Word on the Street

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I recently attended a lively lecture and slide show given by Paul Shaw, a calligrapher, typographer, and design historian, (and author of PRINT’s Hot Type column in the magazine) about the lettering of New York City.

In a two hour talk to an audience of more than 60 people, Shaw shared dozens of the images he has photographed in the city over the last 30 years, photos of letters on walls and buildings that adorn and identify businesses, homes, garages, churches, subway stations, restaurants, and cemeteries. The photos included the well-known—Frank Lloyd Wright’s boldly grooved lettering on the cement facade of the Guggenheim—and the lowly—like the enigmatic directions that Con Ed workers spray paint on the sidewalk to indicate gas mains. Prowling the city’s boroughs with a camera, Shaw has snapped all kinds of lettering, made from materials including terra cotta and vinyl, and located on varied surfaces including slate, wood, and brick. These letters, like those on the gravestones of Trinity Church and the pretzel-like “s” in the striped neon of the iconic Nathan’s hot dog sign, are part of what makes New York City familiar and recognizable. As Shaw said, they are “a part of our collective scrapbook.” They attest not only to the city’s present, but also to the history of its streets and neighborhoods. They remind us not only of the people who lived here and ate here, but of the laborers who created the signs, whether using a chisel or a pneumatic drill, a paintbrush or neon tubing.

Fittingly, the talk took place in the library of the General Society of Tradesmen and Mechanics, which was formed as a benevolent association in 1785 by a group of master craftsmen. The workers invoked by Shaw’s talk have literally left their mark in every corner of the city, from Macy’s giant vertical steel sign—with a dot in place of an apostrophe—to a taqueria sign painted on glass in Brooklyn. Their work may have faded—like the ghostly names of long-gone businesses still visible on the sides of old brick buildings or the rusting enamel of the red and white “Apartment for Rent” signs. But, as Shaw said, “even natural decay is beautiful. Designers even like the way letters fall apart.”

Shaw is no snob. He is as likely to call attention to the beauty of the mosaic “A” in the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn and to the folk art of the amateur lottery signs in the bodegas of East Harlem. He can wax poetic over an Art Deco “Pull” sign on a midtown building or a graffiti tag, with a skull for its “O.” He loves the wit found on walls around town, like a sign on Great Jones Street that said “DANGER HOLLOW SIDEWALK,” to which someone had added, “DANGER HOLLOW PROMISES.” Sometimes there’s wit just in the printing itself, like a sign for L’Chayim caterers, which uses a Hebrew letter for the English “Y.”

As a coda, Shaw shared some of the typographic mistakes he’d recorded: a capital “N” without its left-hand serif in the mosaic tiles of Penn Station and an upside-down “N” on a former Board of Education building. He pointed out that a “V” in a sign for a Columbia University building was wrong because the broad stroke of the “V,” must be, according to convention, on the left, because of how it would have been written with a quill pen.

Often, when presenting a slide, Shaw would preface it by saying, “if it’s still there,” or “I hope that at least that sign will survive,” giving voice to his concern that many of these printed public treasures, especially the ones made by hand, would fall by the wayside or be destroyed by new construction. “Signs contribute to the look of a street or a neighborhood. They are part of what makes Brooklyn Heights look like Brooklyn Heights and Chelsea look like Chelsea. If you tear even some of them down, and put up a tower in their place, you change that, and you no longer know what type of businesses or what types of ethnic groups were once there.”