To: Community Board 1
From: Todd Fine, President, Washington Street Advocacy Group
Date: May 18, 2021
Subject: Survey of Heritage Trails New York
After the Downtown Alliance provided a list of currently standing signs, I took the opportunity on Thursday, May 13 and Friday, May 14 to walk the entire Heritage Trails network and survey what exists now. In light of the desire to redesign all signs and replace the stanchions, I believe we should begin with an assessment of the current Heritage Trails network and of the city's future needs. This is a serious project that should not be rushed and needs further study. The Downtown Alliance claims that the Department of Transportation refuses to allow any expansion of the trail system at all. Therefore, even if Community Board 1 votes to allow this proposal to move forward, its resolution should firmly express its displeasure at the constraints that the City has placed upon it.
First, without the thematic organization that the J.M. Kaplan Fund had attempted to pursue, the Trail network no longer seems to have a clear purpose. The most prominent theme appears to be the addresses of notable buildings, especially skyscrapers, but the choices are haphazard and exclude many key structures. Several extremely important locations like Trinity Church, the Ferry Terminal(s), the Statue of Liberty, St. Paul's Chapel, the World Trade Center, and City Hall have now been removed from the network, further breaking up its coherence.
The Lower West Side and Battery Park City are now almost entirely excluded (although the Kaplan Fund's treatment had been insufficient). The South Street Seaport Historic District, which needs historical centering in light of its current makeover, has no general sign standing presently, and the Alliance does not appear to intend to reinstall signs for the Tin Building, Fulton Fish Market, or Pier 17.
Only a few signs refer to former places, but these are also haphazard and are biased toward commercial history. The trail does little to help visitors understand the historical development of New York City socially or physically. For example, Lenape and Dutch histories are mostly excluded, and the British colonial and early Republic periods receive short shift. The trail is biased toward the idea that the 20th century skyscraper is the supreme achievement and most relevant destination. Corporate and financial perspectives eclipse the standpoint of workers and slaves. Signs often give attention to recent corporate owners or tenants of buildings as much to their history and locations (for example, AIG at 70 Pine; Fosun at “28 Liberty,” rather than 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza; and Macklowe at 1 Wall Street). The Downtown Alliance already appears to have been updating some signs to satisfy current owners. Some passages in signs read more like advertisements than historical information, in a way that might generate cynical reactions among contemporary audiences (see, for example, the Museum of American Finance sign at 48 Wall Street, as well as Pace University).
Some signs already attempt to add short references to social history or the history of marginalized groups, but because of the “address” focus these mentions feel like afterthoughts. For example, a sign at the Civic Center alludes to the intriguing history of Five Points, but it focuses on the exoticism of street gangs and cannot do it justice with just a single sentence. Adding new, “diverse” references to the signs under the current framing might actually have the effect of further marginalizing other histories rather than elevating them.
Second, the signs do not connect to each other in a way that would provide an enriching experience (the original Kaplan plan had color-coded labels and a planned comprehensive wayfinding between signs). The signs do not reference each other or build on themes. The tone of the signs is inconsistent due to updating over the years. The signs sometimes even fail to help readers understand what era of history they are referring to. For example, I noticed that a recently updated sign for the Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine does not contain any dates at all.
Third, while some of the stanchions are rusting and peeling paint, the far greater appearance problem is the positioning of the current signs. Some are no longer near their intended locations. The sign for Castle Clinton and the Battery is near Bowling Green; the Equitable Building sign has been removed from Broadway to Nassau; and the Stone Street Historic District sign is quite far from its location. The signs are not consistently on the same or opposite sides of the street of their reference. While sometimes the choice could be a matter of visibility, in several cases, being on the opposite side, like with the African Burial Ground (which has its own National Park Service signs) or Castle Clinton, the opposite side placement makes the Heritage Trail signs seem inferior. The 70 Pine Street sign is far enough away from the building that viewers might be confused at what it is referring to; on the other hand, the 55 Broad Street sign is placed on an awning such that a visitor can not appropriately see the building.
Additionally, several of the signs are located in places that actually interfere with their consumption. The sign for John Street United Methodist Church (one of the few signs that engages African-American history with Peter Williams) is uncomfortably close to a streetlamp. The 40/48 Wall Street sign is probably too close to a subway entrance. At Fraunces Tavern, the Downtown Alliance was storing barriers that made reading the sign difficult. The neglect for these signs is not simply in the physical decay, but in fundamental choices about their placement and their treatment by authorities.
I also believe that the black sign on black stanchion color scheme makes the signs more difficult to spot. While I am not a designer, I think that this would ideally have been studied before moving forward with a proposal for the Public Design Commission. Visibility is important enough that some experimental tests should be considered. The Alliance might argue that the "red line" logo addresses this, but that should also be studied.
Fourth, after inspection, it wasn't clear why the physical replacement of stanchions needs to be entangled with a fundamental redesign of the signs to include the Downtown Alliance logo motif. In fact, I even discovered that the new logo is already on several signs in a modest placement at the bottom, so it is apparent some signs have already been updated in recent months. All signs have reasonably modern typesetting and do not look archaic; in fact, I do not believe any of the current signs date back to the 1990s any longer. As examples, the First Precinct Police Station sign no longer notes the presence of the museum, and the 55 Broad Street was rewritten to promote the “popular” LMHQ / Hive at 55 co-working spaces.
The Alliance clearly does not need to wait on the Commission's approval to update the texts, and has long been doing this at will. Therefore, it is undeniable to me that a major goal of this initiative is to receive endorsement of putting the new branding of a red stripe on signs. Since the Alliance is paying for the repairs, perhaps we cannot oppose this entirely, but it is not ideal.
After consideration, I believe this trail framework is a remnant of an era before the smartphone when people might not easily identify what was in front of their face. This might still have some benefits for serendipitous discovery of select sites today, but I believe that this is really the only remaining purpose of the sign network. Given that this information is readily available to tourists, who either have guidebooks or can access smartphones, it is understandable that the trails are not highly valued, either by tourists or by the authorities who see them as a burden. If, rather, the signs engaged in a fresh and unexpected rendering of New York City's layered history, they might be respected and valued more.
There is so much room for improvement it is hard to know where to begin. The locations and the trails should be reassessed fundamentally in light of current cultural demands and tourist expectations. In an era of smartphones and sophisticated tourists, it may be more important to tell stories about things that you cannot see on the map. The map is also a product of colonization, which arguably continues in some form until today.
To invest funds into this archaic framework at a time when Lower Manhattan urgently needs creative thinking to generate tourism is a shame. It is not only a lost opportunity to include marginalized histories more profoundly, but it could actively hurt New York City's reputation as a tourist destination. It signals that bureaucratic inertia trumps creativity, scholarship, and imagination.
The next step would ideally be to establish a task force to review the Heritage Trail and discuss possible options. A modest set of historians should be consulted at the start of the process and asked to review final texts. While I sympathize with the Alliance’s claims that NYCDOT has put great constraints on this project, any resolution by Community Board 1 should note that this plan is not ideal and needs to be expanded within the coming years. Community Board 1’s input has clearly improved the result, but even more improvement is needed.
The Washington Street Advocacy Group’s chief appeal is that any resolution suggest that additional signs on the West Side for “Little Syria / Lower West Side immigration history” and “Radio Row” be added in a reasonably short timeframe.