As a New York City resident and urban explorer, I’m always interested in projects that document the city’s history, especially its unexpected, distinctive, or hidden features. The Writing on the Wall: Rediscovering New York City’s “Ghost Signs” is Ben Passikoff’s 2006 book of photos of the business ads painted on the sides of Manhattan buildings over the past century – messages from the past that linger long after most of the companies and even some of the industries have vanished.
Skyhorse Publishing’s new updated edition includes some new photos by Passikoff showing the deterioration of some of the signs he documented 11 years ago. There’s also some new information in the accompanying commentary, bringing up to date some of his capsule histories of various Big Apple industries.
The big, crisp photos evoke times past, advertising everything from theaters to hosiery, meat markets to hotels, stables to department stores. Anyone who walks the streets of Manhattan – and that’s everyone who lives or works here, since this is a walking city – has glanced up and seen ghost signs, though most people most of the time pay them no attention. Passikoff made a determined effort to catalogue as many as he could throughout the borough. The resulting book is both a pleasure to flip through and a valuable historical document.
It’s a shame that in preparing this handsome new edition Skyhorse didn’t assign an editor to clean up the prose. Passikoff undertook his project when he was just a high school student, and samples of amateurish and imprecise writing persist (“…an increasing number of ready-made clothing,” “It ranks as one of the oldest and continuously operating industries in the city.”)
There’s also a structural flaw: The photos lack captions, and though many are self-explanatory, in others the signs are hard to read and one’s eyes flit from photo to text and back to photo trying to see if the two are related – which sometimes they are, other times not. Captions would have solved that problem.
Those caveats aside, the photos themselves are the crux of the book, and they will not disappoint NYC enthusiasts. As James Trager writes in the Foreword, they “are friendly ghosts, these graphic apparitions, and Mr. Passikoff has rendered a service by giving them new life.” That’s especially so since amid the continuous onslaught of development and re-creation, some of the signs he documented in 2006 are already gone, with more disappearing all the time.
The Writing on the Wall: Rediscovering New York City’s “Ghost Signs” is available in stores and online, for a price that’s very reasonable given the high quality of the photo printing.