Manhattan Street Sign Project Proposal

For my final map project, I will be examining Manhattan street signs over the past century. Over the last century, New York City street signs have changed in color, material, size and font. They are arguably one of the first mediations that we rely on (and by extension informs) our urban experience. I plan to select a sampling of twenty intersections (more or less), or otherwise historically and culturally relevant streets or avenues, and search for photographic evidence of the changes in their signage over time.

This pursuit is necessary to document and differentiate between those signs which have radically or frequently changed from those signs that have been more overlooked. Additionally, it will chart those neighborhoods or areas which have been renamed, reordered or made into historic districts. In examining such changes over time, certain questions will become evident and call for answers. (Have the borders of neighborhoods changed as the signs have changed? Why have certain neighborhoods received historic status and not others?  Why have certain signs changed multiple times while others only a few times? What has been the effect of the change of signage; was it necessary in most cases?) The relevance of this project is manifest as the city prepares to undergo another change in signage; in this case it is to be a universal change from the capitalization of all signage to lowercase signs. ( In light of this new change to lowercase, having a photographic document of historic signs alongside photographic documents of current signs exemplifies that the current street signs are history themselves. It forces the signage of old and the current signage on our city’s streets into a new perspective.

This project is ideal for a digital map. Though it could not be considered revolutionary to plot signs on a map, the digital format used will allow for various layers. These layers will make delineations in time (and any potential name or border changes) visually clear and not ever-present and muddled.  It will be easy to see the history of one intersection. For example, Wall St and Broad St in 1950 will be accompanied by a photographic reproduction as well as any relevant historical information, and then, clicking on or off a layer, that same intersection, fifty years later, accompanied by an updated photographic reproduction of that sign. Therefore, as many photographs proving a change in signage, over as many years as possible, is ideal for this digital map.

The issue becomes one of finding such photographic evidence. This has not been easy but it is possible. Preliminary sources include the New York Public Library digital archives, the Transit Authority Archives, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York Historical Society and the NYC Department of Records Municipal Archives. So far, these sources have not yielded fruitful results but I plan to contact representatives from these organizations with specific inquiries on signage data and photo documentation.  I also plan to continue a search of old photographs of New York City and individually identify the intersections or street signs I require. I have perused Anthony Sutcliffe’s book Metropolis, 1890-1940 but have only found some rudimentary information which may prove useful when I finally access the necessary archives.  I will also be contacting (and probably visiting) the Transit Museum in Brooklyn. The most useful information I have found so far have been photographs from auctioned antique street signs. ( This route may prove more useful than anticipated, as auctioneers may provide photographs of the auctioned sign, as well as historical information.  (In the case citied above, the auctioneer is Christie’s .) I am confident that this tentative bibliography will be completely amplified and amended as this project progresses. Finally, as was stated above, I will be gathering photographic reproductions and using them as the main artifacts to upload on the digital map.

It is clear that an investigation into Manhattan’s street signs is not only relevant to a digital map, specifically, and media studies, generally, but also pertinent to the changes that the city continues to undergo at this very moment. Though the sources may change, I have no doubt that the required photographic evidence will be obtained and yield a complete and useful map.

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