Attempts at Clarifying, Refining and Forming a Useful Argument

I think, due in part to my staggering lack of presence and almost paralyzing fear of public speaking, and to the unfinished nature of my archival investigations, that my project may seem unclear at best, useless or a waste of the very admirable and awesome resource URT, at worst. I want to address the critiques from this week because they were extremely appropriate, and inspired me to enforce clarity and direction to my project.

Ultimately I believe in this project. I believe it has value, a belief that is constantly strengthened each time I see how little information is available. There is a gap in our understanding of urban space inthe absence of this information. And while it is clear that my role in filling that gap is minor, I still think it is a gap that once filled, will help round out a deeper understanding of New York City and the relationship between New Yorkers and the space they inhabit and create.

Potential Argument 1:

There was never a time in history when New York City was relegated to uniformity; there are so many wonderful class projects celebrating
that reality. My project may take a very fundamental approach to this same idea. It examines the infrastructure of the cityscape on a basic, almost
ignorable point, the street name sign, and traces it back through history. In my preliminary archival research, I have uncovered this truth in a surprising and potentially exciting way. Often we imagine that in the days of horse and carriage, the city may have been a uniform space, at least in some ways. What I have discovered is that this is not the case. If we look at the street name signs from the 1911-1914, we see that the structure of the sign was so different from what we now know of it. But more surprisingly, those signs are not the same from block to block or neighborhood to neighborhood. In a photograph of the Union Square area in the same time period, the signage was completely different from what it was 10-20 blocks in either direction. The same patterns (or in actuality non-patterns) occur in the 1920’s-30’, 1950’s and present day street name signs. This is one idea for forming an argument and telling a story about the inherent and built-in rejection of uniformity in New
York City. (However, maybe all American city signs are structured that same way.)

Potential Argument 2:

Another way to analyze the change in signage is purely aesthetic. Maybe this is more an analysis than an argument, but if I am able to find a substantial amount of photographic evidence for comparative purposes, I think it still retains value. The impact of the visual change in street name signs may not be clear or interesting to us as New Yorkers who are accustomed to them and don’t need them, as often or at all, to survive or function. But they help define the way the city is perceived, and has historically been perceived, by anyone relying on them for direction, or noticing them in or around their living and working space. There is surely more to develop on that theme if the information should become available to me.

Potential Argument 3:

As the city grew, the renaming of streets increased. This may be very interesting to chart and it focuses less on the history of street name signs in New York City. If I am not able to create a substantial or significant project, argument or analysis from the archival images of historic street signs, it may be fruitful to add the additional aspect of street renaming. In this way, I would focus on those streets which have multiple signs for one intersection, commemorating a person, etc. This would add a political dimension to the project; who was chosen to name a street after, how were they chosen and why, and who was left out? This is not my first choice, simply because the previous two possible arguments are personally more interesting, but I am totally and completely willing to adapt should my earlier attempts be insufficient.


Update on Research Progress:

I have an appointment with the Topographical Division of the Manhattan Borough President on Wednesday November 9th.

I will be going to the Art and Architecture Division of the New York Public Library this Wednesday as well. This is to locate images but I will need to take that information and go to the Print Room afterwards, probably the following Wednesday. (This will hopefully be an ongoing source.)

I have an appointment with the New York Historic Society, Tuesday November 15th.

I have a second appointment with the Transit Museum on Wednesday December 7th as well.

I am still in contact with the Municipal Archives, slowly trying to convince them to allow me access to their photographic archives.

I have contacted the federal agency in charge of signage for details on regulations, materials, etc. (just as an addition that may be interesting but not a crucial point) but I’m waiting to hear back from them.

I have been referred to the Department of Transportation Division of Signs and Marketing but I’m still waiting to hear back from them as well.

Of the dozen auction houses contacted, so far none have had any information relevant to my project.

(I have not given up on the idea of movies as a resource but it is not as high on the list.)

One comment

  1. Sienna, I believe in the value of your project, too! The fact that you don’t yet have a clear sense of what you’ll map, or what *argument* your map will make, is to be expected, given how your research process has unfolded! As you noted, you’ve discovered a lack of materials in the historical record; you’ve found a “gap” that needs to be, first, signposted, and then addressed.

    Re: Argument #1: As you probably know, NYC’s famous grid recently celebrated its 200th anniversary. For a city that was “prospected” far before it was inhabited we might assume that a uniform infrastructure has long been a part of its history. As you’re finding, that’s not always the case. This is certainly a story worth telling. You needn’t make the case that New York is *unique* in its non-uniformity; you can simply show NY as one example of this infrastructrual diversity — a diversity that still defines many cities in many parts of the world.

    I’d agree with you that Options 2 and 3 should be fall-back options. #2 would be no less valuable a contribution to URT — but I sense that you’d prefer to be able to flesh out your first option.

    The breadth of your research — and your own diligence in pursuing it — are incredibly impressive. I hope one of these upcoming archival trips yields some fantastic material.

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