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How signs have changed

NYC Road Signs 1924. NYC Municipal Archives

In 2000, Forgotten New York published a comprehensive, sentimental repository of street signs dating from the ‘60s to the '90s on its website. The colors and lettering represent the aesthetic of the times in which they existed. With many collected in one place to scroll through, signs bring back the images of classic cars, old movies and AM radio music of their respective times.

Before we could aggregate our collective memories in blog form, and before Manhattan spread its grid of wealth and development into Kings and Queens counties, signs like this (seen to the left) could be found in Queens, directing you back to civilization. Canyon of Heroes, a century before this era,was the site of the George Washington Centennial, Civic and Industrial Parade, which turned onto Waverly Place off of Broadway (seen below). In the photograph, the street sign can hardly be seen behind a black and white sea of people. This civil tradition continues today, with parades for any number of ethnicities, social groups, landmark events and championship teams – sans all the track suits and ball caps of today's attending elite.

Around the time this offset photo was taken at East 24th and Lexington Avenue,the Bureau of Public Roads was formed to engineer and regulate roads nationwide. Up to that point, local automobile clubs had been creating rules for their roads based on community needs, resulting in different signs in every province. This sparked the monumental task of streamlining signage, creating a system that could address both a largely illiterate rural population and a fast-moving cosmopolis. Around that time, reflective surfaces also became indispensable as statistics were gathered on fatalities and collisions.

New York City Street Signs Canyon of Heroes, 1889. NYC municipal archives.

Because of the growth of post-war car culture, the Bureau of Public Roads had to evolve quickly. It depended on engineers and visionary urban planners such as Robert Moses. He led New York through a systematic transportation boom by building what he called the "lungs of the city" – highways cutting throughout the busiest hubs. In 1964, the Federal Highway Administration was established in Washington DC, subsuming the Bureau along with other organizations.

That's where we catch up with Forgotten New York’s repository, which documents the rainbow of New York’s street signs before they settled down, 40 years later, on blue, brown and green—what we see today. Besides streamlining color, the city also mandated, in 2003, that signs be replaced with lowercase lettering and the Clearview font. "These new and updated standards will help make our nation's roads and bridges safer for drivers, construction workers and pedestrians alike," explains Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. When asked about the lowercase lettering, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said the change "may also reflect a kinder, gentler New York … On the Internet, writing in all caps means you are shouting…our new signs can quiet down, as well."

The signs will change again, but probably not for a few generations. If you look closely, you can still find street signs that elude the edicts of the city – for now, until the real estate developers take over. At 61st Street and 1st Avenue, the building has street names  built into the corner brick, high above street level. This is an intuitive spot, since New Yorkers tend to look up unconsciously when they're not looking at their phone. With signs like these, you always know when you’re there.

 

 
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