What’s your sign?

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, January 2008 ~~

It’s pretty incredible to me that I can get through most days without noticing all the signs around me. Even traffic signs I obey perfunctorily, without really looking at them. But this week, as I have made my daily treks through Carrboro, I have been looking for signs. Actually looking at signs.

There are great big banners announcing events free to the public. There are little tiny hand-lettered signs reminding me to close the door. There are business signs. Information signs. Entertaining signs. For sale signs. Warning signs. Maybe even signs from above. But I really love the intimacy of the personal signs. “Face Up” scribbled on a sticky note on an office copier. “Turn off lights and printers” taped by the exit door. “86 Grouper” in a restaurant kitchen. “Check pockets” at the dry cleaners. And “Owes me 50 cents” on a vending machine.

Signs can be necessary. Signs can be fun. But signs can also take over a place, spreading like a disease until the clutter doesn’t even register in our minds any more. We’ve all been in places where the signs have taken over – temporary signs sprouting along the grassy strips, banners and flags tugged free of their moorings and rippling in the breezes, neon paint splashed across windows, and permanent signs that stretch toward the heavens. Actually, that’s what most places are like now.

Carrboro has an intricate sign ordinance. The Town Planning Department, in Article XVII, outlines in 11 pages the town’s policies regarding signs: definitions, sign illumination, surface area, exemptions – even sandwich board signs are covered. There is an application form, and, in conversation with Planner/Zoning Development Specialist James Thomas, he explained that the process includes submitting a color rendition and receiving verification as far as meeting allotted regulations. After that step, the sign goes to the appearance commission, which then makes a recommendation. “The commission makes suggestions,” Thomas said, “and the applicant makes changes.” I asked him if the changes were mandatory, and Thomas said, “No, but most people usually follow the recommendations.”

For the most part, I think Carrboro is doing signs well. People seem to respect each other and the appearance commission’s suggestions. If the law holds, then all businesses are represented equally and fairly. But when some choose to abuse the policy, it becomes a negative issue for those who honor it. Quibbling over the letter of the law only serves to cheapen the spirit of the law.

Visual pollution can reach such a point that we lose our sense of self and our sense of community. Signs can sprout in such a way that, when we look around, we could be anywhere – but nowhere that we really want to be. This inundation of information can actually take away our feelings of connection to a place. And that is not what Carrboro is about.

Carrboro is about community. It’s about creating space for people. For serendipity. Where we can walk down a street in a small town and discover a sign that leads us through a door into a place that we’ve never been before. Chances are, we’ll run into a neighbor there.

I, for one, know that when I open my eyes and look around, I am amazed by what I see.

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