Saturday, February 7, 2009

Signs of a Change

Two thousand years ago in Roman Pompeii, there were no such things as street names or house numbers. Newcomers to the city would have to get around through the aid of a local, hard experience, or blind luck wandering the streets. Things have changed for the better since then - a modern city shorn of its signage would be unnavigable, even to natives. The industrial-era street grid layout of Toronto doesn't have this to as great a degree as, say, any suburban development built in the last forty years, but absent its signs getting around would still be a problem.

Nor can old signs be left up forever. Even if they're not stolen by souvenir-seekers or ne'er-do-wells, they tend to get old and rusty and essentially worthless for navigation - as a point of example, consider these signs at the intersection of Linnsmore Crescent and Strathmore Avenue up in East York.

It's not only difficult as hell to read that if you don't have time to squint, which many car drivers don't, but it's a blight on the urban landscape.

Toronto's municipal government has been laying the groundwork for a new generation of signs for a while now, and the first photographs of them in the wild which I know of started going up in January. They're slick, sleek, easy to read and suffused with all the space-age qualities of this twenty-first century in which we live - but they're also a departure from history. I provide old-style and new-style signs for the reference of those unfamiliar with Toronto, or who have more important things to care about than what street signs look like.

Left: An old-style, "traditional" sign, possibly still the most common in Toronto.

Right: A new, 21st century sign.

The new models aren't bad signs, in and of themselves. In fact they're very striking. What concerns me is that they're part of the slow and steady homogenization of Toronto, a grinding-down of old identities into a new whole that bears few similarties to the former shapes of its components.

Until January 1, 1998, what's now the city of Toronto was the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, a layer of government between municipal and provincial which consisted of the independent cities of Toronto, North York, Etobicoke, York, Scarborough, and the borough of East York. They all had their own mayors, councils, and local governments which dealt with their own issues while larger matters were dealt with through the Metro system. On that New Year's Day eleven years ago, those six cities (I'm not making another exception for East York) were effectively abolished by order of the provincial government, and Metropolitan Toronto became just the City of Toronto.

This was not a popular change; referendums in all cities before the amalgamation went against it, though then-Premier Mike Harris cared nothing for the will of the people in this respect. There's still a fair bit of resentment about the whole thing.

Still, the old cities were around for long enough that they're still relevant on the modern-day map of Toronto. Here, street signs serve another purpose; they not only tell what road you're on, they let you know what city you're in. Street sign design was not one of the responsibilities of the Metro Toronto government. The last eleven years have seen some sign replacements along major routes, but by and large the pre-amalgamation signs are still easy to find.

Kipling Avenue in Etobicoke

Coxwell Avenue in East York

Dufferin Street in North York

Birchmount Road in Scarborough

To my mind, differences such as these are what made, and continue to make, Toronto the excellent city it is - a city of diversity, a place of communities. Replacing all these signs with a single standardized model, even if it is to be a gradual phase-in over the next twenty-five years, strikes me as a loss of some small anchors of history. It may yet be that the city will preserve some of the older signs; there are antiquated box-model signs still remaining at Queen Street West and Bay, for example. Should it turn out like that, it's not particularly surprising for Toronto - this is, after all, a city that has ground 90% of its own history to dust in the name of construction and progress. Even Old City Hall would have been old photographs, memories, and nothing else had the original Eaton Centre developers had their way.

Still, it's not as if they're going to be cookie-cutter. While the default adornment for the top third of the new signs is just the city logo, there is allowance for neighborhood Business Improvement Areas to customize that space the same way signs are now - but to a far more limited degree. Personally, if it was up to me, I would go one farther and standardize a "standard" design for each of the old municipalities. It's simple - Toronto gets the city hall logo, Scarborough gets the Bluffs, East York gets its maple leaf and EY, York gets nothing because it is irrelevant and most people forget it ever existed in the first place, Etobicoke gets that weird plant thing, and North York gets the grinning face of Mel Lastman.

I predict those last ones would be the first to be vandalized or stolen.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release all images in this post into the public domain. This applies worldwide. In case this is not legally possible, I grant anyone the right to use these works for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.

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