By Andrew Santella
Chicago Reader, October 1998
I have a friend in Manhattan who sometimes walks out of his way
to pass the corner of Eighth Avenue and Jane Street. That corner
was inexplicably overlooked years ago when New York City switched
from its old yellow-and-black street signs to the current green-and-white
ones. For my friend, the old sign that remains there is a visual
reminder of a New York City that otherwise survives only in memory.
Cities are always offering little visual clues to their past lives--a
few yards of railroad track poking through a coat of asphalt in
a once-industrial area, a Falstaff beer ad peeling to near invisibility
on a brick wall, the remnants of an overpass without a road to feed
it. When we happen to take note of them, it can be startling, almost
like seeing the ghost of a defunct urban reality.
I was walking in Lincoln Park recently when I saw a sign that I
hadn't seen--really seen--in 20 years. Maybe you've seen one of
these signs, too. Scattered around Chicago's parks, they bear a
rendering of an emaciated schnauzer on an oversized leash, sniffing
a daisy. Below the drawing, large red letters command: Curb Your
Even if you know the signs I'm describing, it's unlikely they've
ever really registered with you as anything more than another bit
of the visual clutter that surrounds us. But as a kid growing up
across from Kilbourn Park on the city's northwest side, these signs
were a source of considerable mystery to me. It was the word "curb"
that gave me the most trouble. Curb was the place I stood while
waiting to cross the street, the surface against which the big kids
pitched pennies. What I didn't understand was how "curb"
could be a verb, how a dog could be said to be curbed. And the drawing
of the purposeful schnauzer didn't offer any clues.
It was a mystery that lost its interest for me long before I solved
it. But seeing the sign again, after all these years, I wondered
just how long these signs have been standing in Chicago parks, where
they came from, who drew the ridiculous schnauzer. So I called the
Park District and asked.
Nobody at the Park District was able to answer any of my questions.
But an official named Peter Forster was able to tell me something
else about the signs: they were coming down for good.
Forster is a project manager in the Park District's engineering
and planning office. One of the projects he's been managing is a
change in the parks' signage. Initiated by parks chief Forrest Claypool
about four years ago, the project aims to reduce the glut of prohibitive
signs that have sprouted like weeds in the parks: signs warning
against open fires, drinking, the racing of bicycles, the climbing
of fences, the hitting of golf balls. Forster explained that the
problem with all these signs--apart from there being too many of
them cluttering up otherwise open fields--is that they send the
wrong message to park users.
"There is no sense of welcoming people to the parks in those
signs," Forster told me. "You walk in the park and the
first thing you see is a sign that says 'Park closes at 11' or no
this or no that. That's not very welcoming. We wanted to consolidate
all those signs in one place, list the appropriate behaviors at
the entrance to the parks, and leave the interiors sign free."
The Park District turned to a New York City design firm, 212 Harakawa
(now the Two Twelve Group). The purple-and-tan signs developed by
the firm, with their red finials, are being introduced one park
at a time. So far they've been placed in 8 of the Park District's
approximately 300 parks. You can see them now at Union Park, Garfield
Park, and in parts of Lincoln Park. Pete Andrews, who supervises
the workers responsible for producing, repairing, and replacing
the signs, told me it would be years before the entire Park District
had made the transition to the new signs. "Not to be sarcastic,
but I doubt I'll ever see it," he said.
In the meantime, the old signs and the new coexist, sometimes within
the same park. Until recently, a new purple-and-tan sign stood inches
in front of an old forest green entrance sign at the southeast corner
of Oz Park. At an entrance to Lincoln Park, a six-panel "welcome
center" offers greetings in seven languages, traces the park's
history, and explains its place in the larger park system. But a
few stray signs from the old regime remain, including the one I
saw near the North Avenue overpass telling me to curb my dog. Encountering
one of these workmanlike old signs amid all the slick new ones is
like happening upon a rusted-out beater parked among luxury cars
in a wealthy neighborhood.
But even more incongruous are the different assumptions that seem
to be behind the old signs and the new--assumptions that have to
do with how people relate to the parks. Cesar Sanchez, the designer
at 212 Harakawa who worked on the park signs, told me that his clients
had urged a "user-friendly" approach and had pushed "the
international visitor appeal." Chicago is a convention town
and a tourist town, and some of the parks, especially the ones along
the lakefront and the city's ring of boulevards, are destinations
in their own right.
In this context, the new signs' emphasis on orienting people in
the parks makes a lot of sense. You see signs for tennis courts,
for example, long before you ever see any tennis courts. Maps on
the new signs help visitors find their way in parks too big to navigate
at a glance. And the multilingual signs serve not just non-English-speaking
Chicagoans but travelers from around the world.
The old signs, on the other hand, assumed you were familiar with
the parks. In fact, they assumed you were so familiar with them
that you wouldn't hesitate to misuse and abuse them--hence the array
of prohibitive signs that greeted you at every turn. The signs'
very proliferation attested to how robustly the parks were being
used. If some archaeologist of the future were to unearth some of
these signs he'd surmise that parks were public spaces people adapted
to their own use, breaking the rules in the process. Here kids turned
staircases into skateboard runs. Here they played baseball in the
Programming--the stuff the new signs direct us to--has always made
up only a portion of what goes on in parks. The rest has been left
up to the imaginations of park patrons. I walked through Garfield
Park one summer morning to see how the new signage looked there.
But I could also see where people had slept in the park the night
before, trying to keep cool. And here and there I saw folding tables
and chairs that neighborhood people had brought in, outfitting the
parks for their own purposes. Against this backdrop the slick new
signs looked a little silly. The reality of how people use parks
today--the same way they've been using them for a century or so--belied
the attempt to give them a clean and contemporized new face.
What the change in park signage might really be signaling is a broader
change in the relationship of the parks to the community. The new
signs ask us to approach the parks with worldly curiosity. The old
signs expected us to approach them with savvy street smarts. The
new signs are user friendly, the old user wary.
The graveyard for Chicago Park District signs is an imposing shop
building at the north end of Garfield Park. Scattered at random
on a long table there are rust-stained and mangled signs warning
against every imaginable infraction, as if at some point in the
parks' history a particularly protective mother figure had got hold
of a silk-screening machine. Here's a sign cautioning against cutting
fences around Park District pools. There's one offering a more general
exhortation to keep the parks clean. These signs--either damaged
or made obsolete by the new system--come to Garfield Park to be
sorted for recycling or sold to the City of Chicago Store, a souvenir
shop in the old pumping station on Michigan Avenue.
Upstairs, two of the Park District's sign painters are at work.
Vince Alicoate is painting a forest green entrance sign for a space
on the west side once known as Playlot 430. It's recently been given
a decidedly more pastoral name, Sweet Clover Park. "It sounds
better than 'number 430,' I guess," says Alicoate resignedly.
One room over, Joe Matranga is tracing the projected and enlarged
image of a baseball player for a sign advertising a Park District
youth league. Matranga has been painting signs for more than 40
years. He used to paint the ornate Budweiser insignia that framed
tavern windows. But such window advertisements are themselves history,
victims of changes in liquor licensing regulations. Matranga seems
a little surprised to have a visitor asking him about his job. "People
are surrounded by signs," he says, "but on the whole it
never occurs to them that someone must have painted those signs."
Pete Andrews, their supervisor, told me that some of his men are
concerned for their jobs, now that the Park District is outsourcing
the production of the new purple-and-tan signs. But Andrews doesn't
worry. For one thing, they're still producing the old signs, the
ones that are going to be replaced. At least until the new signs
are installed in every park in the city, the old signs--and their
painters--will still be needed.
Matranga may have a point about the public's lack of appreciation
for his work. On the other hand, old signs are selling for 30 to
50 dollars apiece at the City of Chicago Store. A Curb Your Dog
goes for $35, a No Fishing for $50. The changeover is generating
more and more inventory for a flourishing nostalgia trade.
Even Forster, who is overseeing the replacement of the old signs,
sounds a little wistful about their demise. He's a fan of the old,
rapidly disappearing green cast-aluminum identifying signs, their
sophisticated, angular type spread across a truncated trapezoid.
"It's a real classic," he says. "If people were aware
at all of park signage, that was the sign they knew." Even
before the advent of the new signs, though, Forster's classics had
become hard to find. Difficult to maintain and susceptible to theft,
they've long been replaced in nearly every park by more pedestrian
painted wooden signs, also green but with none of the class of the
etched aluminum versions. Cesar Sanchez used a dramatic diagonal
stripe in the new signs to refer back to the old trapezoid. It's
the sort of gesture only a designer could love, or even notice.
Betsy Altman is a former president of the Lincoln Park Advisory
Council, a neighborhood group that the Park District consulted in
developing the new system. The group, and Altman in particular,
have been critical of the new signs, faulting them mainly for their
unreadability and their color scheme. But Altman didn't share my
interest in the old signs. She calls them "really grisly."
In fact, no one I talked to--not the sign painters, not the new
signs' designer, not people selling salvaged signs, certainly not
the few individuals I stopped in parks in a futile effort at informal
polling--seemed terribly concerned about the disappearance of the
signs that had stood in Chicago parks for years, the signs I grew
up puzzling over. And that's surely to their credit. Nostalgia is
the cheapest of attitudes. If small changes in our physical environment
bother us, it's probably because we read them as an emblem of our
transience, as a suggestion that we too can be readily replaced.
The urge to think of parks or any other urban spaces as repositories
of the past runs smack into the reality that these spaces must continue
to function in the present.
With the accumulation of years, we register more and more change
but become less and less able to deal with it. I used to laugh when
my father would launch into one of his lessons on the history of
the landscape, pointing out shopping centers that used to be prairies
and parking lots where amusement parks once stood. Now I'm developing
my own repertoire of lost urban history, ghost stories of the disappearing
city. If they attest to anything more than my own cultural obsolescence,
they're evidence of the need, powerful but a little pathetic, to
preserve at least in memory what cannot be maintained physically.
At Garfield Park, Pete Andrews gave me a rusty old Curb Your Dog
sign, plucked from the recycling heap. I don't really know what
to do with it.