Sunday, June 15, 2014

Nostalgia's Blurring Glow: provocative article in the New York Times about old neon street signs

This interesting op-ed piece by Ginia Bellafante has just come out in the New York Times. It critiques the motives behind residents' actions to save New York's industrial neon signs, pointing out that many of the companies represented have unpalatable histories, and that a kind of nostalgic historical whitewashing can result, as well as an appropriation of former working class culture by the privileged of today:

What the article misses though is that the signs (sign-ifiers??) also signify other things besides the industrial history of the companies that originally created them. They are also anchors of identity for urban dwellers who have observed them every day for years. They become part of the neighborhood...which ironically was the intention in the first place, just not in the way originally intended.

While I agree in part, I don't totally buy her 'hipster renovator' argument. I've found in our signwriting exhibition project that many of the people keen to preserve these local markers are not just the blow-in appropriators of working class culture, but people who have been locals all along. The interesting thing coming out of our exhibition is actually how much of a mixed bag of factors and people were involved. Bellafante is possibly as guilty of simplification as the accused hipsters.

Another argument I'd also like to develop further is that rather than only facilitating simplified narratives about the industrial past, keeping these signs can also help us to remember the sometimes unpalatable complexities about the industrial and commercial past (eg Kentile and the use of asbestos). Without the debate about the Kentile sign, there wouldn't be an article in the NYT raising that point.

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