What Color Is Your Street Sign?

When I was very young and we’d go for rides in the car, I could always tell when we left the city and crossed into the suburbs.  The street signs would be different.

Traditional City of Chicago street sign

Chicago had yellow street signs with black letters.  The outlying villages had any colors that struck the fancy of the local politicians.  Some of those hamlets, like Park Ridge, even substituted vertical pillars for conventional signs.

(The yellow Chicago street signs gave me my first lesson in air pollution.  When I was ten we went to visit some relatives at 83rd and Brandon.  The street signs there had all turned a rich tan, courtesy of the nearby U.S. Steel plant.)

Chicago Park District street sign

Somewhere along the line I discovered that Chicago actually had two styles of street signs.  The boulevard system was controlled by the Chicago Park District, in those days an independent entity.  Park district streets had brown signs with white letters.  After the city took over the park district, the brown signs were retained, as a convenient way of warning trucks to stay off the boulevards.

In the 1970s, the feds told Chicago that all the street signs would have to be green and white.  Somehow a local salvage company got hold of hundreds of the old yellow signs.  I bought a Ridgeway Avenue sign for my father-in-law, who’d grown up on that street.  Now that he’s passed on, the sign hangs on my garage.

Transition–both old and new style signs (1977)

Meanwhile, the feds have expanded their guidelines over what constitutes a proper street sign.  In 2009 our government in Washington announced that existing signs had to be junked if the letters were all caps.  Having both capital and small letters would make the signs easier to read at a distance.  The decree was accompanied by the usual threat that federal funds would be withheld if a town didn’t comply.  After a massive public outcry, the feds backed off—for now.

But perhaps we haven’t yet become totally homogenized.  A few years ago, a friend told me of seeing a pair of the old yellow signs at an intersection on the far South Side.  I went down to 127th Place and Eggleston Avenue—and it was true!  For whatever reason, the authorities had missed these two.

The last survivors?

I don’t know whether those signs are still in place today, and I realize that I’m taking a chance pointing out this anomaly.  Somewhere, deep in the bowels of government, there’s probably an official who won’t be able to sleep nights, knowing that there are at least two yellow street signs remaining in Chicago.

My advice—leave them alone.  Consistency is an over-rated virtue.



5 Responses to “What Color Is Your Street Sign?”

  1. 1 Garry May 1, 2017 at 2:30 am

    If you want bad & unreadable street signs, go to Kenilworth.
    If you want even worse & unreadable signs, go to Park Ridge & try to read their idiotic vertical messes!

    • 2 J.R. Schmidt May 2, 2017 at 8:36 am

      I’ve lived in Park Ridge for 30 years, and don’t have to read them any more. Still, we’re better here than in Marin County, north of San Francisco. Many of the streets there have no signs. Bay Area friends have told me that the Marin locals keep removing the signs, to keep out the riffraff.

      • 3 Garry May 3, 2017 at 2:19 pm

        As far as I’ve read, it’s just one town in Marin County that does that, a place called Bolinas.

  2. 4 Benjamin Recchie May 1, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    Just a correction: the federal government didn’t order all street signs changed to mixed case–it just said that all new and replacement signs should be mixed case. (That is, older signs were allowed for the duration of their useful service life.) See Snopes on this rumor here: http://www.snopes.com/politics/traffic/mixedcase.asp .

    • 5 J.R. Schmidt May 2, 2017 at 8:28 am

      As I mentioned in the story, the original federal decree was issued in 2009. The Snopes link is from October 2010 and details the blowback against it, along with the feds’ “clarification.” In any event, the current rules for mixed-case replacement lettering are reasonable.

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