When Fiorello La Guardia received a complaint about legibility in the form of a poem, he responded in kind.

Gelett Burgess was an American poet who, when not writing nonsense nuggets like “The Purple Cow” and “The Goops,” obsessed about the design of 1940s-era New York street signs. His concern was certain numbers (damnable sixes and nines!) blended together when viewed at a distance, addling travelers and causing them to get off at the wrong bus stop.

Rather than sit silent on this typographic indignity, Burgess went to his typewriter and crafted a poem relating how the signs “smell to heaven.” This missive he sent to Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who—amazingly—took the time to reply with his own rhymes. (Well, one likes to think it was the mayor, and not the staff bard.) The result: a charming, unexpected democratic dialog, and a promise to update the signs as soon as World War II ended.

The folks at the New-York Historical Society recently highlighted the poems on Tumblr. Here are both:

July 27, 1943

DEAR MR. MAYOR

WHY IS IT he who paints the signs
On New York’s numbered streets combines
Such Threes and Sixes, Eights and Nines?

For, at a distance, when it’s late,
It’s hard to differentiate
Between a Six, Nine, Three and Eight.

They look so much alike they mix
Us up: we feel like lunatics
Who cannot tell a Nine from Six.

And in a bus, how often we
Get off when Eighty-Nine we see,
Thinking we’ve got to Ninety-Three.

These figures, made of loops confusing,
Our patience long have been abusing;
Such signs are not a bit amusing.

Oh, Mr. Mayor, as plain as Eleven
Are figures One, Two, Four, Five, Seven,
But Three, Six, Eight, Nine, smell to heaven!

Why shouldn’t 69th Street greet
Our eyes with figures, plain, discrete
As those on Forty-Second Street?

The citizen, the rube, the child,
Alike are puzzled, duped and riled
By numbers similarly styled.

Our business men have long been trying
Digits that are less mystifying
And find them very satisfying.

For typewriters, you know, all make
Sixes and Nines you can’t mistake,
And Threes less like a curving snake.

Oh, Mr. Mayor, be kind! Be wise!
Our street signs please do modernize
With numbers we can recognize!

(signed) Gelett Burgess

And the mayor’s response:

August 9, 1943

Dear Mr. Burges [sic]:

"We feel like lunatics," you say!
When through my mail my way I fight
I share your feeling, day by day
And night!

But sometimes, through the eyes hard glaze
A pleasure comes, a real delight,
When query comes, like yours, in phrase
Polite.

Your point’s well taken and quite clear,
Each item covered and well said.
But jurisdiction here will rear
Its head.

Five borough presidents aligned
In solemn, stately council meet
And speak, in wisdom thus combined,
re street.

Best not, piecemeal, change signs of tin,
The artist climbing high, alas,
And barking every single shin
He has.

A whole new set is what we want,
And meantime, praying on our knees
Our genial government to grant
Priorities.

“A post-war project!” we will cry
And when a fleet of signs appears
The City will look younger by
Eleven years.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.

  2. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  3. A photo of an encampment of homeless people outside Minneapolis,
    Equity

    Why Minneapolis Just Made Zoning History

    The ambitious Minneapolis 2040 plan will encourage more dense housing development in single-family neighborhoods.

  4. A screenshot of Cambridge University’s map of murders in medieval London.
    Maps

    Mapping the Gruesome Murders of Medieval London

    Using coroners’ records from the 1300s, Cambridge researchers reveal what violence looked like in a dangerous city with little law enforcement.

  5. The opulent anteroom to a ladies' restroom at the Ohio Theatre, a 1928 movie palace in Columbus, Ohio.
    Design

    The Glamorous, Sexist History of the Women’s Restroom Lounge

    Separate areas with sofas, vanities, and even writing tables used to put the “rest” in women’s restrooms. Why were these spaces built, and why did they vanish?