New York City

Autumn in Central Park

Halloween Skaters

Changing New York: Street Signs

New York is one of the most dynamic, ever changing cities on Earth. At no time, even in the depths of the Depression (I'm talking' 1930s, not 2008), did New York languish. In fact, the largest projects in the history of the city—skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels, and parks—were built during the 1930s.

This relentless change did not slow until the destruction of Penn Station in the early 1960s. This vile act spurred a new crusade in the Unites States—the preservationist movement. Now, there were people who wanted to single out buildings, parks, even entire sections of the city, and regulate what change could look like.

For much, if not all, of New York's history, the city has served as America's black sheep. Over 200 languages are spoken in the city, half its residents do not own a car, and 36% of its population are foreign born. However, over the last century, most of the new immigrants have moved to communities in the outer boroughs, and Manhattan has slowly become more "American." Visitors to modern-day Manhattan feel more comfortable by its familiarity than at any other time in the city's history.

Evolution of Walk-Don't Walk

The evolution of Walk-Don't Walk in New York City.

This fact puts New Yorkers on edge. We're are all for change, we must be, but we firmly reject any effort to make New York City like the rest of the U.S. The front lines: Times Square, big-box retailers, and chain restaurants. People still bemoan the loss of Times Square, which was transformed from an adult playground into the sanitized, advert-covered, light show we see today. Wal Mart has twice tried, and failed, to open a store in Manhattan, while public outcry followed the announcement that T.G.I. Fridays was opening a franchise in Union Square.

Off the front lines are more subtle changes. Of particular note are the street signs. First, the Walk/Don't Walk signs disappeared in favor of the LED-lit, red hand and walking stick figure. A rational person will realize that these are cheaper, more energy efficient, and easier to read for the millions of foreign tourists who visit annually. But, those walk signs were an iconic part of the city. If you spot one in a movie, you know it was shot on the streets of New York. Of course, even the mundane can inspire.

Next on the endangered list are the street signs themselves. A sensible person might wonder what could be so controversial about a sign that marks a street. It turns out that federal regulations mandate specific fonts and typefaces for signs, and to defy that regulation could result in a kink in the line that is federal highway funds.

NYC street sign comparison

Comparison of new and old street signs in New York City.

For as long as I have been coming to New York City (my first trip was in the womb in 1970, but a later trip in 1976 was my first as a sentient being), the street signs have looked the same except for one color change from black letters on yellow to the present white letters on green. Now, with the feds enforcing these regulations, NYC needs to replace these signs—all 250,000 of them—with white on green signs but with a helvetica font and a mixture of uppercase and lowercase.

All New Yorkers know that they reside here precisely because the city reshapes itself often and rarely stands still, but sometimes change can be enervating and fatigue sets in. I cannot rationally be against the signs—they are easier to read—but, I lament the loss of one more small thing that is unique to New York City.

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