What the Signs Say
Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making in Brooklyn
Shonna Trinch and Edward Snajdr, a sociolinguist and an anthropologist respectively, show how the beliefs and ideas that people take as truths about language and its speakers are deployed in these different sign types. They also present in-depth ethnographic case studies that reveal how gentrification and corporate redevelopment in Brooklyn are intimately connected to public communication, literacy practices, the transformation of motherhood and gender roles, notions of historical preservation, urban planning, and systems of privilege. Far from peripheral or irrelevant, shop signs say loud and clear that language displayed in public always matters.
This book is the recipient of the 2021 Norman L. and Roselea J. Goldberg Prize from Vanderbilt University Press for the best book in the area of art or medicine.
"What the Signs Say charts emerging terrains of gentrification through an acute, open-eyed, and deeply contextualized reading of Brooklyn streetscapes and the signs that shape them. This is a fascinating and textured case study in itself. It also models generative new ways of approaching the complex intersections of language, landscape, and social experience."~Donald Brenneis
—Donald Brenneis, coeditor of the Annual Review of Anthropology
"This analysis of Brooklynites' sense of place is strikingly innovative and the ethnography utterly engaging. We see signage changing with the influx of gentrification, contrasting assumptions about whose Brooklyn it really is, and both older and newer residents invested in a sense of place as incoming chain businesses assuredly are not."~Bonnie Urciuoli
—Bonnie Urciuoli, author of Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican Experiences of Language, Race, and Class
"A compelling study of how business signs in Brooklyn neighborhoods serve as 'place-making technologies' that both signal and work in the interests of gentrification. The central argument—that 'new school' signs, while directly indexing playfulness and cleverness, indirectly index exclusivity—drives home the often subtle but profound ways that language is implicated in gentrification and exclusion, regardless of a sign author's expressed intent."~Gabriella Gahlia Modan
—Gabriella Gahlia Modan, author of Turf Wars: Discourse, Diversity, and the Politics of Place
Edgar Allen Poe, “The Purloined Letter,” 1845
We heard about the wrangle over ARENA/A.R.E.A. Bagels from various informants when conducting our ethnographic study about neighborhood “say” in the Atlantic Yards controversy. For example, we heard about it from Patti Hagan, a Prospect Heights resident and community activist who first sounded the alarm about the plan. Daniel Goldstein, whose property was seized by the state to build the arena and who became the spokesman for Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), a grassroots group opposing the plan, also told us about the shop sign incident. But Goldstein explained that DDDB had no position on the bagel shop’s name and had never encouraged a boycott of the business. On DDDB’s website, a May 18, 2007, post entitled “We’re Focused on the Big Picture, Not the Bagel Hole” stated that “We believe that the use of eminent domain for [Atlantic Yards] violates the US Constitution and we have organized and continue to raise funds for a lawsuit alleging just that in federal court” (DDDB 2007). But in fact the discourse of both DDDB and the local press trivialized local residents’ concerns about the language of the bagel shop’s sign, arguing that there were more important things to fight over than a shop owner’s storefront. The Brooklyn Paper concluded that