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The Driving Dutchman

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A change in license plate design seems like a small thing. But it can be loaded with meaning.

It's been nearly a decade since we've had a redesign here in New York State, and the new plates are very welcome to these overworked eyes. Replacing the nearly colorless tags that got clamped to our cars starting in 2001 are new blue-on-orange "Empire Gold" plates which duplicate the color pattern of the plates in use from 1973-1986.

You know how the music that forms the soundtrack to your adolescence retains an appeal for your whole life? The same is true for the license plates that decorated the cars you learned to drive on. (The cars too, of course—I never had a Camaro or an RX-7 but those are still the cool cars to me.) Before '73 we had the same colors in reverse, so orange and blue were the colors I grew up with from the very beginning, the colors that said "New York" much more than the tiny NYC skyline and Niagara that graced the newly retired plates.

But these colors are about much more than the formative years of your humble correspondent. Orange means New York because Orange means Dutch. The original Dutch flag featured orange and blue in honor of William of Orange; New York was founded by the Dutch and retains the Dutch traditions of commerce and tolerance all these centuries later. Orange still means Dutch: World Cup watchers will have noticed the bright orange outfits sported by the Holland team. And even New York sports fans who scoff at soccer can't help but have observed the team colors of the Mets and the Knicks—blue and orange.

Russell Shorto makes a good case in The Island at the Center of the World that the characteristics of 17th century New Amsterdam continue to define New York City to this day. I like to think it's true. And I like the new plates, which bring us back to the 1960s and '70s of my youth—and to the 1630s and '40s of New York City's. So, long live "Empire Gold," and R.I.P. blue-on-white.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.