street are really annoying.

Tami Reed, 54, said she enjoys her neighbor’s fireworks display on Independence Day. There’s a sign in his yard for the other guy. Once, they kind of acknowledged the signs, when Reed walked over to his yard to chat about an oil leak from a business that was fouling their alley.

“I asked him, 'So what kind of comments do you get?,” Reed said. “We just kind of laughed about it.”

A woman recently knocked on Reed’s door, asking where she could get signs like hers.

“She starts going, ‘ugh, how can you live next to them?',” Reed said. “I was like ‘woah, woah, I can’t let you insult my neighbors.’”

Reed was first on the street to put up a sign. Her next-door neighbor put up the same one. The neighbors on both sides of them put up signs for the other guy. Then came all the flags.

“Signs beget more signs,” said Scott Minkoff, one of the political scientists who co-authored the book on political yard signs, 2019′s Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces.

Minkoff and other researchers observed the placement of yard signs in neighborhoods and learned there tend to be clusters. People are more inclined to put a sign up when they see other signs around, he said, "and the pattern we found very strongly suggests people want to put out the same signs as their neighbors.”

Campaigns don’t really expect to gain many votes from signs, especially not in presidential elections.

“It’s really about pride in your political position, and not ‘I’m going to put this out here so people vote,'” Minkoff said. “The flip side of that is we found that people who live near signs tend to find them anxiety inducing.”

Minkoff’s co-author, Anand Sokhey, said the signs are telling people “this is who I am.” When they interviewed residents in their research neighborhoods, they realized something else: People remember which sign their neighbors had up long after the election is over.

In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that regulating signs based on their content is a violation of the First Amendment. That led to St. Petersburg changing the city’s sign code. During the last presidential election, residences were limited to one sign per political candidate, but an unlimited number of signs total. Now the city code allows for five signs total, regardless of what they say.

You can now have up to five identical signs for your candidate. Your neighbor can have five identical signs for their candidate. Or five signs for five different candidates — or anything else. Devon Rolsten, 32, saw what his neighbors were up to and decided to plant a large Dallas Cowboys sign on his lawn.

“I’m just happy sports are here," Rolsten said. He’s still undecided in the election.

Reed has three signs for they guy she wants as president.

“I just wanted to people to know they’re not alone,” she said.

Dan Stanton, a 69-year-old mechanic who has lived on the block for 50 years, has one sign and a flag, and says he’s proud to live on a street with so many signs.

“A lot of people are afraid to say who they’re voting for,” he said. “I’m showing I’m not afraid of anything.”

He thinks the incivility between people is caused by “too many phones. Too much internet. ... People forgot how to speak."

The block he lives on is not a Facebook comments section. The front yard is not a Twitter thread. The people on his street get along, he said. There is no trolling there, even with literal signs of dissension all around them.

They talk, face to face. Just not about politics.