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Gordon: Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

By Jesse Gordon
Wednesday, July 9, 2003

I recently directed a friend visiting from out of town to go to Harvard Square as a tourist destination. Alas, he reported at the end of the day, he could not locate Harvard Square. We consulted a map and I confirmed that he had indeed visited the right place. "But that can't be right," he said, "because the sign there said 'Cardullo Square.'"

Go take a look. On the corner of Mass. Ave and JFK Street, in the middle of Harvard Square, a sign boldly declares: "Frank Cardullo Square." If you look harder, you'll discover no official city sign at all declaring your presence in Harvard Square, unless you count the T entrance sign or the one over the door of Out-of-Town News.

No signs indicate how one might proceed to Harvard Yard, one of the most popular tourist destination in Cambridge. Nor do any signs indicate the direction that one might proceed to the Charles River, Porter Square, Central Square, the Law School or any other likely destinations. How come?

Perhaps you read the front-page article in the Chronicle, with a headline declaring "Trolley Square Ghetto." Perhaps you gleaned from that article that Trolley Square describes an intersection in North Cambridge. It's at the corner of Cameron Street and Mass. Ave., but guess what? There's no sign saying "Trolley Square."

However, on that same stretch of Mass. Ave. between Porter Square (again, no sign except the T entrance) and the Arlington border, the city has erected no fewer than 16 signs proclaiming "Squares" on 16 different corners. Trolley Square sits between Kevin A. Griffin Square and John S. Oley Square, and just across Mass. Ave. from John "The Cobbler" Gimigliano Square. Have you heard of Vincent P. Galvin Square? Could you give directions to Jamesia F. Dottin Square? Would you say to a friend, "Meet me at Judge Jeremiah Sullivan Square?" They're all there, along north Mass. Ave., along with Chief Leo Davenport Square, Barbara and Martin Conroy Square, PFC Lawrence E. Trant Square and half a dozen others.

But no sign in Trolley Square. And no sign in Harvard Square.

The 16 squares on north Mass. Ave. are "honorary corners," named after prominent citizens who resided or worked near the intersection. The city erects a dozen or so new ones every year.

I have nothing against honoring prominent citizens, but signage in Cambridge should focus first on what signs are supposed to do - inform people where they are and direct people to where they might want to go. Cambridge's signage fails at those tasks.

The city isn't the only guilty party in Cambridge. Take a look at the bus signage along that same stretch of Mass. Ave. Each bus stop includes a sign that states only the bus number and the destination: 77 Arlington Heights, 77A North Cambridge, and 83 Central Square, for example. They omit the route information, so first-time riders have no way of knowing if they can get off at Harvard Square on the 83's way to Central Square. Where in North Cambridge does the 77A terminate? No indication. (Guess what? It terminates at Trolley Square. Obviously the T doesn't want to use that name, since there are no signs there.)

There's a pattern in the poor signage that makes Cambridge unwelcoming to outsiders. People who live here eventually figure out the bus routes and names of the squares. But newcomers and tourists have a lot of trouble getting around. Is that the image we want to project?

What if, instead of posting 16 signs honoring North Cambridge's citizens, the city instead posted 16 signs pointing out routes and popular Square names? For example, the Cardullo Square sign might be replaced by a sign declaring "Welcome to Harvard Square: Porter Square 1 mile north; Inman Square 1 mile east; Central Square 1 mile southeast; Charles River 1/4 mile south." Sixteen such signs around the city would make Cambridge a much easier place for newcomers to navigate.

What if every T exit had a map, like in Boston, indicating the streets and destinations around the T stop? What if the T bus stops all had small maps of the bus? Heck, tourists might ride the buses instead of the Red Line, and more of them might come to other parts of Cambridge because it's easier to get around. What if the Minuteman bicycle path had some signs indicating how to bicycle to the Charles Ricer bike path? As it turns out, those two bike paths are the two most heavily used commuter bikeways in Massachusetts.

The city calls the installation of signs "wayfinding." Evidently the city needs some help at it. These are not expensive suggestions, but they require political will. That sort of incentive can only be created by people asking for it. We need to start asking, or Cambridge will go on making outsiders feel unwelcome.

(Jesse Gordon is co-founding the organization People for a Livable Cambridge to deal with issues such as signage. The founding meeting of People for a Livable Cambridge will be held at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 27, at 175 Harvey St. For details, call 617-320-6989.)

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