Years ago, Lorraine Kolibabek, 64, of Northeast Philadelphia, started to notice that some street signs featured something you wouldn’t put on an envelope.
It was on a sign along Knights Road, near the Philadelphia Mills mall — and then she saw it on other streets in Center City: a small image of the Liberty Bell.
“There must be some importance for them, obviously, since they have the Liberty Bell designated on the street sign itself, but I don’t know why," she said. "I can understand Center City. That I can understand, but up in the Northeast, because we’re relatively new compared to Center City Philadelphia, what streets up here would have that designation and why?”
Kolibabek took to Curious Philly, the Inquirer and Daily News' question-and-response forum in which readers submit questions about their communities and our journalists report out the answers, to find the reasoning for the signage. It’s less complicated than one would guess.
The formula is simple, determined by how many letters the name of the street has, said Deputy Commissioner of Transportation Richard Montanez, who has been with the Philadelphia Streets Department since 1996.
“If it’s eight letters or more, we do not use the Liberty Bell," Montanez said. "Anything under eight letters, we do put in the Liberty Bell.”
And if the sign has fewer than eight letters and doesn’t feature the bell, he said, it’s either an old sign or an oversight.
Philadelphians have Gerry Ebbecke, who served as chief traffic engineer from 1992 to 1998, to thank. He wanted to give the signs a bit of flair that were also distinctly Philly, with the idea becoming reality in the mid- to late 1990s, Montanez said.
”Everything Gerry put in place is still in place," Montanez said. " ... We think it gives the city quite an interesting character and it lets people know that you’re in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, we cannot put it in every street-name sign, but we do our best to accommodate those that we can."
Montanez said he remembers talks with Ebbecke in which they floated the possibility of having different symbols for different neighborhoods, but they ultimately settled on the bell. Even then, there were revisions — some bells went without a crack, others were yellow.
“They all should have a crack now," he said. "We standardized on the crack.”
The bell was far from Ebbecke’s only contribution. He was “instrumental” in implementing compass directions on hundreds of blocks as well as special markings — think of the “Boyz II Men Blvd” marker under Broad Street signs between Christian and Carpenter Streets, or the characters under street signs around Chinatown. During Ebbecke’s tenure, Philadelphia also began to install bike lanes.
His planning plays a big part in how Philadelphians continue to navigate the city, Montanez said.
Ebbecke’s former supervisor, Joseph Syrnick, once told the Inquirer that the engineer’s interest in pedestrian safety began “long before it became fashionable.”
“His conference room was a war room with maps and pins,” Syrnick, the Streets Department’s former chief engineer and surveyor, said after Ebbecke’s death.
Ebbecke’s life ended tragically when he and another colleague were shot and killed by a fellow Streets Department employee who opened fire during a supervisors meeting in December 1998.
But even today, as Kolibabek and other observant Philadelphians have noticed, Ebbecke’s legacy lives on.
“The Liberty Bell represents Philadelphia," Montanez said. “And we still intend to keep that honor and honor Gerry’s wishes to keep those.”