Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Sign of the Times: Lowry Hill East's Neighborhood Sign Project

Above: A Lowry Hill East (the Wedge) sign on Hennepin Avenue

Neighborhood signs seem to be a big deal in the community-building world. The general concept seems to be that they help build a shared sense of community, establish a sense of boundaries, create a sense of place, and generally contribute to a better neighborhood and a nicer place to work and live. To this end, cities and neighborhoods across the country have been hard at work creating sign programs, often fully funded through public or private grant money. Minneapolis is no exception; most neighborhoods have a smattering of signs around their edges, in some cases multiple sign designs dating from different eras. In CARAG, for example, I’ve seen both those older orange goose signs, as well as the newer cartoon version; the modern CARAG sign is not bad for what it is, but admittedly not to my taste – I much prefer something more elegant and streamlined. And that brings me to the topic of this particular post: the Wedge (LHENA) and its NRP-funded signage program.

The Wedge’s original NRP plan designated $15,000 in funds to “utilize neighborhood artists and their skills to create new signs for the neighborhood.” Artist Linda Strand Koutsky (coauthor of a wonderful series of illustrated books related to Minnesota popular culture, including restaurants and the State Fair) was selected to design and create the signs. She served as a visiting artist at Jefferson School, where she helped lead the students in creating graphic icons representing various elements of neighborhood life. She then took the student’s work, “refined” it, and designed and created the final product. The signs themselves were installed throughout the neighborhood, with the strongest concentration along the boundaries of Hennepin, Lyndale, and Lake. The NRP Phase I evaluation cites the project as a success, although does note that there have been difficulties with maintenance – presumably keeping the signs clear of graffiti, stickers, and other acts of vandalism.

I’m a strong supporter of nearly anything that can be seen as building a feeling of community and promoting a sense of place, so my conflicted feelings about these (and other) signs leave me feeling a little guilty. But ultimately, I have to wonder: are these signs really worth the money and the time? Was this project truly a success? Some thoughts on the project:

The signs are attractive.

I give the Wedge – and Linda Strand Koutsky and the Jefferson students – kudos for the final design. They are by far the most attractive of the Uptown neighborhood signs. I like the simple lines, the use of color, and, especially, the elegant choice of cutout graphic icons. I also enjoy the fact that not all signs are the same; seeing the different designs makes each one special and more interesting than they would be if all identical. I have no problems with the design itself, and wish all neighborhood signs were as attractive.

The use of “Lowry Hill East” could be confusing.

The Wedge has a more complicated name issue than do the other Uptown-area neighborhoods. It’s commonly referred to as the Wedge, many people simply call it “Uptown,” and the official neighborhood organization is the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, or LHENA. Yes, I suppose some people know the neighborhood as Lowry Hill East, but I would guess that the vast majority of people do not. Does the Wedge want to be known as Lowry Hill East? If there was a concentrated effort to change the unofficial name then that would change things, but assuming that they don’t, I do wonder if the signs sometimes cause unnecessary confusion.

Neighborhood signs can contribute to sign pollution.

Yes, this is a nice sign. And yes, everyone else does it, too. But given that Minneapolis’s official neighborhood boundaries are often located along busy streets (in this case Hennepin, Lyndale, and Lake) pedestrians get bombarded with a streetscape filled with signs of all types. The visual clutter means that these signs don’t get the attention that they deserve. One alternative would be to move this type of signage into the neighborhoods themselves, posting them along quieter residential streets instead of along busy border streets; they wouldn’t designate the boundaries of the neighborhood, but I think they might gain more community-building power through the quieter viewing area. They would no longer announce that you were entering a neighborhood, but would serve the equally valuable function (and more effectively, at that) of reminding residents and visitors that they are within (and not at the edge of) the Wedge neighborhood.

Is this project really worth nearly $15,000?

I don’t know if the signage value itself – especially when used primarily on the edges of the neighborhood, and on extremely busy streets – is worth the high cost. On the other hand, this could be considered the support of a local artist and our local school. As a community-enhancing visual arts project linking school with neighborhood, well, maybe it was worth the money.

I realize that topics like this are pretty small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but the little things really add up. The details of neighborhood life can make a large impact on quality of life, and it behooves us all to take the time to carefully consider the world around us, and to contemplate what works, what doesn’t, and what we can do in the future to make Uptown (and its individual neighborhoods) the best place possible to live, visit, and work.

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