A Montreal letterwalk
Montreal boasts a distinct public-lettering culture. In September, I had the good fortune to navigate a handful of the city’s signs and wonders in some very distinguished company.
I measure New York in bygone signs. If, as Colson Whitehead writes, we become New Yorkers the first time we remember what used to be in the place of what is there now, then I suppose I became a New Yorker in the late nineties. One evening, walking home from my daily subway ride, I noticed that the Irish Action Bureau, with its Limerick lace curtains and heartfelt hand-painted sign, no longer appeared in my peripheral vision. I had meant to photograph the sign countless times. And so I learned, the hard way, an important New York lesson: don’t blink. My experience of cities tends to be overdetermined, even haunted. Looking at signs, I can’t not see palimpsests. Beneath a TD Bank storefront, I can still make out Dick’s Hardware; where the latest inscrutable mobile-phone shop is, I remember Frank’s Shoe Repairs. I regret the homogenization of the urban landscape and the proliferation of what I’ve come to think of as JPEG signage—hideous flip-flops from analog to digital and back again. I don’t understand the impulse behind a stretch of University Place where all of the awnings on all of the stores appear to be dressed in Copperplate Gothic, or retail signage surrounding the Empire State Building that blurs together from the application of a single typeface (regardless of how well made that face is). What is arguably the world’s most vertical city flattens into a sprawling, late-capitalist Olive Garden. Sometimes I wonder if I’m in thrall to nostalgia. But no; I really do believe that most signs made today are spectacularly shitty and that New York, particularly Manhattan, is growing incrementally more boring as its vernacular personality fades. So when I found out I would be visiting Montreal for ATypI in September, I was thrilled. I had extremely fond memories of the city, which I hadn’t visited in several years. Eager to explore it again and to see how its public Schrift stacked up to New York’s, I took plenty of snapshots on the walk from my hotel on René Lévesque to the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). When I entered the Sherbrooke Pavilion on the opening morning of the conference, one of the first people I saw was the wild-headed Paul Shaw, who was a generous presence at ATypI this year. I told Paul how sorry I was to have to miss the letterwalk he was giving on Sunday morning, since I was catching an early flight back to New York. He said he was planning to do a test run of the walk and asked me what I was doing the following afternoon. I was pretty sure I was busy but, without missing a beat, I said I didn’t have any plans. He told me to meet him the next day. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. We took the Metro from UQÀM to the Guy-Concordia stop, emerged blinking into the bright Montreal sun, and started walking. What follows is a sliver of what we saw. So am I considering emigrating to Montreal? Yes. But I also returned to New York galvanized and excited to look at its letters anew. And I recognize how fortunate I am to live here—larger cities like San Francisco and New York offer guided tours on a fairly regular basis. If you have a chance to be anywhere near a letterwalk with a Paul Shaw or a Sasha Tochilovsky, don’t hesitate to go. Or explore your environment with someone from elsewhere; wandering in New York with a Swiss friend has awakened me to aspects of the American vernacular that I always simply took for granted. You may have to peer a bit harder to find interesting public lettering these days, but there is still lots to discover, wherever you are. Look down. Look up. Every walk is a letterwalk. Caren Litherland lives and works in New York, where she looks down and then up.