January 1, 2004
New York’s flashing—and literal—street signs have gone the way of the Automat.
Not many people remember Peck & Peck, a chain of women’s clothing shops in New York City that went out of business a couple of decades ago. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the people who do are likely to remember the store’s ad campaign more than anything else. The ads asserted the notion that the store’s customers were sophisticated women who really knew their way around New York. They all began with the phrase, “There is a certain kind of woman,” which was finished in a variety of ways. My favorite was, “There is a certain kind of woman…who knows which ‘Walk/Don’t Walk’ signs flash ten times, and which ones flash five.” Now I admit this is a pretty arcane way of confirming a woman’s sophistication, but I thought about that ad the other day while I was looking at the new signs that are going up on all of the city’s crosswalks, replacing the old signs, which had been there for more than half a century.
It is a startling yet stealthy change in the cityscape. Those signs were iconic, even if nobody but the Peck & Peck copywriters ever thought much about them. They were in a million photographs, all kinds of movies, and everyone’s memories. They seemed stern yet familiar, and I suspect that for children growing up in New York, they provided the opportunity for the first significant act of civil disobedience. Crossing against a red light was not the same as ignoring the sign—one was merely a light, but “Don’t Walk” was a command.
The replacement signs have no words. There will be 85,000 of them when the city finishes the installation in midwinter. The new signs use pictographs: graphic symbols for walking (a striding figure in profile) and for stopping (a hand palm-forward, as a policeman’s hand might direct traffic). The figure is white, as the word Walk was; the blunt hand, of course, is red.
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I am not particularly bothered by the absence of words here. Even though a lot of contemporary graphic symbols are awful, confusing, and nonintuitive (does anybody really remember which way the cute little triangles on an elevator button face when they mean “door close”?), the “Walk/Don’t Walk” substitutes are clear. You get the idea fast, and there’s no way to confuse the two symbols. The figure and the hand are designed to different scales, which distinguishes them as much as the color. The hand is a tad ominous, which given its mission isn’t a bad thing, whereas the figure has a kind of goofy stick-figure friendliness. And it’s nice that the “Don’t Walk” substitute isn’t a stick figure in a circle with a slash through it. I’m tired of those circles with slashes. When they’re combined with other kinds of graphic images, the result is ugly. The “No Smoking” signs in the BART cars in San Francisco have a red O in the word No that has a picture of a cigarette in the middle and a slash through it, and the effect is a muddle of two different kinds of signs, neither clear nor attractive.
New York’s new signs are placed in the same yellow metal boxes as the old “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs, and they seem to flash the same number of times (pace Peck & Peck). The city appears to have passed on a feature I have seen in similar signs in several other cities, in which the sign actually tells you how long before you have a red light by displaying large numbers next to the red hand that count down the number of seconds remaining to safely cross. (Maybe that looked like too much of a dare to New Yorkers, who instead of taking “4,3,2,1” as a sign to stay on the curb, would dash into the street before the end of the countdown.)
There is a kind of spiffy freshness to these new signs, as if every intersection had been spruced up, which isn’t usually what happens when the city replaces old street elements with new ones. I continue to feel that New York has never really recovered from the loss of the classic old street signs, the ones that showed cross streets in large white letters on a black background and depicted the street you were on in the form of a little panel above. Now we have ugly green-and-white signs with no panache whatsoever, although most historic districts have elegant brown street signs designed by Massimo Vignelli and Rebecca Rose.
Somewhere there ought to be a corner where an old street sign, an old streetlight, and a “Walk/Don’t Walk” sign are kept functioning. I won’t push for one of the traffic lights with Mercury on top—we’ve all heard enough laments about the lost glories of the public realm. The thing about the new signs is that unlike most changes in the streetscape, they come very close to being an improvement.
That brings me to the one feature that is truly awful about the new signs. The old ones used conventional lightbulbs tucked behind the “Walk/Don’t Walk” panels, which gave them a soft glow. The new signs have light-emitting diodes (LEDs) instead, just like the latest Times Square signs. They are about as bright as Times Square signs too. You can see them from a block away, which is unnecessary. And when you are close up, the figure glares in your eye. This new technology is cheap and efficient, and will reportedly save the city $2 million a year in maintenance and electricity costs. But couldn’t the city have saved even more and made the lights a little dimmer?