Two stores sit side-by-side. One with signage overflowing with text: a full list of business services (income tax returns, notary public, a variety of insurance) on the storefront, twenty-two words in all. It provides business services (a lot of them). The other showing a single word—james—in small font in the corner of a drab, brown-colored overhanging sign. It’s a restaurant (obviously). Such a juxtaposition has become increasingly common in gentrifying neighborhoods, revealing more than just commercial offerings.
In their new book, What the Signs Say: Language, Gentrification, and Place-Making in Brooklyn (Vanderbilt University Press, 2020), Shonna Trinch and Edward Snajdr examine the importance of signs and “linguistic landscapes” in shaping urban spaces as well as how we experience them. It argues that the public language of storefronts is a key component to the creation of place in Brooklyn, New York.
Using a sample of more than 2,000 storefronts and over a decade of ethnographic observation and interviews, Trinch and Snajdr chart two types of local Brooklyn retail signage: Old School, which uses many words, large lettering, and repetition to convey inclusiveness, and New School, with hallmarks of brevity, wordplay, and more exclusive meanings.
Through in-depth ethnographic analyses they reveal how gentrification and corporate redevelopment in Brooklyn are connected to public communication, literacy practices, the transformation of motherhood and gender roles, notions of historical preservation, urban planning, and systems of racial privilege.
Richard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).