'Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania'

Pittsburgh's signs do more than establish a brand; they communicate stories that reflect our neighborhoods.

Whether we realize it or not, signs (defined here to mean “a notice, bearing a name or advertisement that is displayed for public view”) do more than establish a brand; they communicate stories that reflect our neighborhoods.

Take for example the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. For decades the facade facing all incoming traffic heading south on Liberty Avenue has featured the iconic “Polish Wall of Fame” mural. This artwork, in combination with the “Welcome to Pittsburgh’s Little Italy” sign (posted directly across the street), not only informs travelers that here, at the foot of the Bloomfield Bridge, is the only Polish restaurant in Little Italy, but it also speaks volumes of the diversity that exists within each of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, saying, “Here is a city where different cultures coexist.”

And signs such as this one cover an uncountable number of buildings in the area. You could spend a lifetime trying to capture them all on film, or you could pick up a copy of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania, a book produced by the Pittsburgh Signs Project (with the help of Carnegie Mellon University Press) to commemorate Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary.

Sure, this type of commemorative spirit inspired a lot of the Pittsburgh 250 projects, but what makes this project special is the collaborative manner in which the book’s content was compiled. This is a crowd-sourced project. The editors gave an open invitation to any and all photographers from the 14 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania to submit images online at pittsburghsigns.org. (The website’s archives feature every submission—even the ones that did not make it to print—and allow visitors to search images by neighborhood, subject or style.)

The editors then whittled down the submissions to the 250 images that spoke “about our shared history, about what we [Pittsburghers] love and about what moves us,” the images that “provide clues to where we are, who we are and how we live.”

The text is kept to a minimum—allowing the photos (and the signs contained within) to do all the talking. The book’s 200-plus pages feature some of the region’s most notable and less well-known landmarks (the Heinz ketchup bottle and Twin Hi-Way Drive In, respectively), to name a couple.

The end result is an excellent coffee-table book and an even better conversation piece. You can spend hours searching your mind’s database (or the Web site’s) trying to recall where you’ve seen “that sign” before, or you can organize a group and go on a scavenger hunt. (Note: The GPS coordinates provided in the book’s index are useful.) Or better yet, if inspiration strikes, grab your camera and head out on your own to capture the as-yet-to-be-discovered signs. They are out there—new signs and olds ones—speaking of “our region’s visual identity, architectural heritage, entrepreneurial spirit and legacy of innovation—those things that best demonstrate Pittsburgh’s genius of place.” So, what are you waiting for?

Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania, edited by Jennifer Baron, Greg Langel, Elizabeth Perry and Mark Stroup; Carnegie Mellon University Press; $29.95 (Paperback)

Categories: Arts & Entertainment