An island city made of steel, glass and concrete, Manhattan is also a city of nearly infinite signs and spectacular symbols, many of them subversive. Indeed, Manhattan is a paradise for the study of semiotics. There may be more signs and symbols to view, review, decode and re-appropriate in Manhattan than in any other island city in the world.
Nearly everything in Manhattan is a sign or a symbol and nearly everyone is a signifier. Here, as elsewhere, a cigar is a cigar is a cigar, much as a rose is a rose is a rose, but they are also more than just that. As the brilliant Italian semiotician, Umberto Ecco, knew and understood, and made clear in his bestselling novel, The Name of the Rose, civilizations rise and fall on the backs of symbols and signs, whether they’re swastikas, red stars or the Union Jack of the British Empire.Recently, on a two-week working vacation in Manhattan I paid close attention to the signs and symbols that I usually take for granted and that I’ve been reading and reading ever since I was an undergraduate at Columbia College beginning in the late-1950s.
What follows is a map of sorts that I’ve fashioned from the bits and pieces that I gathered on my travels, mostly on foot, but also by bus and subway which for me is the quintessential New York symbol, not the Empire State Building on 34th street, that’s located close to “mid-town,” and that draws thousands and thousands of tourists who visit the city and who need help distinguishing one skyscraper from another.
The entire island of Manhattan is encoded. Indeed, as nearly all tourists to the Big Apple know, streets run East and West. Avenues, such as Fifth, Sixth and Seventh along with Broadway, Park, Lexington and Madison, flow North and South. Fifth Avenue divides Manhattan between East and West. Newcomers learn the coordinates fast, or wander about as though they’re in a maze and a daze.
Times Square, the famed, tangled, crowded neighborhood that runs from Broadway to Seventh Avenue, and from West 42nd Street to West 47th, is more than a place defined by numbers and names. It’s also a symbolic landscape that draws 50 million visitors a year who want and need to be told that they’re at “The Crossroads of the World.”
In New York City and in nearly every modern metropolis, signs and symbols tell citizens where and when they can walk or not walk, where and when they can park a vehicle or not park it, and when and where to safely cross the street.
Almost nothing is left to chance or individual choice, though taxi drivers and pedestrians routinely violate traffic rules.
In the men’s room at Grand Central Station at 42nd street and Park Avenue, I saw a sign that read, “Rules of Conduct: No Smoking, No Bathing or Laundering, No littering, No Drinking of Alcoholic Beverages, Violators Subject to a Fine.“
A man who looked like he was homeless — he wore the tattered uniform of someone without a house, an apartment or even a bed to sleep in — washed himself with a wet paper towel.
I visited a shelter for homeless men and women, though outside there was no sign to identify its function. At the entrance, I saw a sentence that read, “Assaulting social service personnel is a felony.” I did not stay long. Half-a-dozen cops crowded around the entrance.
At the 14th street subway station, I saw two men in uniforms and badges: “Platform Controllers” for the “Metropolitan Transportation Authority.” Nearby, at the same subway, another sign proclaimed, “Control is an illusion.”
My favorite subway ads were for “Backless and Strapless Bras” and “Period-Proof Underwear.” One of my favorite T-shirts — it was tattered and faded — and worn by a teenager said, “Lead Zeppelin.” She was too young to have been alive when the band was at its peak.
The four-letter slogan on a baseball cap that read, “Obey” seemed to encourage the exact opposite. In the subway, across a large ad for a McDonald’s chicken dish, someone had spray-painted the word “Heartburn.”
And what to make of Essen, a snazzy food store on Varick Street in the “West Village” that advertises “Fast Slow Food” but that didn’t tempt me. Nor did the sign that screamed “Insomnia Cookies: Delivered Warm until 3 a.m.” But I did enter and ate at the up-scale restaurant — entrees started at $34 — that announced, “Proper attire requested, no one turned away” and where the owner played a Bob Marley reggae song with the lyrics, “Get up, Stand up, stand up for your right… don’t give up the fight.”
Whimsy rippled all across the city and especially on the Lower East Side, the neighborhood where I was staying. Two different slogans that were stenciled in color on the sidewalk on East Eighth Street read, “Thank God I’m an Atheist” and “God Loves Girls who Love Girls.”
Less whimsical was the T-shirt that read “Do Not X-Ray.” Not at all funny was the hand-painted sign in the lap of a man sleeping outside the church of the Immaculate Conception and that read, “Everybody Needs Some Thing to Help.”
Umberto Ecco himself probably would have had a field day in New York. Surely, he would have heard echoes of his own theories, and I’m sure he would have been amused by my conversation with a worker in a hardhat at a construction site on 168th Street.
“It’s noisy here,” I complained. “The hard hat” — to turn the fellow into a symbol — replied, “Hey, watch what you say, I’m a union man.” I added, “I’m all for unions.” He smiled and explained, “That’s what I like to hear.” My noise was his music; it signified employment and a powerful organization of workers.
I even met an amateur semiotician on the “L” train as it was traveling from West to East. An African American man wearing a dashiki and carrying a drum, he held forth on the nature of drums, signs, symbols, communication, and then passed the hat.
“The Confederate flag is a symbol of oppression,” he told the passengers on the subway car. “Flying it ought to be regarded as treason and be punished.”
Perhaps what was most striking during my two-week hunt for symbols and signs was the absence of overtly political graffiti and slogans. I saw no ads for Trump, Sanders or Hillary Clinton. On ground level, New York didn’t seem to care about the campaign or the election. But on 42nd Street and Broadway, a homeless man sat on the sidewalk, his back to the wall, his dog at his side, and a hat in front of him. His sign read, “Give me a dollar or I’ll vote for Trump.” He made a lot of money and drew a lot of laughter.
On a Friday, as I leaving the city, I sat in the passenger seat of a Mini Cooper and couldn’t believe the license plate on the four-door sedan in front of me. It was too good to be true. But there it was in black letters on an orange background: a near perfect New York message to the world. It read, “I am NYC.”