This Photographer Is Documenting Fading Glimpses of New York’s Past
New York City is constantly changing. Businesses come and go; buildings are bought and razed; long-time residents are pushed out by gentrification’s rising rents. Living here, the idea of the past can seem inaccessible—as if it would be an impossible task to discover what inhabited the metropolis before glass skyscrapers and JPMorgan Chase banks.
But if you pause on any given sidewalk and look up, you might find clues to the city’s former incarnations hidden on the sides of buildings: the faded signs that advertised hats, hotel rooms, church dresses, and department stores. Their brightly painted outlines used to shout to New York pedestrians; now, they’re the haunting reminders of a bygone commercial era.
Photographer Ben Passikoff has made it his mission to track these signs. His recently published book The Writing on the Wall: Rediscovering New York City’s “Ghost Signs” contains over 100 examples of the city’s disappearing advertisements, along with historical context about the companies that commissioned them. Passikoff began photographing the signs in the mid-2000s while he was in high school, and even after taking thousands of images of hundreds of signs, he still stumbles across new ones.
The advertisements tell a story of New York’s economic history, including the pitched 20th-century wars between rival department stores. Passikoff’s book includes an image of a green sign that simply reads “Gimbels,” a department store that opened in New York in 1910 to compete with Macy’s. As Writing on the Wall notes, the rivalry was so heated and riddled with hatred it gave birth to a new phrase, “Would Macy’s tell Gimbels?” Neither brand ended up faring well in the end: Today, Macy’s is on the brink of bankruptcy and Gimbels is more or less unknown to those who grew up with Amazon.
Most of the signs—nearly half, according to Passikoff’s informal tally—advertised garments like furs and dresses. They almost constitute a primitive form of today’s digitally targeted advertising, which serves specific commercial content based on an individual’s browsing history. One advertisement for “Lombardy Dresses” sits adjacent to a church, the company no doubt confident that those donning their Sunday best for prayer would be prime targets for a new dress. (Most of the textiles were manufactured in the factories of New York’s Garment District, a local manufacturing base which is today a ghost of its former self.)
Social and political history is also entwined with these advertisements, particularly those hawking hotels. A sign for the Hotel Irvin champions its affordable rates. Passikoff’s text gives more details: The hotel was meant for lower-income “self-supporting girls and women,” according to a 1916 issue of the New York Times, eventually turning into apartments for businesswomen before going co-ed in 1940 (the building featuring the sign was demolished).
The majority of the advertisements are simple—the company names plus their slogans and maybe enticing prices. But some are colorful and intricate. One for a mysterious theater (since demolished) is an Art Deco marvel showing a nude woman flanked by two figures clutching stage masks in their arms.
Sometimes the city’s evolution moves so quickly that it’s hard to tell how old a given sign is. Passikoff captured a massive wall-advertisement for Delta airlines which shows a great tableau of New York City; it reminded him, he said, of the famous New Yorker cover, Saul Steinberg’s View of the World from 9th Avenue. The sign has been painted over since he photographed it, Passikoff said. But the advertisement was, at best, a vestige of the recent past. The giveaway? A link to Delta’s website in the lower righthand corner.
With historical records of pre-digital companies usually sparse, Passikoff has relied on clues in the signs themselves in order to date them. If, for example, a sign includes a letter exchange in the telephone, it is pre-1965. Anything with a 718 area code is from some time after 1985, when that three-digit prefix was introduced. Geographical markers can offer additional clues. One ad Passikoff spotted includes giant letters proclaiming “Fourth Ave Bldg.” As he pointed out, parts of Fourth Avenue were renamed Park Avenue South in 1959, so the lettering likely predated the switch.
Despite the historical importance of the signs, they are not considered worthy of preservation by local authorities. While some buildings bearing advertisements might be designated landmarks, this doesn’t ensure the signs themselves will be preserved. And there certainly isn’t anything mandating that a sign should be photographed before a building bearing it is torn town.
“That has always shocked me,” Passikoff said. “One day, all these buildings could be gone and no one would care.”
It’s a sad possibility. But for now, study the signs and you find they echo through history in strange ways. Passikoff chronicles the saga of the Corn Exchange Bank, a company advertised in a yellow and green sign most people have probably never seen. Founded in 1852, the bank expanded and changed its name a few times. In 1954, the bank dropped “corn” following a merger with the New York Trust Company. More mergers followed. Today, what was once “The Corn Exchange Bank” is part of a company no New Yorker strolling the streets could possibly miss: JPMorgan Chase.