Monday, August 4, 2014

Old signs

An article called Nostalgia's Burning Glow, written by Ginia Bellafonte in the New York Times questions the current trend of preserving old, defunct signs in the urban landscape. The author makes some interesting points asking why we are so fond of these signs advertising products our "enlightened" era finds distasteful or harmful; in her words:
mammoth emblems to industries whose output or methods of production are (or were) anathema to a prevailing value system that holds in relentless contempt anything processed, chemically supplemented, bought in a chain store or intended for ingestion more than 11 minutes after harvest.
Bellafonte uses the examples of the well known Domino Sugar and Pepsi Cola signs along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens respectively, that are prominently visible across the river in Manhattan. While "liberal" New Yorkers gleefully endorsed former Mayor Bloomberg's law banning the sale of "super sized" sugar-laden soft drinks, Bellafonte claims those same people ironically loved the signs and wholeheartedly approved of their preservation, including the great lengths taken to keep them standing.

Not satisfied that people are just thinking inconsistently about these signs and what they represent, the author goes further to define the issue in terms of class struggle. She suggests there is a disingenuous nature to the longings of well-heeled, upper-middle class New Yorkers who are fascinated by these symbols of a more modest world or: extension of creative class fetish for the workingman’s life.
About the endangered, roof-mounted Kentile Floor sign that has been a landmark for riders on the F train through the industrial neighborhood of Gowanus in Brooklyn for fifty years, Bellafonte writes:
...there is almost no one belonging to the brownstone Brooklyn renovating class who has ever said, “You know, for the living room I’m just going to forgo the reclaimed zebrawood and retain the integrity of the 1958 vinyl flooring.
Yet according to Bellafonte, the Brooklyn renovating class almost to a person wholeheartedly supports the preservation of the sign above the factory that manufactured vinyl flooring until the 1990s. It would be much better the author chimes in, if those pampered New Yorkers put their time and effort into supporting the cause of the working class people of today, rather than the icons of their ancestors.

Beyond the heavy-handed, class conscious arguments of Ms. Bellafonte which I find somewhat ridiculous, I disagree with the assertion that people are interested in these signs purely out of a sense of nostalgia.  The signs that folks are interested in preserving are examples of great industrial and graphic design, and as objects were crafted with care and an eye for quality that we are unlikely to find in today's throw away world. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, most of the signs and their supporting structures are beautiful objects in their own right, at least in my own opinion.

Our cities are reflections of ourselves and those who came before us. Great cities are not torn down and re-built with each new generation, but evolve over time. Each generation contributing bits and pieces of itself, combined with bits and pieces of other generations, create a gigantic crazy-quilt pattern of architectural and design styles which gives a city its sense of place. Some of my favorite cities like Rome, London, and New York are prime examples of this. All three are layered with centuries' worth of cultures built on top of, or right next to one another.

I said in an earlier post that "advertising speaks volumes about the culture that created it." We think of ancient cities as consisting of austere temples and cathedrals as that is what remains of them. As we've lost much if not all of the ephemeral, low culture of the past, we forget that life went on well beyond those sacred spaces. It's the presence of that low culture ephemera that differentiates a living, breathing city with a city of ruins, a place of the dead.

As someone who is interested in historic preservation, I believe we need to consider holding on not only to the high culture: the great landmarks such as notable buildings and monuments of the past, but also to the low: mundane objects like vernacular architecture, examples of outmoded technology like water tanks, and yes, even defunct signs. Obviously we can't save everything; the rights of property owners must be taken account, especially because it is they who are left to foot the bill to maintain structures that in themselves may not have any commercial worth to them.

While keeping these monuments to the past which have no inherent value may seem frivolous and inefficient, that very frivolity is an indication that a city is alive and well.

Long may those signs live.

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