March 28, 2006

The politics of old signage.

The historic preservation of large industrial neon signs is a political battlefield. Consider that big Wonder Bread sign in Seattle:
The San Diego company that is developing the 1.6-acre property said the sign would be donated to the nearby Pratt Institute of Fine Arts. But that has some neighborhood residents worried that Pratt will auction it off to wealthy collectors. They strongly suspect that "Wonder Bread", or "Wonder" or "Bread" — or just "W" or "B," for that matter — would be a hot commodity for the growing set of neon industrial art aficionados....

Bill Bradburd, an artist who moved here from San Francisco, said the Wonder Bread sign was really a symbol of a "bait and switch" on the part of city officials. Mr. Bradburd, who lives near the bakery and is a co-chairman of the Jackson Place Community Council, said development was moving at such a fast pace that city officials who had promised to protect the character of Seattle's neighborhoods were instead seizing on the dollars flowing in.

Mr. Bradburd and others on the council want the sign displayed publicly near the site of the bakery. He is at odds with some, though, by proposing the sign be split up, putting "Read" over a local library and perhaps "Wonder" over a new elementary school.

But is the tension over these 11 red letters, each six feet tall, really about the sign?

"These battles over saving something old are proxy battles," said David Brewster, the founder of Town Hall, Seattle's cultural center, who is writing a history of the city since the 1962 World's Fair here. "They are really battles against traffic, although of course gentrification weighs in."
Interesting. But what made me want to blog about this NYT article when I saw it in the paper version was a quote that doesn't appear on-line. Between the second and third paragraphs of what I've quoted, there's this quote from Bradburd:
"I think it's part of the rightward movement, at least perceived rightward movement in the country," he said, "where a developer in sheep's clothing turns into a corporate pig."
Why take that out? It's the spiffiest quote in an article about the politics of old signage.

These signs must have been considered quite ugly for a long part of their existence. And look at the Wonder Bread sign:

It actually is ugly, especially if you take into account all that metal junk holding it up. It's funny that it's Wonder Bread that symbolizes the rich goodness of the past, when Wonder Bread has traditionally symbolized the sterile blandness of the present.
"Seeing the cookies and bread on the assembly belts, it was a show," said Adrienne Bailey, who grew up near the factory and is now secretary to the Central Area Neighborhood District Council. "It was a smell blocks before you got there. Oh, I have beautiful childhood memories of Twinkies and pies, and a beautiful big red neon sign, all lit up."
That reads like a satire, written in the 1960s, about what nostalgia would be like in the future.

Americans used to have memories of mom's homemade pies and now there's the love of the old factory that cranked out processed foods. And, strangely, those who favor the historic preservation of the site paint their opponents as corporate pigs.

IN THE COMMENTS: More ideas for how to break up the Wonder Bread sign to make other signs for other places.


Jack Wayne said...

I detest using tax dollars for historical preservation. It's even worse than welfare.

KnightErrant said...

It is truly a sign of bad aging when we become nostalgic for things we once tried to ignore.

CB said...

"...proposing the sign be split up, putting "Read" over a local library and perhaps "Wonder" over a new elementary school."
Some other possibilities:
"A BEER DROWN'D" over a bar,
"ROD, A WEB NERD" I'm sure there's an internet millionaire named Rod somewhere.
"A BORN WEDDER" for Elizabeth Taylor,
"WE'RE NO BAD DR" at a medical clinic,
"WREN BOARDED" at a bird sanctuary,
"WARDROBE DEN" could be a clothing store,
"WE REDO BRAND" over a marketing firm,
"WADED, REBORN" at an Evangelical Church,
"WONDERBRA" and "ED" could share,
or for me: "BE A WORD NERD."
Thanks to the Internet Anagram Server:

Goesh said...

It sure is ugly. I've always been more fascinated with the unique names various establishments have, like the Monkey's Eyebrow, a convenience store in Kentucky which I have heard is now defunct. I once saw a roadhouse named the Brass Ass but it looked like you might find bodies on the floor if you entered the place so I didn't.

Jennifer said...

[S]trangely, those who favor the historic preservation of the site paint their opponents as corporate pigs.

That's great. Who here doesn't think that if Wonder Bread showed up today wanting to install a giant, ugly, neon sign, the very same people would be against the uglification by the corporate pig! Who knew corporate pig was such a catch-all?

knoxgirl said...

Oh, I strongly disagree!

Maybe it's the graphic designer in me, but those big letters are really cool. There are some old signs like that here and there in Knoxville that are quite dilapidated, but I'd still be sorry to see them go.

Dave said...

I hate anti-development, sentimental preservationists.

They should all be put out to pasture.

As for Wonder Bread: I recall reading something a few years ago about a study done by demographers which correlated Wonder Bread consumption and incomes by zip code. High-income zip codes had a high negative correlation (i.e., relatively few residents of high-income zip codes consumed Wonder Bread.)

I don't remember where I read the study, and I have no idea about its validity, but if we assume, for the sake of argument, that its conclusions were valid, does that say anything about the people who want to keep the Wonder Bread sign? Perhaps they are low income people who feel threatened by the prospect of gentrification?

Ann Althouse said...

CB: LOL. You don't have to use all the letters, of course, so there are many, many possibilities.

Troy said...

That signs reminds me... class action lawsuit for making sinister yummy white bread making kids fat with it's evil enriched flour....

The sign also makes me see Duncan McCleod and the Kurgan duelling it out with awesome swords, bad Queen soundtrack, and horrific '80s pyrotechnics.

Ann Althouse said...

Wonder Bread has such complex meaning for us, doesn't it? I have't eaten it in decades, but sometimes I think of buying it, along with some Skippy Peanut Butter and, of couse, some Marshmallow Fluff.

bearbee said...

Far UGLIER than a little itty bitty Wonder Bread sign. I shudder at the time when historical preservationists do battle over this monstrosity.

paul a'barge said...

What is typical of the "corporate pig" preservationist is the blind worship of anything that is resistant of change ... any change. Of course, that's where we are today ... up is down and down is up on the planet Uranus, right?

CB said...

I'd hate to see any of those precious letters go to waste.
On a more serious note, it is true that there are only a handful of cities with distinctive physical features. I don't think I could tell Seattle from Minneapolis, or Atlanta from Houston from Miami from San Diego. But is this a problem? And if it is, is historic preservation a solution or an aggravation. If the way to tell Seattle from Minneapolis is to know that one has the Wonder Bread sign and the other has the General Mills sign, I'm not sure what's been accomplished.

INMA30 said...

Dave said...
"I hate anti-development, sentimental preservationists."

I'm borrowing this comment for the same-sex marriage thread. I'll make sure I am clear about the context you used it in however. Its just a great phrase.

chuck b. said...

I knew there would be trouble as soon as we learned Bradburd was from San Francisco. As a San Franciscan, I know these preservationist rants well. People actually got nervous here when Rite Aid came to town. "They'll displace all the Walgreens!" Talk about satire.

Splitting up the sign sounds like a great idea to me. I hope they do that.

Now those old mural advertisements painted on the sides of old buildings you see in any city with old buildings, the ones advertising stuff for five cents--I'd like to those preserved to some extent. I've thought for years those would make for a nice photoblog post.

Palladian said...

Strange, I think of the desire to keep things the way they are, to preserve things, as a conservative impulse (considering the root of the word is "conserve"). But the phrase "corporate pig" seems like a classic left-wing utterance, not to mention this fellow's concern about "rightward" movement. Maybe we need to think up a new political label for this confounding bunch of impulses... Since the core concern of this new party would be preservation, why not call them the Preservatives? The name is also deliciously apt for a movement to save the Wonder Bread sign!

In the late middle ages white, fine, soft textured bread, called "manchet" was the province of the wealthy and the noble. The brown, coarse bread was for the peasants. Now Wonder Bread, which would have indeed been a wonder to those pre-Modern people, is for the peasant class while the "nobles" (and probably the Preservatives quoted in the article) pay 6 dollars a loaf for organic 38 grain artisanal bread at Whole Foods.

Icepick said...

CB wrote: I don't think I could tell Seattle from Minneapolis, or Atlanta from Houston from Miami from San Diego.

I haven't been to Seattle, Minneapolis, or San Diego, and I've only been in Houston very briefly. But dude, if you can't tell Miami from Atlanta, you've got real problems! There's an ocean of difference, literally!

bearbee said...

"..while the "nobles" (and probably the Preservatives quoted in the article) pay 6 dollars a loaf for organic 38 grain artisanal bread at Whole Foods."

BDTWB ...Better dead than Wonder Bread

yetanotherjohn said...

As long as we are reassemblying the sign, how about putting up the sign:


The real problem is where to put it up. There are so many candidates (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, just about any campus in the US).

As to the smell of the bakery, I had a cousin who lived near a ceral factory. They could tell what ceral was being made that day based on the smell alone. Captain Crunch was apparently especially redolent.

Abraham said...

I'd like to see a big neon sign above a cemetery that says "WE DEAD"

peter hoh said...

knighterrant wrote: "It is truly a sign of bad aging when we become nostalgic for the things we once tried to ignore."

No, I'd say it's the way of the world. Nothing takes us back like the things we used to take for granted, once we realize that they're missing. When there are fifty old signs like the Wonder Bread sign, they're an eyesore. but when the last one is about to be dismantled, we object.

Joni Mitchell: You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. Of course the twist is that fifty years after they take paradise and put up a parking lot, we are feeling sentimental about the parking lot, and we're not sure that we want it replaced.

Rosebud. My old Schwinn Typhoon. The smell of the attic room in which my mom stored our winter coats.

Things like the Wonder Bread sign are icons not because they were disdained for so long, but because they've been around for so long. As John Huston says in Chinatown, "Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

Dave said...

Inma30--glad you like the phrase...but which same-sex marriage thread are you referring to?

INMA30 said...

The one from a fews days back with 330+ comments.

AJ Lynch said...


Have to disagree with you. Aromas can be nostalgic. Smells from my yute that I can share include the cookies being baked at a Nabisco plant in Philly and the beer brewing at the old Schmidt's Brewery at 2nd & girard.

AJ Lynch said...


Never heard that saying before re Schmidts- took me a minute to get it. And yeah it was the pits-even for a high schooler. Only old men drank it by choice- guess that is why it went belly up.

Did you make that saying up?

CB said...

Wow--that same-sex marriage thread is still going on. At about 150 comments, I suggested that we should call it quits, out of fear of Godwin's Law taking effect. I am happy to see that I was wrong. Over 330 comments, most of them quite contentious and pointed, and very little personal invective and no comparisons to the Nazis that I could find. On most blogs the comments would have quickly degenerated; I'm very glad that they don't here.

RR Ryan said...

Chuck B- James Lileks actually covers that sort of thing. I'm not sure where it is on his website, but he photographs those old signs and posts them. He'll probably turn it into a book at some point, if we're lucky. Separately- Atlanta did have at least one major identifier as you entered downtown: a giant neon Coca-Cola sign. It was taken down in the eighties and enshrined at Hartsfield, making it one of the first things visitors encounter when they reach the city. Appropriate- RR Ryan

Ann Althouse said...

In Madison, they actually repaint those old signs for products, like this. That's not an ad for a product anyone buys anymore, just a preserved ad on a building.

Hey said...

If you can't tell Seattle from Minneapolis, you're blind and insensate!

See, there are these lakes, a huge sound, the ocean, and mountains everywhere in Seattle, with temperate and waterlogged weather. Minneapolis is flat, on a river, and is bitterly cold in winter and very hot in summer.

Maxine Weiss said...

"All the metal junk holding it up"

That was the look back then. You were supposed to see all the workmanship and devices that went into it. In through much of the 30s and 40s machinery was transparent (the old see-through RCA Victrola)....a lot of that's coming back to. It was considered progress to see all those girders and wires etc.

Then, in the late 50s, standards changed and things became opaque. You weren't supposed to see the workmanship. Telephone wires and cables were buried underground. Unsightly billboards were banned.

Maybe things are coming full circle. I, personally, like the transparent look. Full disclosure and all that.

I loathe looking at telephone poles and high-wire cables, though. Those need to be buried underground and kept out of my sightlines!

P.S. Does anyone remember the old Father Coughlin billboards with his slogans? Can you imagine keeping those up in the name of preservation ??? !!!!

Peace, Maxine

CB said...

Icepick & Hey,
I was primarily referring to the architectural landscape of the cities; I imagined a quiz that involved identifying cities by a postcard of the city skyline--I'm not sure I would do to well on such a quiz.

Johnny Nucleo said...

In my experience, the best hole in the wall barbecue joints serve plain untoasted Wonder Bread with their meals. I'm not sure about Texas. Maybe they do too, but I've never had barbecue in Texas. I have had what was purported the be Texas barbecue, but not in Texas. Such non-Texas Texas joints serve Texas Toast, which is thick buttered toast. Far better than Wonder Bread, but the Wonder Bread joints feel more authentic somehow. But Wonder Bread is a relatively recent invention so it can't really be that authentic, can it? The mind reels.

dick said...


If it weren't for the sentimental anti-developmental preservationists, then neighborhoods like the one where Ann's home is currently located would have been torn down years ago to put up characterless, faceless tiny boxes of homes all looking the same, the kind of place where you might just pull into the wrong driveway because every home looked alike.

I am reminded of an article in the NY Times about 10 years ago where they interviewed a really modern skyscraper building architect who was all for the featureless buildings. Then they showed his home and office. He lived in a big old Victorian home in the suburbs of Main Line Philadelphia with all the furniture true to the period of the home.

I am also reminded of the big selling point of many of the apartments here in New York being that the building is pre-war. People want the qualities that preservation brings to the table and that the new buildings lack, the qualities where windows don't fall off the buildings 2 years after they are build and where people can still open the windows rather than have to live in places where the air is just recycled over and over again.

I know which I would choose. I want to keep some semblance of where we came from and what qualities went to make up our way of life and the places we chose and choose to live. I don't want to live in cookie cutter tiny boxes.

Maxine Weiss said...

There are some wonderful tract homes that have individual floorplans. If you look at some of the most famous master planned communities (Levittown etc) all the homes have an individual look, and no two like floorplans are next to eachother.

The master-planned communities of the 50s and 60s were very nice, and obviously there's a reason why those homes have increased in price.

Peace, Maxine

howzerdo said...

With the demolition of NYC's Penn Station in the 60s the modern preservation movement was born:

Maybe the same will be true for Wonder Bread and old signs? ha ha

(Full disclosure: I am a proud, and avid preservationist)

Ann Althouse said...

Howzerdo: I love preservation too. I was taught to love modernism back circa 1970s and thought all the ornate things were incorrect. That was such a destructive attitude. But that mistake doesn't mean we should go all the way to the opposite extreme and never tear down anything! And what about the problem of suburban sprawl? Isn't it good to revive the city with housing?

Steve said...

Strange, I think of the desire to keep things the way they are, to preserve things, as a conservative impulse (considering the root of the word is "conserve"). But the phrase "corporate pig" seems like a classic left-wing utterance, not to mention this fellow's concern about "rightward" movement

My girlfriend, who is fairly conservative politically as am I, is finishing her M.S. in Historic Preservation this May. We both were baffled by ideology involved in the preservation movement. Saving old buildings seemed a very Conservative thing to do, but as we have found out that a lot of preservationists are not really interested in preservation for its own sake, as much as they are interesting in using preservation to stop development. There is quite a lot of Left Wing ideology.