Even Storefront Signs are Being Gentrified


What do signs on storefronts tell you? Sometimes they simply describe what’s being sold, like pizza or appliances. But some signs seem almost to be written in code. Newer upscale businesses often put just one or two cryptic words on their signs with no hint of the product or service being offered. For example, you can’t tell from their names that Kiwi, in Brooklyn, is a clothing store, or that james (with a lowercase j), a half-mile away, is a restaurant.

A new book, What the Signs Say: Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making, by Professors Shonna Trinch and Edward Snajdr (John Jay College), explores the meaning behind these very different types of signage.

The authors examined 2,000 signs in Brooklyn in an era when the borough’s working-class neighborhoods were being gentrified and middle-class housing prices soared. They found that most old-school signs were literal and textually dense, while new-school signs were often minimalist and ambiguous. For example, one paint-and-hardware store used 25 words to describe its wares, while signs for an entire block of 10 upscale storefronts used a total of just 14 words.

But these differences are not just aesthetic. Instead, the authors say, the new signage style also differentiates social class in places where educated, affluent consumers are displacing ethnic and working-class enclaves.

Another hallmark of new-school signs is wordplay, sometimes with sexual overtones or literary or historic allusions. A store called Big Nose, Full Body sells wine. Ample Hills ice cream takes its name from a phrase in a Walt Whitman poem. These references—at once vulgar, clever and erudite–create “intimacy and exclusivity,” reinforcing “cultural and social hierarchy in the landscape.” While some consumers may find such names amusing or intriguing, to others they signify a “secret club. And if you don’t already know what’s inside … then you don’t need to know.”

New-school signs also employ irony, like a vintage furniture store in affluent Park Slope called Trailer Park. When Trinch and Snajdr interviewed owners of upscale stores about signs that appear to mock phenomena with negative or lowbrow connotations, the owners routinely denied any intended ill-will. But “that rationale is not what makes the sign ‘catchy,’” the authors pointed out. “Without the other socially more incendiary meanings, the language on the sign would be less alluring and less interesting.”

On the other hand, old-school signs often incorporate authentic ethnic references—like a country’s flag or a religious symbol—not to invoke exclusivity but in a genuine effort to demystify what’s being sold. One old-school Italian bakery added the Chinese characters for “sweet things” to its signage, both to make Chinese immigrants feel welcome and to drum up business among locals who can’t read English.

New-school signs, in contrast, “reshape public space where an ostensibly non-ethnic, non-religious dominant group of more affluent people can set the tone, price, and culture of the neighborhood.”

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Explore This Work

What the Signs Say: Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making in Brooklyn
Vanderbilt University Press, 2020

Work By

Shonna Trinch (Associate Professor, Anthropology) | Profile 1
Edward Snajdr (Associate Professor, Anthropology) | Profile 1

Bonus Content

"Storefront signs and place-making in Brooklyn" (Indoor Voices podcast)