Inching Towards Progress

My first post made it clear to me that I needed to define precisely what I was looking for; now it is clear that I may need to refine what I am going to make of what I will find.

A few weeks ago, I began contacting a number of sources, looking for photos of old street signs as well as any sort of documentation on the signs themselves. Specifically, I was looking for what material the old signs were made of (so that I could compare that to the material of the new signs),information about sign colors(when did they change and why, and what relationship could be drawn between sign colors in different neighborhoods), and special interest would be given to the change
of signs demarcating historic districts. I naively thought I would be swimming in information once I contacted the Department of Transportation and the NYC Municipal Archives. Wrong again.

The Municipal Archives expediently responded to my inquiry by telling me that they had nothing because the DOT is responsible for keeping those records and that I should contact them. (They did however suggest that I contact the City Hall Library, so I did, and am waiting for a response.) The representative I corresponded with from the DOT was very kind and told me she consulted with her superiors and other branches, but ultimately found that they had nothing to offer me. (Though she did give me a series of links, among them, one to the New York City Council and another to the Manhattan Borough President’s Office.) I have also submitted an inquiry to the New York Public Library research division but I’m waiting for a response from them as well.

In addition to the two new aforementioned leads, I still need to contact Christie’s, the auction house, and possibly some other auctioneers, since they sometimes sell old signs.

While I’m waiting for responses, I decided to begin searching as many color films shot on location in Manhattan and take any screen shots that I could find. This may prove problematic since I need to make sure of the authenticity of the sign(that it wasn’t reproduced on a sound stage, etc.) But I think it’s worth exploring. (An example of this, ambiguity and all, is in this picture┬áfrom the 1963 film A New Kind of Love.)

But I am not totally stuck in limbo. I have my first archival appointment with the New York Transit Museum November 2nd from 3-5pm and my second with the New York Historic Society on November 15th.


One comment

  1. I don’t think it’s all all “naive” to assume that “[you’d] be swimming in information once I contacted the Department of Transportation and the NYC Municipal Archives”; I would’ve thought the same thing! I’d assume these organizations would have copious records on something as consciously designed and deliberately placed as street signs!

    I hope you hear back — with some encouraging news — from the City Hall Library, the DOT, the borough president’s office, the NYPL, or Christie’s. And I hope your visits to the Transit Museum and the N-YHS bear some fruit. I admire your tenacity; by the time your finish this project, you certainly will have made the rounds of many of NY’s primary resource collections ­čÖé For the sake of your sanity, though, you’ll probably want to “take stock” sometime before Thanksgiving: lay out what you have (and don’t have), and decide how you might need to reframe your argument to reflect what you’ve got. You might even consider building into your project the very *lack* of “signposts” directing you to the history of signs — the fact that the history of these orientation tools is itself very poorly mapped out.

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