Delivering the message

Of which urban pleasure shall I partake today?

Branding and signage are essential aspects of any successful urban environment. The above painting by Jean Beraud, 1882 shows one of the famous Paris kiosks which not only provided advertising space in a newly urbane and consumer society, but provided a strong Parisian brand: when you see this kiosk, you think “Paris street.” Birmingham has not done a good job branding itself–a pity since there are talented graphic designers here, and places worth branding. Reflecting the fact that the city as a whole has struggled with how to project its own image, we are often disappointed by the lack of good, local public-sphere branding around here.  This past couple weeks have brought a few examples to the fore.


First, a couple items that were denied at Design Review Committee last week. The above is a proposed 15 x 20 foot banner (that’s big) to be located on the alley elevation of John’s City Diner on Richard Arrington Blvd. North, advertising the services of City Action Partnership, or CAP. This great organization provides supplemental security and motorist assistance to downtowners–and has certainly been instrumental in making the downtown core one of the safest neighborhoods in the metro. Advantage Marketing presented this design to advertise CAP–but it was sent back to the drawing board for being too incoherent for the average person to understand. The image is confusing; the “Big Wheels” seems to be advertising something else altogether; the font sizes aren’t balanced, etc. CAP does too great a public service; it deserves better design to communicate their mission. And the public deserves something much better to look at.

Begging for identity

Next up in the denial section was the above–a proposed new illuminated sign at the corner pier of Two North Twentieth, the former Bank for Savings Building at the corner of Morris Avenue and 20th St. North. This iconic building from 1962 is the City’s most prominent example of International Style architecture, following in the footsteps of the groundbreaking Lever House on Park Avenue in New York (1952), and a decade of countless copies across the nation (and world). It has never had any signage identifying the building  near ground level (many know it from it’s giant, illuminated advertising marquee on the roof). Not only is the proposed signage uninspired, but it doesn’t even match the building’s logo (itself a tepid, uninspired moniker): “20th” is not spelled out like “Twentieth” which is the actual name. The committee sent this one back to the drawing board too. I hope that a cool, illuminated, and creative solution that works with the rhythm of the concrete panels on the second floor can be devised. This building and this corner need good signage, not haphazard non-design.

Huh? Again

A different kind of mismatch is found at the approach to Railroad Park, where recently banners announcing the Five Points South neighborhood went up. Yes, the Five Points neighborhood stretches all the way north to the railroad tracks. But as a tourist destination and mental construct, Five Points is the area directly around Five Points Circle. It is confusing to say the least, to see these banners when one leaves the new Railroad Park–whose immediate neighborhood has already been envisioned as a distinct entity for redevelopment and marketing purposes (tentatively called Parkside). Showing these banners a dozen blocks away from Five Points Circle is not the right way to go. We should be developing a final name and logo for Parkside (contest, anyone?) and putting those banners up. They can even say in smaller print “part of the greater Five Points Neighborhood” if necessary. Of all areas, this location needs more focused branding, not territorial marking. The money for Five Points banners should be spent on kiosks or other needed items near the Circle itself.

[Sidebar: right across the railroad tracks the Fountain Heights neighborhood extends all the way from the bungalows north of downtown south to the edge of Railroad Park. But does anyone really consider, besides City committees and attorneys, McWane Center to be part of Fountain Heights? Of course not, it’s in central downtown and desperately needs its own sub-neighborhood brand.]

Please, please, I'm desperate for proper branding

Which brings us to our last comment: just like the new neighborhood around Railroad Park that deserves its own brand, other parts of central downtown are long overdue for the same. Other cities large and small–from Portland to Austin to little ol’ Mobile–have branded neighborhoods downtown to great effect: banners and publications use the logos, people say “I’m headed down to —” or “great new lofts are opening in —“. Here all we get is a vague “downtown” or “loft district”–fairly indistinct terms. Just look at what passes for branding in the so-called “loft district” above–signs put up perhaps in the early 1990’s which, in a classic branding nightmare, state “Historic District” with the words “Arts” “Business” and Lofts” interchangeably used on different faces. Which Historic District? Business??? Really? These terms are meaningless. The 2nd Avenue sub-district needs boundaries, a logo, and a name. Downtown should be sectioned off so that lofts east and north of Morris are in NoMo; those west of 20th are in West Central, etc. I am just making up these names–branding experts do this sort of thing much better and all the time. We need to make it happen soon.

Whether neighborhood or building signage, this City needs to demand better branding. It’s one of those things that you take for granted until you see how much sharper it can be in travels to different cities. We have the local talent. There are great examples around of their work. We just need much more. Employ them!

Stay tuned for a post on some of the great public-sphere signage that we do have around here.

[thanks to mbell1975 for the Paris kiosk pic]

29 responses to “Delivering the message

  1. Great points. Great perspective. As always, great post.

  2. Well said. So much unrealized potential, but they truly have to put these things in the right hands if we’re going to realize it.

  3. Once again, someone likes to post before they get all of their facts. I have told the writer of this blog that I would love to sit down with him at anytime to share projects and plans for the Five Points South neighborhood. I just think it is interesting for someone who lives in another neighborhood to continue to blog about Five Points South.

    From your post,”Showing these banners a dozen blocks away from Five Points Circle is not the right way to go.”

    Banners will not be a dozen blocks away from the fountain area. Banners are currently being placed in the following locations from Vulcan Park to the Five Points Fountain to Railroad Park. Here is the list of locations;

    Corner of 1st Ave South & 14th St. S – 2
    Corner of 1st Ave South & 18th St. S – 2
    Powell Ave & 20th St S – 2
    2nd Ave S & 2oth St S – 4
    4th Ave S & 20th St S – 2
    6th Ave S & 20th St S – 2
    Univ Blvd & 20th St S – 4
    Univ Blvd & 18th St S – 2
    Univ Blvd & 22nd St S – 1
    Highland Ave & 22St S – 3
    Highland Ave & 21st Way S – 1
    20th St S & 14th Ave S – 2
    10th Ave S & 12th St S – 2
    17th Ave S & 13th St S – 2
    11th Ave S & 15th Ave S – 2
    Vulcan Park – 1

    Total Banners 34

    Once again, if you would like to meet to talk about Five Points South. Please let me know.

    • James–thanks for your comments. I write this blog as a citizen of Birmingham concerned with the urban environment and how our city can be improved. I focus on the City Center, but also occasionally on aspects of the suburban environment within the metro. It is an opinion blog, not a newspaper; I expect people to disagree with these opinions and argue with their own comments.

      I always enjoy talking with you, and would encourage you to post alternative views, or additional information that could better inform our readers. Thanks again!

    • James, even if the sign is at the southeast corner of the RR park, that would be at least 12 blocks from the actual “Five Points”. So, I don’t think that Jeremy is factually incorrect here. A sign posted at 14th St S and 1st Ave S would be an additional 4 blocks away.

      I think it is kinda confusing to have signs for Five Points inside of the medical district as well (since we already have signs that say “medical district”). I know that technically Five Points encompasses all of this area, but it is such a huge area with so many diverse purposes, it seems odd to refer to all of it under the same name.

      Perhaps the solution is what Jeremy mentioned – call the RR park area Parkside, the hospital area the Medical District, the automotive area the Automotive District, and then state “Part of the Historic Five Points Neighborhood” under each district name on the official signage.

    • I whipped up a map.

      5 points banners

      • Fantastic graphic–and one which I believe proves my point–the legal extent of a large “Neighborhood” is very different from the perceived smaller “neighborhoods” within. Branding for the legal entity is not what’s needed; branding for the smaller locales is. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. First, thanks for your posts on why things like neighborhood branding and signage are important. Your blog is a great education for people like me who don’t know much about why this stuff is important to a city’s vitality. It’s one of my favorite reads. Second, thanks for pointing out some really misplaced stuff, especially as it relates to the banners at Railroad Park. For the reasons you’ve already given it seems pretty absurd that Five Points South banners are now hung near the park. The park itself is such a wonderful symbol and product of cooperation and thinking big–placing banners around it for a neighborhood only tangentially associated with the park seems petty and small. I hope those banners would eventually be removed and replaced with branding in line with whatever name is given to the new Railroad Park district.

    • Thanks for reading, and for these comments. Excellent summary of why the banners seem out of place. And symptomatic of a greater lack of coherent, cohesive public branding in this City.

  5. The proposed CAP mural should be designed as public graphic art, not as a web ad, and executed by artists and sign painters, not digital vinyl printers.

    The 5 Points campaign is a little more contentious. For them its about combating misperceptions, reinforcing their own brand, and (rightfully) claiming UAB and the RR Park as neighborhood amenities. I’m glad you spoke up about how the result is just greater confusion, but I’m not sure how to foster consensus on the ceding of territory.

    In any case, my main goal is to reclaim “Scratch Ankle” for vernacular geography.

  6. Great post, I agree with the need to brand areas of downtown in an appropriate manner. For instance, I do use the term “Loft District”, but I don’t really know what that means or where it begins an ends.

    Regarding Five Points, I really don’t think that name should try to jump to the north side of UAB (although yes, I know that Five Points existed long before UAB did). Its just not contiguous anymore and that is a big problem for distinguishing two areas.

    For the downtown core, I would say that the following areas qualify as true “districts” that have a specific sense and a general purpose as well:
    -The financial district (centered on 20th and 5th Ave N)
    -Five Points (centered on 20th and 11th Ave S)
    -The medical district (no real center)
    -The loft district (centered on 20th S and 2nd Ave N, spanning from the historic theatres to the expressway)
    -The automotive district (roughly 2nd Ave S to 5th Ave S, from 20th St to 32nd St)
    -The Railroad Park district (from the park south to medical district)

  7. These are interesting observations about districts’ boundaries and centers. Legalistic mapping like that taken on Five Points South does not translate. Dispersed too far it weakens. This merits a good, objective plan driven as much by perceptions as by official boundries. The Loft District refers not just to residential uses but to building types. It would lose meaning if stretched west of 20th. Do we have an Arts District? I rather doubt it, even though BMA and ASFA and BJCC are clustered. So this would take some real analysis and testing.

    • A methodical, holistic approach would absolutely be necessary. Perceptions are just as important (sometimes more so) than legal boundaries, as you state. We have so many legal entities–Arts and Entertainment District being one of them–but they do not line up with perception/building stock/usage necessarily. I’m ready for the serious analysis you suggest this would take, for sure!

      • I’m pretty sure that when the CPP was first designed and implemented they went to a lot of trouble to determine boundaries. The logic of their work may now be kind of an artifact of the time since they didn’t put much stock in historic neighborhoods divisions (splitting Avondale down the center, for example). And of course demographics have changed a bit since then (more residents in the city center, for one thing).

        Nevertheless, if there’s documentation about their methods, it might be useful to have in any discussion of re-districting for community participation. Re-branding for visitor orientation or commercial activity follows a different logic, of course, but some co-ordination is probably helpful in leveraging public support.

      • Good point; the original neighborhood boundaries were drawn for very different reasons than those which today demand banners and marketing. But we need to be aware of the original boundaries, and of course neighborhood residents need to be involved with deciding how the original legal boundaries can be subdivided into branded entities (at least in some cases–I imagine certain original neighborhoods may suit current branding needs, while others–i.e. Five Points or Fountain Heights or Central City–do not). Thanks.

  8. As always Jeremy, some really good comments. It seems to me that we all the general, if un-official, bounds of the neighborhoods in BHM. It also seems that many of these boundries need to be redefined. A “neighborhood” is a few blocks or many blocks that have in common a purpose and a feel that establish their identy. That area around Rail Road Park is in no way “in common” with that area around the Fountain at the Circle.

    • Scott, thanks for reading. Yes, there is nothing in common between the area around the Park and the area around the Circle–beyond a legal, “neighborhood” designation, that’s as meaningful as Fountain Heights extending all the way to the northern boundary of Five Points! We need to better understand the difference between “Neighborhood”, as artificially constructed by the City legal department, and “neighborhood”, as a tight-knit area built around common purposes and uses. The first needs to exist legally, but that’s about it; the second needs proper branding and development focus.

  9. ….we are very fortunate to have your roving eye for observation / reporting / critiquing.

  10. Oi Vey!
    Gosh- this makes me think of (insert name of Middle Eastern country here)’s multiple regions being arbitrarily clumped together by the old European powers, during their nation building games of the late 19th Century. I’m much more in favor of discreet regions, whether they be municipalities or principalities.

    What a GREAT discussion, and such thoughtful comments from everybody.

    I saw those 5PS banners at Railroad Park yesterday, and had to let out a low moan. I agree with Tyler this is petty and small. Jeremy, how is this done in New York? Does Greenwich Village claim most of Lower Manhattan, or is it content to be a tight, cozy node of the larger urban network? I also think Scott is Spot On in his assessment of the situation. Of course, as far as I’m concerned, ANYTHING Philip says should be carved in stone. So I’m a groupie. Sue me! LOL

    As a final comment to you Jeremy, you DO realize I’ll continue to respond to and ponder this blog well after I’ve left this place. I drank the rust-laden kool-aid here decades ago and will probably never ever get enough of it’s bitter effervescence, but still need to experience other parts of America before coming back to fight the good fight. ;~D

    • Haha, yes the late-19th century European imperialist carvings that left arbitrary, modern borders is a good metaphor!

      As to New York, it’s perhaps not a great comparison due to the vast change in density and just about everything else. But, we can still learn something: if you lived on the lower East Side in 1930, you pretty much lived on the lower East Side. Today, on the same streets, you live in Alphabet City, East Village, Little Italy, Nolita, Chinatown: each with its own “brand” and special character. This, in general, is the concept I’m advocating.

      And thanks for keeping up with the blog despite any future moves away from the ‘ham. We would miss you; just plan to come back and share what you’ve learned in other cities!

  11. Will do! Oh, as for branding the emerging Railroad Park area, how about “Ironside”, or perhaps “Soraro” (SOuth of RAil ROad)? ;~J

    I’m hoping for some authentic names, not rehashes of places in England or NYC. Do we really need more Central Parks, Abbey Roads and SoHos here? Just a thought.

  12. I vote we call it “the railroad park district”, since that’s what it is, and that’s what people call it already.

    Also, James, please stop being so defensive and technical about the boundaries of five points south neighborhood. Just because the railroad park is in the political boundary of the neighborhood doesn’t mean that it’s a part of five points south. Getting in arguments online is no way to make the kind of friends I’m sure you need as a neighborhood president.

  13. I was living in DC at the time Baltimore built it’s (then new) baseball park, which everybody was calling “Camden Yards” because it was built on the site of the old Camden railroad yards. Despite the fact that it already had a name that was well-understood among the general public, there was great discussion about what to name the new ballpark. They eventually settled on “Oriole Park at Camden Yards.” But everyone called it Camden Yards because that’s what it was already called. The point of which, is that sometimes things can be overconsulted and over-professionally-branded. What’s really important is to determine what “everybody” calls the place, and then brand it as whatever it’s already called. I HATE the name “Nolita,” because it sounds like some too-clever marketing consultant came up with it, rather than just the people who live there (although I don’t know the actual source of the name). 5 Points is the name of a real place, and we should reinforce it – but the place is at 20th and 11th Ave S, despite official City boundaries for neighborhood associations. Railroad Park is not in 5 Points, but it IS on the Southside, and it’s also in Midtown (remember that one? it was a marketing/branding effort, but it’s old enough that it sort of seems organic). It’s also within the Railroad Reservation, which was a real place. How about “Railroad District,” which has real historic roots as the name of the place between 1st North and 1st South? And still today makes logical sense as the place along the active railroad tracks. Branding is all well and good, but it needs to reflect how the broader community understands the identities of it’s own sub-areas.

    • Right on. The best branding efforts don’t impose something artificial from above, but take what is already commonly known and positively reinforce it. There are of course some places that never had a distinct or common identity, but through redevelopment (or anticipated development) are in sudden need of that identity–hence the Nolita’s of the world. Sometimes derided initially as crass real estate promotion, these names sometimes become “organic”, well-loved monikers eventually (perhaps DUMBO is a good example in Brooklyn).

      Regardless, something springing from “Railroad Reservation” and perhaps from “Midtown” would be good places to start.

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