The Text and Subtext of Urban Signage, Part I

Baltimore has become a city of transplants. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun this weekend Under Armour alone plans to hire as many as 5,000 employees over the next few years, and the vast majority of those will come from outside the immediate area and be encouraged to live in the city. That’s how Under Armour (not to mention Hopkins) wants to ‘control the experience’ of Baltimore’s recent arrivals.

Personally we’ve been hearing a lot of chatter and questions lately about the city’s different neighborhoods. ‘Is Butchers’ Hill a good neighborhood?’ ‘How far east can you go from Charles Street before it gets ‘sketchy?” and other queries along these lines.

Of course, everyone’s definition of a good neighborhood or ‘sketchy’ can vary pretty drastically depending on their own outlook and experience. Many of Baltimore’s new arrivals are recent college graduates who have never lived in a proper city before. When Kevin Plank says he wants to ‘control the experience’ that’s really just a natural extension of many Millenials’ lives before they arrived in Charm City. For anyone who grew up on the Crabgrass Frontier and went directly to a college campus their experience has been controlled for their entire lives thus far. They can’t be blamed for not knowing their way around a city and relying on other people’s equally uninformed and worthless opinions about various neighborhoods.

It is these folks who would do well to pay attention to this week’s series of posts. Knowing what kind of neighborhood you are in, what kind of people live there and how ‘good’ or ‘sketchy’ the immediate area is can be as easy as literally reading the writing on the wall if you know what to look for.

When traveling through our city, or any large city anywhere, you’ll see thousands of signs. The great majority of them have to do with traffic or parking and aren’t terribly informative about the immediate area. Still others offer things for rent or advertise products or services. These might give a few clues about the area, but are typically general enough that they don’t signify much.

But certain signs have both text and a subtext that can speak loud and clear about the immediate vicinity. This week, we’re going to feature a series of posts that illustrate what signs say about their immediate urban environment. We’ve taken the trouble to survey the signage in many city neighborhoods recently, and we’ve found that certain sorts of signs correlate to different neighborhoods depending on their populations, crime rates and economic situation. There are signs in Hampden that would be completely out of place a mile over near Mondawmin, and there are ones in South Baltimore that would never appear across MLK in West Baltimore.

We’re talking just about general signage, mind you. There are also very great differences in things like what kinds of business locate where and other visual signifiers that provide vast amounts of information about different blocks and neighborhoods, but those are outside the scope of these posts. We’re only dealing with signs this week.

We’ve taken a few dozen photos as examples, and we’ve broken them down into signs that appear in better neighborhoods, marginal neighborhoods, and worse neighborhoods. We’re going to post one group each day this week, and maybe a bonus post on Friday.

Stay tuned.