Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Joey Sanchez thinks the city’s heritage lives well below eye level.
Joey Sanchez first noticed the blue and white tiles in early 2015, while biking in downtown Houston with his wife. “We’re going through midtown and there are one, two, over twenty street signs on our path,” Sanchez says. “We started to catalogue them.”
Sanchez did some research: it turned out the curb-level tile street signs dated back to the 1920s and ‘30s. But in the intervening ninety-some years, many had fallen into disrepair, their blues and whites dirty and cracked. How many of the street signs still remained? Sanchez wondered. And how many could be saved?
Thus began the Blue Tile Project, now a year-old effort to find every blue and white tile street sign in Houston. Sanchez plans to catalogue them, preserve them, and maybe eventually, make them synonymous with the Bayou City. Chicago has its red-star-white-bar flag, and D.C. its red-star-red-bar one; Sanchez hopes that Houstonians will wear tiles on their baseball caps, their t-shirts, and their skin.
“It’s the details of the city that make it so great,” Sanchez says. “It’s the unseen parts of the city that you have to look twice to find.”
In 2015, Sanchez set up his website, getting out the word on his very part-time “passion project” via social media and local news reports. (Sanchez’s day job is with the city’s chamber of commerce.) He asked Houston residents to photograph and email, tweet, Instagram, or Facebook images of the #BlueTileProject found while walking, biking, or driving. Last fall, he and a volunteer developer friend launched the Blue Tile Project app, which automatically geotags user-uploaded images. Thus far, the project has found 509 tile signs:
Today, the signs are in varying states of disrepair, which is why Sanchez is working with local preservation groups and the city of Houston on restoration strategies. Eventually, he says, the app will be integrated with a “crowdfunding mechanism,” so that everyone who identifies a tile sign will get an estimate on how much its restoration will cost, and will have an opportunity to donate money to see it through.
Houston is changing. “Houston, for decades a contender in America’s Ugliest City Sweepstakes, has become fanatically green,” the Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz wrote in an October 2015 piece on the city’s recent major investment in parks. The city is even considering the Sun Belt unthinkable: shutting down its urban interstate to build a High Line-style, “recreation-oriented” elevated park.
Sanchez thinks this slow, steady transformation toward “getting out more” is an exciting thing, and appreciating street signs is part of that project. “I think that if people are more vigilant of their day-to-day, and—you know the saying—they take a little time to smell the roses, [the tiles] make people who are trying to get from A to B to slow down and appreciate how beautiful a street sign can be,” he says.
But the tiles are also part of Houston’s history, which is, like it or not, full of gas, cars, and wide roads. “The city is really forward-thinking, [so] we don’t preserve our landmarks very well,” Sanchez says. “[But historically,] we have a really heavy car culture, with all the streets and the traffic. These tiles started when the streets were first getting paved. These streets are what makes Houston great.”