Old Courthouse Reuse/Restriction Hearing

Tonight, I experienced two moments I would otherwise never have had were I not a blogger:

1) I went to Worcester Mag On Tap.  I heard Mike Perotto talk about Facebook.  And I introduced myself as “Nicole” and everyone knew who I was!  (Well, not Mike Perotto.  That’s coming, I’m sure.)  My goal is to become the Cher of Worcester and never have to use my last name again.

2) At the Old Courthouse Reuse/Restriction Hearing, I brought my notebook because I didn’t have access to a laptop.  Fran Ford told people to watch out, because the Fourth Estate was here.  Since Nick K., the real Fourth Estate, was sitting in front of me, I said, “Well, I’m really the Fifth Estate.”  When I was leaving, he said, “Goodbye, Fifth Estate.”

Anyway, it was kind of dead at the hearing; there were maybe ten people there and half of us us were either members of the old or new media or former or current city employees.

Mary Beth Clancy and Peter Norstrand were there representing DCAM, which currently has care of the courthouse, and the purpose of the hearing was to hear from the public about any potential restriction of the building.

Councilors Petty and Toomey were there.  Councilor Petty spoke first, asking if there was a timetable for the bid and project completion.  Clancy said that there are no dates as yet; they will first incorporate any comments before the begin the auction process.  Petty reiterated that, if the property is to be redeveloped as housing, the Council feels it should be market rate housing.

Next, Tim McGourthy, the city’s director of economic development, spoke that the City feels that this is one of the two key properties in the North Main project (as discussed in the charrette).  He would like this as a mixed-use facility.

John Meyer, representing the First Unitarian Church next door, said that their only concern is that Court Street remains open so that they can access their church parking lot and dumpster, and so that the handicapped access to the church on that side of the street remains available.

Jo Hart, an “amateur city planner”, said that residents’ views were not represented at the charrette.  Why do we need more housing when there are already thousands of apartments in the city?  Her suggestion would be to contact Yale (if they have any money left) and have them put in a satellite to their law school.

[Editorial aside: Yale’s already got one tough town to deal with, so I’m not sure why they’d want to hook up with an even more dysfunctional municipality.  Seriously, though, Yale’s got a great brand, and, while there are plenty of universities setting up satellite locations in nouveau-riche Arab nations like the UAE, I’m not sure the Ivies are looking to expand into the Woo.  Then again, maybe the University of Abu Dhabi wants to start a satellite location in the US…]

In any event, Hart complained that the city tends to use the same designer for multiple projects; Clancy assured her that there would be a bidding process [i.e., this is DCAM, not the city].

Yours truly asked what the disposition of the General Devens equestrian statue at the corner of Main and Highland would be.  Clancy said that they are still researching whether the statue belongs to the city or the state.  If the former, they would likely want to keep it; if the latter, it too would be considered surplus property.  (The impression I got, though, is that the city would probably get it either way.  My husband thinks George Frisbie Hoar needs a friend.)

Southwick on Names

I really enjoyed Albert Southwick’s column on the naming of children today, because (unlike most “fuddy-duddies”) he didn’t show disrespect to people who might choose names that are different or unique.

I wish that he’d looked at the incredibly fascinating Social Security Administration baby names page, though, because you can track the popularity of certain names, which is especially important for those of us who don’t want our kid having the same name as everyone else.

Our older son was named after my husband’s great-uncle.  The name is a traditional English name, and was extremely popular 70-100 years ago (consistently ranked between 15-25 in popular boys’ names).  Right now, it’s not used much at all (somewhere in the 300s in popularity) despite a pretty popular children’s book and television character of that name.  Whenever people hear his first name, they invariably say something like, “I had an uncle with that name” or “What an old-fashioned name!”  But he’s an old-fashioned kind of kid, so the name suits him.

Our younger son has a name that is identifiably Irish (as much as “Liam”, which Southwick mentioned).  There is an English spelling of the name that was popular when I was young (in the 30s-40s of popular boys’ names), though right now it’s not in the top 100s.  (That said, you can look at popular baby names by state; since Massachusetts has a significant Irish-American community, this name is ranked a bit higher here than in other parts of the country.)  But the Irish spelling of the name has not been in the list of 1000 most popular names since they began keeping records. 

(I would like to note, however, that neither “Liam” nor my son’s first name are what I would consider to be a “traditional” Irish name, that is, a name that has a Celtic language origin and isn’t borrowed from another language; so, I take exception at Southwick’s calling Liam an “old Irish name.”  Here is a good list — albeit with some pronunciations I’m not too crazy about — of “traditional” Irish names.  My son’s middle name is listed here, though, as is my husband’s first name in Irish.)

Naming a child is a tough balancing act, or, at least, it was for us.  We needed names that had a religious significance, and we wanted the kids to have names that weren’t terribly popular, but not completely out there, either.  So, made-up names were out, and totally wacky Biblical names were out.  (Well, if I had my druthers, my kids would have some really wacky Biblical or Roman names, but one of the reasons I married my husband was so that he would give me that look every time I said, “What do you think of Germanicus?  Or Mahershalalhashbaz?”)  If I were doing naming in my traditional ethnic way, my first son would be named after my father-in-law, my second son after my father, and both boys would have their father’s name as their middle name.  Since my husband was named after his father, and I have a variant of my father’s name, we decided to give those names a rest for (at least) a generation.  We did like the idea of naming children after relatives, so our older son’s names are both for deceased uncles, and our younger son’s middle name is for another deceased uncle.

That said, I have to confess that our decisions didn’t require a professional baby-namer; that article also notes that Germany still has the law banning invented names that Southwick mentions.

Signs of Worcester: At least we’ve got “diversity” on street corners

“Sign! Sign! Everywhere a sign!  Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind”

(I’m too young to remember that song in its heyday, but working as a dishwasher in my college years put me in contact with every musical form known to man, including the Five Man Electrical Band.)

If you travel the streets of Worcester on a regular basis like my family and I do, you can hardly have missed the dizzying variety of street signs at every corner.  Throughout most of my life, Worcester street signs were almost always a reflective green with white lettering in a narrow sans-serif typeface, all uppercase.  My husband remembers a time when many of the signs had a yellow background with black lettering — the typeface was very similar to what was used on the later green signs.  There are still a few of the yellow ones around if you keep your eyes open while driving in the city.

About a decade ago, new signs began to appear on the streets of Worcester, in various sizes, shapes and typefaces, and most recently with graphic elements such as a heart (Worcester’s said to be the “Heart of the Commonwealth”).  If you’ve been observant, you may have noticed a progression of these changes, as the city & its DPW tried out different elements & typefaces.  Since these “experiments” were then mounted at street corners, Worcester is now home to a very diverse assortment of street signs.

Here below are just a few that caught the eyes of my husband and I this past month:

We were curious about what sort of master plan (if any) was driving the various sign changes in the past decade.  Was there some sort of internal city/DPW rivalry regarding favorite typefaces & graphic elements?  Was there some reason that Worcester needed to change all of its street signs to meet some state or federal deadline?  Why are some very legible signs being replaced, while others in poor shape are left in place?

My husband spoke to an engineer at the DPW’s Traffic Department recently to ask about what the plans are for Worcester’s signs (as well as several other related questions).  The answers to our questions were interesting, and in some cases raised as many new questions as were answered.  The short answer about Worcester’s sign replacement is that there is no “master plan”.  The attempts at a new “look” for Worcester’s signs started shortly after the Shrewsbury Street area got some new street signs made up to go with one of their streetscape renovations.  City officials and DPW management liked the look of the new signs — but they were created by an outside vendor.  For a short while thereafter, Worcester did not have the equipment to plot/cut their own typefaces for signage, but in recent years they have.  And they’ve been “trying on” various typefaces since, as shown above.

The "look" that spawned a decade of design experiments

Shrewsbury St. -- the "look" that spawned a decade of design experiments

Adding to Worcester’s increasingly diverse portfolio of signage “looks”, a few of the more unusual typefaces on Worcester’s signs may have been put there by developers, if the new street they’re developing is private.

Throughout the next week or so, I’ll be posting on various topics pertaining to our street signs.  Here are some highlights:

  • How did we get here? A brief overview of the history of street signs in the U.S. since the automobile era started.
  • Effective use of typefaces in signage. What works & what doesn’t, from the perspective of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and in the graphic design industry.
  • Graphic elements. How does Worcester’s “heart” emblem compare to the town seals used in nearby communities?
  • Sometimes new isn’t improved. What’s good, bad and/or ugly about Worcester’s new street signs?
  • Where are we going? Worcester may have finally arrived at a typeface that city/DPW officials like.  Will the new signs meet the standards of the FHWA’s “Manual on Traffic Control Devices”, or will we have to replace them all over again in this coming decade?

If there’s enough reader interest in this series, perhaps we’ll finish up with a poll about Worcester’s signage policies, and I’ll personally take the recommendations to the City Council and/or its Traffic & Parking Committee.

Stay tuned!

(P.S. — If you have a favorite unusual Worcester sign, please take a picture and e-mail it to me.  If I don’t already have something similar, I may use it in one of the upcoming posts.)