Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
This isn't the first fight to save a historic piece of advertising, and it won't be the last.
Of course the Kentile Floors sign has its own Twitter account. You wouldn’t expect anything less from a fixture of the Brooklyn skyline invariably described as “iconic,” an emblem of the borough’s industrial past that has been immortalized on T-shirts and postcards.
But iconic doesn’t mean untouchable. And there are strong indications that this icon is soon to be wiped from the face of Brooklyn, never more to be silhouetted against the setting sun, never more to provide fresh fodder for the Tumblr of a weary commuter on the F train, which rumbles past on the elevated subway tracks nearby.
The owner of the building atop which the Kentile sign has loomed for more than 50 years, Ely Cohen, has received a demolition permit for the towering neon structure, and last week scaffolding was erected around the sign. The move, which comes after a failed attempt at landmarking the sign last year, immediately sparked a panic among Kentile aficionados, who have enlisted the help of New York City council member Brad Lander in petitioning to save the sign. So far, the cries of outrage have met with nothing but silence from Cohen, who didn't return a call for this story because, the woman answering the phone at his office said, he is "out of town."
The Kentile sign, erected in the mid-20th century to advertise a flooring business that hasn't been in operation since the early 1990s (and that has its own dark, asbestos-laced backstory) is just one of many beloved signs around the nation that have been embraced as symbols of what is commonly known as "local character." Many have been saved by devoted citizens and shine on, even after the businesses that raised them have closed the facilities they once marked, or bitten the dust altogether.
In the New York metro are alone, you can find the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City, now in front of a waterfront residential development, the Silvercup Bakery sign in Astoria that now tops a movie studio of the same name, and the Colgate clock in Jersey City that still keeps time in the shadow of the Goldman-Sachs tower. In San Jose, California, there's Stephen's Meat Products. In Memphis, the Kellogg's sign. In Boston, the Citgo sign. In Marietta, Georgia, the Big Chicken.
For Stephen Savage, one of the people leading the fight to save the Kentile sign, it's an emblem of a disappearing Brooklyn. The surrounding Gowanus neighborhood may encompass a Superfund site — the Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the country, and it reeks of sewage, petrochemicals, and coal tar. It may be endangered by rising sea levels — this was one of the parts of the city that flooded during Superstorm Sandy. But it is still being targeted by developers who want to build high-end residential units in one of the nation's hottest housing markets.
"We know what is happening to the city," says Savage, an illustrator and 20-year Brooklyn resident who passes the sign every day as he walks from home to work. "Gowanus is not going to look like it does now in 10 years. The taking-down of the sign is the first step in taking this down into a soulless new neighborhood with no connection to its past."
Already, the area has gained a Whole Foods and lost many of its small businesses. Rents for artists' studios and tenement apartments push steadily higher, displacing people who have lived in the area for generations.
Preserving the sign won't change that, Savage acknowledges. But he says he thinks of the people who stood by when the old Penn Station and Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, were demolished, and he doesn't want to fail to take a stand now. "What if I'm here and it comes down and I didn't do anything?" he says. "This is my fight. This is the one thing I can save."
Other defenders of the sign see it as a bridge between the borough's industrial past, which survives only in bits and pieces these days, and its future as the center of a new generation of light-manufacturing entrepreneurs. Charlie O' Donnell of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures wrote this on his blog:
Brooklyn is attracting a generation of entrepreneurs who never saw Brooklyn in its industrial heyday, but feel like the borough is uniquely positioned and a historically fitting place to produce their products and serve creative communities. Makerbot has a factory in Industry City. Maker marketplace Etsy has agreed to take a huge space in the new Dumbo Heights complex. Refactory is trying to create an end to end process from design to manufacturing for hardware on Sackett Street. Distilleries, bakeries, ice cream manufacturers--all across the borough, it seems that someone is making something. Even the old Pfizer headquarters, active as recently as 2008, is now home to the production of everything from microchips to pickles. In the Navy Yard, they're making body armor to product our troops and solar streetlamps to light our streets.
So while it's easy to think that the Kentile sign is a relic of a bygone era, it may actually be the symbol of a bright future for a growing manufacturing base. It is a reminder to those who dare to create that yes, things can get made here--they've been getting made here for a long time and will continue to do so.
It may seem quixotic or pointless to try to save the Kentile sign when so much of New York's social and physical infrastructure is being dismantled. It may seem ridiculous to treasure an advertisement for a product that contained a harmful substance. It may seem presumptuous to try to require a private property owner to preserve a defunct piece of infrastructure for an admittedly ephemeral public good. But lots of people want to try.
"Words have power, letters have power," says Savage. "That's how you claim something. It's something we can share that has public meaning. I'm thinking of it as a monument. It's something that symbolizes all these things. It carries all the weight of the culture. I think it is the de facto logo of Brooklyn."
The question is, as Brooklyn increasingly becomes a highly valued international brand rather than just a place to live and work, will that logo remain anywhere besides the occasional T-shirt?