There are greeting signs between the boroughs, like the one – along a Brooklyn border – saying goodbye with a dialect: “Leaving Brooklyn ‘Fuhgeddaboutit.’"
There are Port Authority crossing signs on the George Washington Bridge reminding any doubting commuters that New York is still the Empire State.
And – just in case commuters don’t follow local politics – there are signs gently reminding them who’s in charge at City Hall. The names of both Mayor Bloomberg and borough presidents are finely printed there.
Every time a new mayor or borough president gets elected, the city pays around $350 to update each of the affected signs. Those corrections and the entire set up, removal, and replacement of almost all the city-owned sign inventory are orchestrated at a city-owned facility, a sign factory if you will, located in Maspeth Queens.
In a red-brick building resembling a garage or repair shop, employees here either paint or laminate colors onto aluminum. Then, they stencil or paint on letters by hand. With around 25 employees, the sign shop in Queens is reportedly the largest of its kind in the nation.
Over time, some of the signs created at this facility have earned nationwide fame, including one that presented erroneous geographical information. Each week, during the opening credits of the 1970s ABC sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter," America got to see the sign that once welcomed drivers exiting the Verrazano Bridge: "Welcome to Brooklyn, Fourth Largest City in America."
“This made natives roll their eyes, and visitors scratch their heads wondering if Brooklyn was still an independent city,” said Manhattan’s historian (every borough has an official one), Michael Miscione.
New York City bridges, tunnels and roadways are maintained by a myriad of government agencies that include the State Department of Transportation, the MTA and the Port Authority. But, it’s the New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) that maintains what is by far the largest network. NYCDOT oversees 6,000 miles of streets, roads and bridges.
Each year, the NYCDOT’s Borough Engineering Sign Shop in Maspeth has to replace or create 100,000 new signs. The entire city sign operation -- which includes the studying of locations, their fabrication and installation -- costs around $12 million annually.
Faded or damaged signs that get returned or retired to the factory in Maspeth are first inspected for possible refurbishment. When the signs are in good enough condition to be refurbished, they are reused. Signs that can’t be refurbished are delivered to a metal recycling yard, which in turn sends the scrapped aluminum signs and metal sign supports off to a recycling plant.
The facility also customizes signs to sell to the public, including the $50 "No Parking, Not at All!" and, for $32, a sign identifying a fictitious street, such as "Cody Lyon Boulevard."
The predecessors of New York City’s borough crossing greeting signs began appearing across the country in the 1910s and 1920s. They were pragmatic signs that notified drivers of their whereabouts, according to Federal Highway Administration spokesperson Doug Hecox. Those signs marked official state lines, time zones and municipal city limits.
Miscione, Manhattan’s historian, has a photograph of a 1929 sign that was posted on Broadway in the northern edge of the Bronx. “You are now entering New York,” it reads.
Gradually the function of road signs broadened beyond spatial orientation. The first of these new signs were originally put up in smaller cities to target auto-tourists, hoping to encourage them to stop, to stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants and, of course, spend money, says Kathleen Hulser, senior curator of history at the New York Historical Society.
“Often it was the local chamber of commerce that paid for them, or pressured the town or city to put them up," Hulser said. "Eventually the practice of self-promotion for localities became more widespread.”
New York City has never done that kind of boosting, but it did start using signs in new ways, such as at construction sites. Signs posted there would say which political leaders were responsible for various public works projects and would indicate the projected date of completion.
“Obviously, it is a way of telling tax-payers what their money is being used for," Hulser says. It’s “also a not-so-subtle form of on-going campaigning. And yes, those signs also change signatures pretty rapidly after elections,” she says.
Over time, Miscione speculates, this practice morphed into listing the names of political leaders on welcome signs. At various points in history, some states have not only listed their governors at their borders, they have also posted a photo or drawing of him or her.
A state Department of Transportation spokesperson in Albany says New York state stopped posting governors’ names on welcome signs in 1995. That’s because then Governor George Pataki didn’t want the department to place his there, because he thought the effort would waste tax-payer dollars.
Though New York City has a reputation for colorful street signs, the most common signs produced at Maspeth are quite mundane. One-way signs top the list, while stop signs come in a close second.