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Signing Off

The future of the past looks grim in Chicago parks.



By Andrew Santella

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 Dog.

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 tennis courts.

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.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Lloyd DeGrane.

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