Iconic New York signs
How signs have changed
A sign is born
A man for all signs
The New York look
Make Your Own NYC Street Sign

A sign is born: the lives and deaths of New York signs

In Big Apple bureaucracy, there is a constant tension between maintaining the city’s reputation as the best and being judicious with its taxpayers’ funds. The Department of Transportation (DOT) is tasked with prudently handling the largest transportation system in the world. The DOT describes its mission as providing "for the safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible movement of people and goods… to maintain and enhance the transportation infrastructure crucial to the economic vitality and quality of life of our primary customers, City residents."

Greening the Street Strategies and PlaNYC

Bloomberg's PlanNYC – a plan to make the New York "the greatest, greenest big city in the world" – is a 20-year strategy resulting in more wide open spaces, lower environment damage, less noise pollution, and safer movement of people on its streets. As current Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan puts it, the DOT seeks to "improve the way people live, work, and play."

New York's largest transportation revolution in recent memory happened during the 1950s car frenzy, under the direction of urban planner and political juggernaut Robert Moses. His work was controversial, cutting highways through solidly cohesive neighborhoods. In recent years Mayor Michael Bloomberg has attempted to reverse that process with PlaNYC, which stands to revitalize byways and geographic equality, much likeCentral Park brought many walks of life together in one space.

How does the Greening of Gotham impact street signs? In PlaNYC's 2009 update, the DOT credits an aggressive redesign of Park Avenue and 33rd Street as a major factor in decreasing crash fatalities by 50 percent. Signs are a city's low cost way of addressing rising traffic accidents. The basic structure, flow, and stasis of the streets are what lend to quality of life, making street signs a manifestation of your time in New York.

When a Sign Gets Its Own Post …

There are three reasons for replacing a sign. One, if it's reported by a citizen or sanctioned by the City Council. Two, if the City receives a grant to implement strategic improvements. Three, when the regulations of a street or intersection are changed. This final contingency explains why over 250,000 signs borough-wide are getting replaced with sentence case lettering and a new font; the Federal Highway Administration in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, issued in 2003, mandates it. The DOT has been given a 15-year leeway to make room for this multi-million dollar job.

When a Sign Goes Missing …

An estimated 8,000 signs are replaced every year, due to damage, regulatory changes, and theft. When a sign is stolen, it is the equivalent of sneakers hanging from telephone wires – it probably signifies shenanigans somewhere in a two block radius. Sign theft doesn’t raise many eyebrows in City Hall. Stealing a sign in New York City is a misdemeanor, but no one is going to spend a night in jail (the stuff of dorm room dreams).

However, those shenanigans do cost the city (and citizens) money. Sign manufacturing can range from $35 to $110. With an estimated 8,000 replaced per year, costs are anywhere between $280,000 and $880,000. Currently, there is no sign management task force in place, as local officials depend on the community to self-monitor by calling 311 to report an infraction.

If a parking sign disappears, no more parking tickets are issued until the Department of Sanitation makes a call downtown, unable to clean the city streets with immobile vehicles clogging up the arterials. These signs go missing routinely in poorer neighborhoods. In general, however, a variety of street signs disappear from neighborhoods despite their ethnic or economic makeup.

Crippling Disease Signs
City officials mount a sign in Times Square in recognition of the crippling disease – a philanthropic move not too dissimilar from naming a day after Breast Cancer Awareness. 1966-73, via NYC Municipal Archives.

Naming the Streets – A Sign for the Times

Fallen heroes, child stick ballers turned pro, priests, cardinals, rabbis, activists, philanthropists and actors: these are the namesakes of NYC’s signs, providing a silent tour of the city’s social history. Routinely, signs are sanctioned and changed out according the City Council's whimsy. Signs memorialize everyone from civil rights leaders to journalists throughout Manhattan, posted as public relation campaigns or tributes to martyred civil servants. In the end, the City names nothing without the informed advisement of its residents, or rather, its customers.

A few signs to look for:

New York's Strongest Way, named for the Sanitation Workers of New York– Lower Manhattan

Canyon of Heroes, the parade route for celebrating the winners of the Super Bowl, the World Series or a world war – Lower Manhattan

Vincent Gardenia Boulevard, named for Oscar-nominated actor known for his role in Moonstruck– located in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

Home | Iconic New York signs | How signs have changed | A sign is born: the lives and deaths of New York signs|A man for all signs|
The New York look
|Make your own New York City street sign |Sitemap | Contact us

© Copyright 2012 | All rights reserved.