Chicago’s diversity is legible on its signs

Public written language speaks to the character and composition of neighborhoods and communities.

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There is an actual "Chicago" typeface—that sans-serif abomination designed for Apple computers in 1984. Remember your first-gen iPod? That 50 Cent song you listened to on repeat was rendered in Chicago.

But the real Chicago typeface, in my view, is the range of written language on public view that speaks to the character and composition of particular neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, the city's diversity is legible—from the chipped and peeling hand-drawn signage in Woodlawn and Gothic-inspired graffiti in Humboldt Park to the Korean alphabet in North Park and the Arabic script lining shops along Kedzie Avenue in West Ridge. (This is not to confuse fonts with typefaces and either with handwriting. I'm focusing instead on the cultural and historic detail spelled out on the city's thousands of signs.)

Historically, signage in Chicago has been used as both a beacon and a warning. Before the civil rights era, spotting the written language of a culture aside from your own meant tread lightly and watch your back, or retreat altogether. Chinese, Greek, Korean, Polish, and African storefront signage delineate ethnic enclaves—many of which are the result of exclusionary zoning and explicitly racist employment policies. Likewise, the sight of a certain type can evoke home (how I imagine Little Village's Spanish-language signs must feel to newly arrived Latino immigrants).

There was a time when Chicagoans simply didn't have the luxury of standardized street signage—in the city's early years, street signs were hand-drawn, mislabeled, or missing altogether. Upon request, the good folks at the Chicago History Museum excavated more than 30 newspaper articles throughout the last 100 years referencing Chicago's lack of street signs—when "one-half of the labels on the street corners [were] missing or illegible." In 1905, the Tribune heralded a "bold experiment": signs spelling out street names vertically at intersections across the city. The contemporary horizontal signs eventually prevailed.

The first newspaper mention of typography found by the History Museum staff wasn't until 1949, and apparently it didn't take long for the city suits of old to start bickering publicly over a "standard design for all civic lettering," including slant strokes, line thickness, and whether the n and d in "Randolph" ran too closely together. "Chicago's leading authority on lettering thinks the city's street signs are 'atrocities,' " the Trib reported in August of that year.

As it turns out, the battle over Chicago's typography wasn't a wasted effort. As the debate over typeface minutiae grew, so did attention to detail regarding issues such as sign visibility, placement, and cost. Today the city's typeface is Helvetica on the el, the Chicago Park District's is sans serif throughout, the sign for City Hall is Times New Roman, and the Chicago Public Schools system has Century Gothic as its main typeface. Chicago thinks its street signs so nice it's named many streets twice (the second being honorary designations). But those are just the city-ordained examples. On the neighborhood level the lettering tends to be more variable, the marks made by people of all races, ethnicities, and classes, using virtually every alphabet on earth. v