Now I know why they call Main Street a drag
– Jeremy Gluck, Sorrow Drive
CIVILISATIONS ARE JUDGED by what they leave behind. Sometime around the beginning of the automobile age – that period in the post-war years when car ownership became not merely affordable but essential – it was determined that there existed a proportional relationship between the speed of travel and the size a sign needed to be in order to convey its information to the traveller. Simply put, as roads grew wider and faster, the signs grew larger.
In the cities of the American Southwest, where the processes of urban development were tied explicitly to the rise of the automobile, the signs became something of an art form, using majestic concoctions of lightbulbs and neon, arrows and swooshes to vie for the attention of the driver. Ernst Haas' photograph of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, which appeared in Life Magazine in 1969, captured the precise moment when the culture of signage reached its apogee.
But no golden age lasts forever. The intervening half-century has witnessed oil crises, economic recessions, beautification ordinances, a rise in global corporate branding, and subtle but measurable changes in the very patterns of urban life. Local restaurants have been replaced by chains on the highway strip; city-centre motels have been forced out of business by clean anonymous structures with easy access to the interstate. Countless outdated buildings have been removed to attract future investors, leaving unsightly tracts of empty space. But some of the signs have survived.
The images that follow feature signs divorced from the buildings they once accompanied; they are part of a larger collection taken from journeys along the main streets of New Mexico over the past decade. In some cases the building has been shuttered for years; in others, the sign stands alone on a vacant lot where something else, a motel or a restaurant, once stood. The cities and towns of the American Southwest have changed immeasurably and are, in many ways, unrecognisable from what they once were … but the signs remain as a monument to the now-distant civilisation that built them.
Phantom Architecture is a series focusing on vanished and vanishing buildings, both in Berlin and further afield.
Jesse Simon is a writer, editor, cartographer and opera critic based in Berlin. In addition to writing about urbanism and classical music, he is currently co-editing a book on typography in Berlin (follow @Berlin_Type on Twitter for updates).
All photographs by the author unless otherwise noted.