Signs are always portentous, but in Philadelphia, they’re contentious, too. Neighborhood activists launch vigilante campaigns against bandit-sign advertisers, sending robocalls to their phones and tearing their placards down at night. Local outlets team up to analyze data proving that the billboard industry is rife with corruption and violates zoning regulations. Anti-blight groups fight a war of words with Council over a bill allowing advertising on city property. Even a comparatively small exhibit sign outside the Franklin Institute brings protests at zoning meetings.
Yet the city’s newest, largest, brightest sign—visible from the Schuylkill Expressway or a train coming into 30th Street Station—hasn’t caused a peep. Is it municipal sign fatigue? Or simply the satisfaction of seeing a long-overshadowed institution finally come into its own?
The sign in question is atop the University Crossings building at 32nd and JFK Boulevard. It says “Drexel” on one line and “University” on the other. The word “Drexel” is 60 feet wide; the “L” is 16 feet tall. The sign is the first of a pair, says university spokeswoman Lori Doyle; the second will be on the building’s north side, so it’s visible to people coming in from the western suburbs.
“It’s a fun way to create brand awareness … and [it] generates pride,” Doyle says, adding that when she first heard about the idea, “I loved it!” Perhaps her enthusiasm and lightness of spirit is attributable to the fact that the big, bright letters signify a rite of passage for Drexel, which is moving at warp speed to acquire land in West Philly and forge an enduring identity that isn’t in reaction to That Other School—and is wholly independent of it. From the institution’s point of view, the signs are … symbolic.
And the naysayers are lying remarkably low. In a city full of underdogs who root for Rocky Balboa, two Drexel skyline signs could look like a pair of raised fists, if you squint. A master plan is great; neighborhood innovation is terrific. But there’s something about seeing a name in lights—an All About Eve-style culmination that says, “You’ve arrived.” Welcome to the skyline.