With apologies to 52nd Street, Lancaster Avenue, Ridge and Cecil B. Moore, the stretch of Germantown Avenue that runs through North Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood may have the richest trove of signs–vintage and otherwise–in the city. Many of the signs on this commercial strip anchored by Lehigh Avenue were painted by hand, and as they age the brush strokes become more visible. Even some of the newer signs with the ubiquitous red, black and yellow color scheme show the mark of an artist. Beyond their neat handiwork these anonymous artisans often had a keen sense of design that seems to have been all but abandoned by the crude signs of today. Not all modern, machine-printed signs are meritless, though. A few such as the one for Rainbow Shops have a bold simplicity that gives them visual appeal.
Unfortunately, these signs have survived more through neglect than love. Fairhill is one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the city, and many businesses can’t afford new signs. Yet that’s not the only reason they’ve endured–some of the signs are still there because the stores remain open. A surprising number of shops have managed to hang on for four or five decades or more, through the neighborhood’s long slide. Arthur’s Dog House continues to serve hot dogs; there is still place on Germantown Avenue to buy a steak or a suit.
An added bonus is the little bits of idiosyncrasy and humor that sometimes sneak into the signs. Not every dry cleaner has a master plan, but Stan does. As the sign says, “‘STAN’ — THE MAN With the Master Plan.” Maybe he’s a fan of the Kay-Gee’s song “Who is the Man with the Master Plan” that Big Daddy Kane and Dr. Dre later sampled. And who can resist a bad pun? Nearly hidden within the sign for Integrity Meats is: “WE MEAT YOUR NEEDS.” A howler, but it made me laugh. Try finding a slogan like that at SuperFresh or Wal-Mart.