John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
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.
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
But sometimes, through the eyes hard glaze
A pleasure comes, a real delight,
When query comes, like yours, in phrase
Your point’s well taken and quite clear,
Each item covered and well said.
But jurisdiction here will rear
Five borough presidents aligned
In solemn, stately council meet
And speak, in wisdom thus combined,
Best not, piecemeal, change signs of tin,
The artist climbing high, alas,
And barking every single shin
A whole new set is what we want,
And meantime, praying on our knees
Our genial government to grant
“A post-war project!” we will cry
And when a fleet of signs appears
The City will look younger by