Thursday, February 28, 2008

Day 208 - Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs...

Q: So, how many street signs would you say there are posted on NYC's streets?

A: about 1.3 million, give or take a few thousand. That’s about one street sign for every six men, women and children of New York City. I walked along a busy avenue where I live in Morningside Heights, recently, and carefully counted every one way, bus stop, street name, do not enter, no parking, no standing, school crossing, snow emergency route, merge right, no right turn, no left turn, one-hour parking, two-hour parking, truck route, no commercial traffic, and stop sign along a 25-block stretch and came up with—-are you ready for this?--501 signs. That’s about 20 signs on each block. And almost every one of them is designed and manufactured in Maspeth, Queens, at the New York City Department of Transportation’s sign shop.

It’s not much to see from the outside: a squat, 2-story cinderblock warehouse built sometime early in the last century in one of those mixed neighborhoods where rows of old wood frame houses edge up to light industry, facing off just across a narrow street. But as one gets closer, there’s little question that this is where New York City’s street signs get made. Outside over the front door is a highway sized sign—in the familiar color of highway sign green—welcoming visitors. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were 5 other signs giving the address, admonishing employees against being loud, throwing cigarette butts on the ground or parking in front of the driveway.

Nick Robinson is the main supervisor and 25-year veteran of the sign shop, overseeing a crew who design, manufacture and install signs all around the city. He walked us into the warehouse where house-sized panels of aluminum are stored, ready to be made into signs.

"We use two thicknesses of aluminum," Nick explained. "One is 80/1000 of an inch thick. The other is 125/1000. The 80 is for most of the smaller signs you see on the street and the 125 is for the larger highway signs that you see overhead."

Large four-foot by twelve-foot sheets of aluminum move into the machine shop where workers at old fashioned metal presses that make a helluva "boom" sound with each pass of their blades cut them down to the size and shape of the signs you see on poles and lamp posts all over the city.

“Most of our bread and butter are parking regulations," Nick said. "Basically they’re 18x12, 18x18. There are some other oddball sizes, but that’s the bulk of what we make.”

Not every sign is made here. They contract out to many similar signs, like one way and stop signs. Even still, the Department of Transportation produces about 70,000 signs at the shop each year. Most are replacements, like when a delivery truck backs up into a pole and sheers off a “no commercial traffic” sign. If it’s one of the more frequently used signs out of the 10,000 different ones they have in their library, the sign will be printed with ink through a silk-screen template, not unlike the way many t-shirts get printed with designs.

But if it’s a special request, say like when the city installed special purple “thru-streets” signs in midtown to attempt to speed cross-town traffic a few years ago, then they’re made with weather-resistant vinyl labels instead of paint. The sign is designed on a computer. Then a special plotter will “print” not with ink, but by perforating letters and graphics onto a sign-sized label which is then affixed to a sign blank.

Lisa Hall is, in the parlance of civil service, a traffic device maintainer. She describes the printer. "It’s similar to an inkjet, except it uses a blade to cut out the vinyl, and we remove the excess from the background which leaves the graphic.” She was working on a specialized No Parking sign when I visited. “The first thing I do is I’ve applied transfer tape," Lisa explained. "I’m going to trim it to size to help me apply it easier. And on a clean, dry surface, I’ll take the transfer tape, remove the slip sheet." Then she squeegees the final image into place.

Alexander Soultanis makes a different kind of sign for the city.

“I’m on my 21st year," Alex told me. "I came here as an old school sign painter—the hand painting of signs. Everything’s now computer graphics and moved away from paint. When I first came here, they really didn’t do any hand painting at that point. Mayor Koch used to order hand-painted banners for us. That kinda started into other things, including street painting.”

Back in the 1980s, DOT began painting streets for special events. Alex had one night to paint a 5-lane G-clef in front of Radio City when the city was trying to lure the Grammies back.

“It was 56’ tall," Alex recalled. "I marked the street into a grid of 2-foot by 2-foot boxes that I used to transfer the design over from graph paper. It’s not easy getting all that painting done and having it dry in time for traffic the next morning.”

That 1.3 million sign figure, by the way, doesn’t include Alex’s G-clef!

Day 208 - The Brooklyn Navy Yard, Then & Now

I was treated to a tour of my friend Deb Johnson's new workspace in Building 280 at the venerable and still exceedingly relevant Brooklyn Navy Yard. Deb is a professor of industrial design that the Pratt Institute where she also started the affiliated Pratt Design Incubator. She's taking a break from teaching to head up Pratt's various sustainability initiatives.

And in her spare time (ha!) she's also getting a personal project rolling: the Brooklyn Design Co-op. A section of the 5th floor in Building 280 houses a shared work space that she is currently filling with like-minded designers focused on creating sustainable solutions to myriad world challenges.

Cool in its own right, of course. But on this crisp winter day, I was utterly smitten with the views--both from her building's roof and of the industrial relics surrounding her, including Building 128, whose days are numbered. The hulking steel behemoth, built in 1899, used to be where huge steam boilers were assembled. Now, falling apart, it's slated for demolition and redevelopment to provide affordable space for modern light industrial uses.

I'm looking forward to learning some more about the history of these buildings. So is BNY. So much so that they hired an archivist recently and launched the BNY Historical Center. Enjoy some decent pics of amazing views!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 196 - WoodJackElmCor Jaunt

A few weeks ago I met a friend in Flushing for archery lessons. The #7 train was in the midst of some pretty serious construction east of Woodside. Anyone wanting to go past there had to get off and catch the LIRR along the Port Washington branch to get to Flushing. I hadn't done that in probably 10 years.

The landscape that the Port Wash cuts through is not the glitzy, exalted "International Express" that the #7 is along Roosevelt Avenue. Instead, it's the common man's route to Flushing. At first glance, it is block after block of hardscrabble wood framed row houses backing up to the tracks, cars shoehorned into frontyards where a postage stamp of lawn might otherwise grow up through. This is occasionally interrupted by a nondescript brick industrial building. Not the stuff of urban adventures. Or is it?

I happened to catch a couple of sights as we whizzed by at 60 mph... a Thai temple, balconies overloaded with bicycles, halal butchers next to massage parlors... all stuck among this strip of industrial residential landscape that gets no attention. So I took the train back (and forth) through this stretch today to see it again. And when I still wasn't convinced I had seen it
closely enough, I got of the LIRR and walked back (and forth, again) the 5.3 miles. Below are some of the fun things I saw. (To see larger versions, go directly to the Picasa page.)