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Friday, December 17, 2004
An Identity Crisis in Plain View

The New York City Department of Transportation is installing extra-large, Los Angeles-style overhead signs at the intersections along the major crosstown streets in Manhattan and at other key places in the outer boroughs. I see these oversized green signs out of the corner of my eye and I keep thinking that they'll say Sepulveda or La Cienega. These signs are designed to be more easily seen at a moments notice from drivers of cars whizzing past. Upon returning from L.A. a few years ago, I recall looking at New York's tiny street signs and thinking, "Yes, this is still a city designed for the pedestrian." But I actually like the signs. Although they are designed for motorists, they do help pedestrians as well, and they do a tiny bit toward calming motorists' nerves and reducing confusion on the roads, which helps us all.

While I give props to the DOT for the program overall, I question their judgment on the signs in Harlem, on 110th, 116th, 125th and 145th Streets. In 1977, Eighth Avenue north of 110th Street was renamed Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in honor of the African American abolitionist (1818-1895) whose struggle to escape to New York is chronicled in his well-read memoir. Perhaps seeking brevity, perhaps simply out of habit, most people continue to call it Eighth Avenue, despite Al Gore's subtle reminder during a 2000 presidential debate at the Apollo Theater. All the signs that said Eighth Avenue were taken down long ago, but in or about September, the DOT unceremoneously returned to the old name when it installed its extra-large signs. No doubt it did this for space, since it's hard to fit the whole name on the bigger signs and keep the same large font size. But why not just abbreviate it to "Douglass Blvd"? That way it would match smaller signs all along the avenue.

The same is true for Seventh Avenue north of 110th Street, which was renamed Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in honor of the flamboyant, controversial 11-term congressman from Harlem shortly after his death in 1972. The DOT could have installed signs saying "Powell Blvd" but instead opted to restore the earlier name.

It's clear to me that the DOT is not harboring any ulterior motives for this street sign decision. One block east of Powell/7, the DOT could have issued signs saying "Lenox Av" but there they opted to emphasize the more recent name, "Malcolm X Blvd." In the Village and Midtown, the DOT could have created signs that read "Av of Americas," which would have been supported by the corporations that us that grandiose name on their address plates. Instead the agency issued shorter signs that read, "6 Av," using the name used by average New Yorkers. But this example is not quite analagous because since the signs that read "6 Av" stand alongside the signs that read "Avenue of the Americas," the large overhead signs there are a little less out-of-nowhere. Time will tell how many tourists wander about confused about their whereabouts, but it is possible that in an effort to reduce confusion about street names, the DOT has created more.

- Posted at 1:33 AM | Permalink | Comments: 1 | Post a Comment |  

Clearly, they fear The Nation-- that's what kept them from making X in to Lennox.

I think they should just call it "Malcom Lennox Ave." or better yet "Dr. Malcom Lennox Powell Ave of the Jr. Americas."

Or they could simply name *every single street* "Riverside Drive" -- it works in WahI ... why not Harlem?

By futurebird, at 12/17/2004 7:16 PM  


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