Leave it to Adam Gopnik to show how the new, larger, easier-to-read street signs being installed around town are threatening New York’s aesthetic existence:
New Yorkers returning home after the Republican Convention last summer were startled and alarmed by an inexplicable new sight: oversized street signs hanging above busy intersections all over town. It has been five months now, and regrettably, unlike the Republicans, the new signs apparently are not going to go back where they came from.
The signs, if you have somehow missed them, are long and green with big white letters, like a “thru traffic” sign on the New Jersey Turnpike, and they loom ominously out over the intersections they superintend, suspended from the arms of traffic-light poles. They name the street that runs beneath them (and therefore, of course, announce to drivers the street they may want to turn onto), and they do this loudly and with unfortunate abbreviations. Over the intersection of Park Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street, for instance, there is now a long green sign proclaiming “Park Av,” with no period. A couple of blocks east, it gets worse: the green sign rubbernecks its way out into the middle of the street and announces “3Av.” This keeps up (2Av, 1Av) until 86St runs, at last, into East End Av.
The worst thing about reading Adam Gopnik is that it sure doesn’t sound like he’s kidding:
The new signs put you immediately in mind of those nightmarish car trips in Los Angeles, where you begin somewhere and, forty-five minutes later, you are somewhere else, and all the while you have been looking for a big sign that reads “Pico.” Worse than merely unfamiliar, though, the signs are infuriating—first, because they are there for the convenience of cars, and thus violate the first Law of Civilization, which states that nothing must ever be done for the convenience of cars (the mark of a city worth living in is that there are never enough places to park); and, second, because they eclipse, as décor, the jaunty, jazz-era syncopation of the classic New York street-corner sign pair, each sign gesturing toward its own street, but with the two set at slightly different levels, so that they have a happy, semaphoric panache. (The two smaller signs are still there, but they are now drowned out by the highway signage, two jazz piccolos trying to be heard above an electrified kazoo.)
Let it be said that Iris Weinshall, the city’s Commissioner of Transportation, speaks up eloquently and staunchly for the new signs: “They are there for all the multiple users in the city—for motorists, for pedestrians, for people who ride on buses. Many people were finding it harder and harder to read those little old signs we have up. For those evil motorists some people don’t like—now, at least, they have time to make decisions.” She went on, “I like the way the signs look, but it’s a safety issue first of all. The more information you give people, the less likely they are to make silly choices.”
But how many silly (i.e., dangerous) choices were actually encouraged by the old signs? No one has ever bombed along Eighty-sixth Street in blind despair, unable to find Madison Avenue. The new signs signal a choice that is not so much silly as dispiriting. They do more than contribute to the ongoing homogenization, the Americanization, of New York. They imply that the homogenization has already taken place. The reason these kinds of signs are necessary at the intersections of Los Angeles boulevards is that all the avenues and streets there look more or less alike. In New York, each avenue should be, and is, instantly recognizable. Park Avenue looks like Park Avenue; Madison Avenue looks like Madison; Broadway looks like nothing on earth but Broadway. You see the street, and you make the turn. New York is not a hard place to get around in. If you don’t know where you are, you don’t deserve to be here.
Look, are the new signs pretty? No. But as someone who values traffic safety even at the risk of disturbing a “happy, semaphoric panache,” I have to say (with all due respect to a very, very talented writer), “Please, for the love of God, shut the fuck up, you pretentious hack.”Posted: February 10th, 2005 | Filed under: Architecture & Infrastructure, Sliding Into The Abyss Of Elitism & Pretentiousness