5.12.16

City Signs as a Conversation, the Introduction from my "Signs of the Times" Photo Book


Some years ago I was walking along a street in Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood, when a bit of paint on the asphalt caught my eye.

“POSSIBLE MONUMENT” it read, scrawled as if by an municipal official next to an otherwise mundane street corner. The nearby fire hydrant? I wondered. The curb? The lamp- post? Or the sign referring to itself?

But a monument to what, exactly? What was being remembered?

Signs like this appear all around the city, but most of the time people move too fast to see them. Noticing these small signs, left for the observant and contemplative, is one of the great opportunities of a life spent on the sidewalks, because the speed at which we move changes what we can see.

Moving faster, speeding along in a car or train, the world begins to blur and details disappear. Signs get bigger, elevating themselves to heights far beyond the stroller’s reach. Signs get brighter, flashing and blinking to attract the scattered focus of the digital gaze. Attention becomes a zero sum game, and many small signs fall through the cracks, seen only by slow and steady, a lost language of attention and observation, seeing the city at a pedestrian pace. 



These are not neon, not the storefront marquee, nor the billboard. For the most part, these are hand-written small notes jotted down for a specific purpose, part of a constant interaction between the non-human city -- the walls, doors, poles -- and the constant churn of people. Passers-by, shopkeepers, employees, rabble-rousers, artists, or neighbors putting up small signs for the choice few to notice, many handwritten and hand-placed with care. This unceasing back-and-forth, the remaking and re-writing of the city’s semiotic surface. Signs on signs on poles. Sometimes graffiti (though that’s not included here). Sometimes official signage, sometimes in a lawn, sometimes on a wall. Signs camouflaged or emblazoned like urban insignia on the margins of the sidewalk. Rarely permanent, these signs fade away or fall apart, are taken down or covered up by another. The changing city is the palimpsest that remains.

These days, we live in an era of scant signage. Compared to the pedestrian-paced days, when sidewalks were full of life, the signs inhabiting our cities have become scarce as streets have sped up and blurred. And the more people walking the streets, the more subtle the small signs; New York City and Chicago are full of these. Yet most of the signs in this volume were visible from the sidewalks of Minneapolis and Saint Paul over the last decade, from the period of about 2003 to 2016 (though there are a few notable exceptions from my various wanderings to other cities).

I sometimes dream that a renaissance of small signs is unfolding, as more signs make walking more interesting, and more walking makes signs more worthwhile. In that spirit, I hope you enjoy these signs of the times. On your journey, look for your own signs. Take notice and stock. Signs disappear when ignored. When seen, they acquire meaning and multiply, each, at that moment, a possible monument. 

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