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Over Easy: Our streets show signs of clutter

  • A cluster of signs on Bridge Street in West Lebanon. (Dan Mackie photograph)



For the Valley News
Friday, June 28, 2019

Now that I am older, I have time to ponder things I can't do much about. I’ve never heard anybody talk about today’s topic, so I may be on the cutting edge, or a crank-in-training.

Open your eyes, dear readers: We may have a surfeit of signs in West Lebanon and environs. I have appointed myself a Citizen Sign Inspector, and the results aren’t always pretty.

One of the perks of living in the Upper Valley is its rugged good looks. Fair are the green hills and forests. Fair are the country highways and back roads. Even the interstates are fair to middling.

But elsewhere, we should take a closer look at the signs around us. They are a little like teenagers: One is usually no problem, but a gang of 10 jostling for attention is something else.

Driving east from the Terri Dudley Bridge in West Lebanon along the Miracle Mile and then to the Dairy Twirl in Lebanon, I counted roughly 90 business and traffic signs to my right. I did not dare to try to take in both sides. The signs fly by, even if you’re observing the posted speed limit, 30 mph. A cluster of signs promoting civic clubs tests your visual acuity. I can imagine one added by the Upper Valley Association of Eyecare Professionals: “If You Can’t Read This, Call Now.”

It was an eye-opener when I strolled from the Lyman Bridge in West Lebanon up the straightforwardly named Bridge Street to the twin gas stations. A driver can’t take in all the signs: the speed limit, 30; a notice that Crafts Avenue and Commercial Drive are coming soon; a diamond-shaped sign with a depiction of a person walking (jauntily; no lollygagging here) and the word AHEAD. Then come notices for Rotary Club meetings, a bike loop trail, and another that you are on the Purple Heart Trail. Then follows the Big Kahuna: a crosswalk with lights on either end that flash like an emergency beacon when someone uses it. Over three-plus decades I’ve rarely seen anyone cross there.

A sign about the winter parking ban seems misplaced, since there is no parking on Bridge Street. Only a person walking can stop and appreciate the level of detail concerning dates and hours. It even cites City Ordinance #30 for those who wish to do their own research. I’d walked and driven past that sign hundreds, maybe thousands, of times; until I made a point to look at it, I’d never actually seen it.

There are little road signs with arrows warning you that you will have to turn ahead, and big painted road-surface arrows that concur. The Department of Redundancy Department gets in on the act, too. A RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT sign is followed by another RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT sign about 10 feet beyond. The city means it!

Add in the business signs, the sign poles and light poles, and the temporary poster signs that sometimes pop up in the right-of-way like so many dandelions and some days you have a carnival midway.

I am not a sign hater. When I was a kid, my father read out business names and slogans as he drove along. He wasn’t all that talkative otherwise, and it filled the dead air. I would listen and look dreamily from my window seat.

You might come across quirky names like Jughead’s Diner, the Hideaway Lounge, or Shorty’s Big and Tall Shop. A sandwich place in Claremont continues in that tradition with its name: “The Best Subs Known to Mankind.” I can’t pass without reading it aloud.

Potential sign excess is usually about numbers, but it can be about size. I agree with occasional Valley News letter writer Dick Mackay of Hanover that the overhead signage (and impressive infrastructure) on Maple Street in White River Junction is out of scale, not quite like Godzilla in Tokyo, but heading in that direction. The green interstate-sized signs also seem to promise more than they can deliver. They could be leading you someplace epic, like Paris or Rome. Instead you take a right toward Wilder. Not that there is anything wrong with Wilder — in fact I am fond of the village — but you wouldn’t say all roads lead to it.

Of late, even humble road signs are turning to gaudier colors. Fluorescent lime and radioactive yellow are trending. The first time I saw a sign like that on Main Street in Norwich I thought, that’s not from the Vermont palette.

I sympathize with villagers there who are unhappy with the decision to put up flashing lights for a crosswalk on a stretch of road in front of green lawns and white picket fences. One such device, on Route 10 in West Lebanon near the Hanover line, flashes like a danger beacon when a pedestrian activates it.

The rationale for these excitable signs is that it takes more and more to catch the attention of distracted drivers. Recently, in Thetford, a driver allegedly sideswiped a police car. Police say he was looking up an episode of Saved by the Bell on his smartphone. Enough said.

One last quibble: In my walks around West Lebanon I see signs that are past their expiration date. There’s a Caution Deaf Child sign in my neighborhood; the child in question has been an adult for some years. I wonder if it’s also true of other Caution Children signs I see here and there. Maybe those kids are grown and working in cubicles, safe and far removed from traffic.

There are cracked, faded Drug-Free School Zone signs on North Main and Maple streets that promote the Federal Drug Activity Hotline, 1-800-NAB-DOPE. The phone number makes me think Sgt. Friday from Dragnet might answer.

“You say there’s dope, sir?”

“Yes, sergeant, in a school zone.”

“Is that a drug-free school zone?”

“Yes, sergeant.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll nab it.”

My point, in the end, is that we should be mindful of the signs we have, the ones we add and the ones we can eliminate. In a perfect world, people with design skills and a sense of aesthetics (marketers, graphic designers and artists, perhaps) would take a look and advise public works professionals. Can we make our world safer without making it ugly?

I just saw a story online saying that clutter, at home and at work, stresses people and adds to their anxieties. I don’t know if road clutter has the same effect, but it might get on our nerves.

Well, mine anyway.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.