Excerpt: What the Signs Say

What the Signs Say: Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making in Brooklyn is officially out this week from Vanderbilt UP. Written by Shonna Trinch and Edward Snajdr, the book explores the impact of storefronts and their signage and argues that the public language of storefronts is a key component to the creation of the place known as Brooklyn, New York.

Using a sample of more than two thousand storefronts and over a decade of ethnographic observation and interviews, and including 60+ color illustrations, the study charts two very different types of local Brooklyn retail signage. The unique and consistent features of many words, large lettering, and repetition that make up Old School signage both mark and produce an inclusive and open place. In contrast, the linguistic elements of New School signage, such as brevity and wordplay, signal not only the arrival of gentrification, but also the remaking of Brooklyn as distinctive and exclusive.

Trinch and 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.

Read on for an excerpt from Trinch and Snajdr’s introduction to What the Signs Say:

Introduction | Discovering a Field Site

In the spring of 2007, a Brooklyn bagel-maker put up a sign for his new store on 5th Avenue near St. Marks Avenue in Park Slope. It read ARENA in five large capital letters, above the words BAGELS & BIALYS. The owner said he hoped to link his new shop to the coming sports arena, what would become the Barclays Center, the centerpiece of Atlantic Yards, New York City’s largest urban redevelopment project in the past fifty years. The multibillion-dollar plan included the basketball arena and sixteen high-rise office and residential towers in the middle of Brooklyn. The bagel seller soon learned that local residents planned to protest his store’s name. They read the name ARENA as an open endorsement of Atlantic Yards, which they were publicly and legally contesting. Local residents disagreed with the plan’s scale, and they felt that the developer and the state’s partnership was a misuse of public money and an abuse of government power for private profit (Lavine and Oder 2010; Snajdr and Trinch 2018a). Although the shop owner at first told a reporter he was going to ignore the neighbors’ threat (Kuntzman 2007), within a month, he relented, and a new, nearly identical, but ultimately very different sign went up: A.R.E.A. BAGELS & BIALYS.

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.1 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

the opponents of Atlantic Yards are so frustrated by Bruce Ratner and his high-priced pals that they’re taking out their aggression on a lowly bagel store owner. . . . So there it is, folks: An immigrant from Punjab—a guy who worked himself up from a dishwasher to a manager to, finally, the owner of bagel stores in Queens, Long Island and Brooklyn—is gunned down in the war over Atlantic Yards. (Kuntzman 2007)

Though we also understand the difference between a small business entrepreneur and a billion-dollar developer, the case of ARENA Bagels shows that the meaning of language in public space, even on the seemingly smallish scale of a storefront sign, can actually play a significant role in the contemporary contest over urban space. Clearly, some neighborhood residents felt they had the right to say something about the bagel-seller’s shop sign. And as it turned out, the shop owner, stating that he wanted to fit in with the neighborhood, decided to heed their concerns.

Ten years after the Park Slope ARENA Bagels incident, another group of residents felt they had the right to say something about the semiotics of another Brooklyn shop in their neighborhood. On July 22, 2017, a mere two miles east down the same street as the ARENA Bagels shop, more than two hundred people gathered at the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights. They congregated to air their concerns about Summerhill, a new, upscale restaurant that had opened up a few weeks earlier. Justine Stephens, a young, African American gentrifier and local resident who had moved into the predominantly African American and West Indian neighborhood a couple of years earlier, had helped organize this gathering. While out walking, Stephens had noticed the restaurant’s large plate-glass windows, above which the restaurant’s name was inscribed in pale blue script on a stark white background, but she had not yet stopped in for a meal before she began to read about it online. It was then that she learned about the bullet holes.

Shortly before opening, Summerhill’s owner, Becca Brennan, a former lawyer and Toronto transplant, had issued a press release to online media outlets Gothamist and Eater. Among other things, the text described the restaurant’s interior walls: “Yes, that bullet-hole-ridden wall was originally there, and yes we’re keeping it.” In Stephens’s words, “I was angered by that! I looked at their social media. They have a picture of a cocktail next to this advertised bullet holed-wall. Because that’s what a press release is—an advertisement. . . . And then there are other photos, like with a bartender with a 40 oz. of rosé [wine] in [a display case].” Stephens knew that many people in her neighborhood did not use social media like her generation. Despite a lack of explicit signage, she recognized the establishment as a gentrifying business, and she wondered if local residents, people who had lived in the neighborhood for forty or fifty years, were even aware of the way the restaurant had been marketed to wealthier, and younger, newcomers to the area. She thought that

people who would go to [local stores], you know, [where] the advertising is clear and up front, who digest information through newspapers and signs on community boards or a lamppost . . . people who have lived here a long time in this community probably wouldn’t go to Gothamist or Eater. So, I thought it was important to open up that dialogue. To see what everyone else thought, too. . . . Because it was their neighborhood before it was mine. And they need to know what’s going on. (interview with authors, October 4, 2017)

Stephens and two other people concerned about the use of bullet holes to promote a restaurant then assembled the gathering of Crown Heights residents so they could talk publicly, in front of the establishment, about their feelings regarding the store’s semiotics, or the symbols used to imbue the space with particular meanings. But, they said, the owner did not come out to hear them, and they complained that she was slow to respond to their concerns. Although Brennan did eventually cover up the holes, it was only after more protest, a town hall meeting, and a Community Board hearing. Stephens, along with many other residents and community leaders, felt that Brennan was annoyed by their feelings about her marketing ploy. They concluded that she did not truly understand why people were upset and angry.

Both the cases we’ve described tell important stories about how storefronts and their signage and semiotics can be very meaningful to people. Each case indicates that the impact a public sign may have on people who see it and interpret it can be significantly different from the intended meaning. In this book we examine the way that public language can create place and how place is experienced through public texts in a rapidly changing Brooklyn. The retail shop sign is an obvious but often overlooked type of public text that plays a key role in the definition and experience of place. Not surprisingly, everyone has an opinion about places, but as we will see, everyone’s opinion about place may not have the same influence when it comes to defining a neighborhood. And as the two cases introduced here show, shop signs and their other related forms of semiotics matter.

We first noticed Brooklyn’s storefront signs when we moved to Flatbush, one of Brooklyn’s more than forty neighborhoods, in 2003. While shopping along Church Avenue or nearby commercial districts of Windsor Terrace, we were immediately struck by the textual denseness found in most retail signage and then in the commercial space in general. After relocating to Bay Ridge, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in South Brooklyn, we counted more than 1700 storefronts on Third and Fifth Avenues. Each retail-rich street runs through Bay Ridge and neighboring Sunset Park for over sixty blocks, averaging fifteen storefronts (seven or eight on each side of the street) per block. Any given shopping block offers a wide range of small, independently owned retailers including dry cleaners, delis, gift shops, grocers, hair and beauty salons, coffee shops, hardware stores, electronics shops, restaurants, and daycares. Most Brooklyn commercial districts span twenty to forty blocks, creating tightly packed textual landscapes of between two hundred and six hundred storefronts.

It was in this commercial-rich environment that we realized signs on local stores appeared to have all kinds of things to say. They were colorful and had dozens of words on them. Some were hand-painted and contained pictures or photographs. These public texts seemed to announce the commercial and ethnic vitality of Brooklyn, reflecting the diversity of its people and its cultures. At the same time, we also noticed that some newer Brooklyn shops appeared to be very different from the text-rich storefronts found throughout the borough. They had almost nothing on their signs. In fact, their storefronts appeared nearly empty from a distance. This stark contrast pushed us to think about signs as cultural markers and artifacts that operate not just as individual messages or expressions, but together, as social and historical experiences and symbolic systems of place.

As with Summerhill and A.R.E.A. Bagels, there is always a history behind a storefront. Each shop and each block are certainly unique places. But taken together, the collective textual landscape created by neighborhood retail shops also says a lot about Brooklyn as a dynamic place. Our data reveal how language itself participates in the making and remaking of place in complex and multifaceted ways. On the one hand, shop signs may provide messages of openness to others, calling out to anyone to “come in.” On the other hand, some signs might not be so “open” to everyone. Importantly, the signs we were noticing also existed in a larger field of urban transformation that included both corporate redevelopment, like the Atlantic Yards project that spurred on the A.R.E.A. Bagels conflict, and gentrification.

Gentrification is not a new phenomenon and many scholars have been working to reveal its processes and effects on place. The term was first coined by sociologist Ruth Glass (1964) in the mid-1960s to describe what she called an “invasion” of the middle class into what were traditionally working-class neighborhoods of London. We like geographer Jason Hackworth’s (2002: 815) definition of gentrification as “the production of space for progressively more affluent users.” Popular conceptions of gentrification are that it is the result of wealthier and/or more educated individuals merely choosing to move into particular neighborhoods, perhaps to find a larger home or to renovate an old building. But both gentrification and redevelopment usually involve broader economic, social, and political decisions on the part of local and state governments. While they may occur simultaneously, residential and retail gentrification has seemed in Brooklyn to precede larger-scale corporate redevelopment in the borough and has occurred in successive waves, as former Manhattan residents arrived in search of more space and more affordable housing (Kasinitz 1988; Lees 2003). The cultural geographer Neil Smith argued that gentrification and redevelopment are driven by the emergence of what he called “the rent gap.” Smith defined the rent gap as the “disparity between the potential ground rent level and the actual ground rent capitalized under the present land use” (Smith 1979, 545). Rent gap creations, Smith argued, were not random, but were the outcome of the longer term, purposeful disinvestment and corporate profit seeking that in turn resulted in more decay and an acceleration of the
emptying out of American cities. Finally, both gentrification and redevelopment are processes that displace people from a particular place to make room for new construction or the renovation of existing property. Understanding this larger setting of rent gap fluctuations, urban planning, and investment and disinvestment is also critical to considering what it is that Brooklyn signs “say” about place.

To accomplish our reading of Brooklyn storefronts, we think about signs as being more than just features of architecture or expressions of trend or style. To understand shop signs and their meanings in the context of a changing city, we needed to think about them in a geographic, historical, and sociopolitical sense. This way we can investigate them as publicly and collectively marking place with aspects of language that have cultural ideologies, or common beliefs and ideas, attached to them. Such an endeavor necessarily demands a combination of anthropological and linguistic perspectives in order to comprehend how texts operate as social practices that help to make particular places in the world and the role those texts serve in changing place.

1. We use the terms informant and research participant interchangeably throughout this book.

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