Looking for work, Patricia Everly arrived in Philadelphia in 1978, and found the city's dense web of roads and neighborhoods confusing to navigate. She had moved from Williamsport, a city of about 30,000 people in upstate Pennsylvania.
"Street signs were really crucial for me to try to learn how to keep my bearings in Philadelphia," she said.
But Everly, who lives in the Northeast, has noticed that some street signs across the city have become faded — or are missing. She said her 21-year-old son tells her to just use GPS. Easy for him to say.
"People who are a little bit older, a lot of us don't use GPS on a regular basis," said Everly, a 60-year-old nurse. And what about people who don't have GPS or smart phones? Even GPS users need verification. And in neighborhoods, those signs can be important for pride and identity.
Through the portal Curious Philly, which asks readers what they'd like to know about the city and region, Everly asked the Inquirer and Daily News how the Streets Department goes about replacing, correcting, and updating street-name signs.
The short answer: It's a mammoth project.
Philadelphia has about 24,000 intersections, and more than 100,000 street-name signs. Most signs are handmade at a Streets Department workshop at G Street and Ramona Avenue in Juniata Park. Counting materials, labor, and other expenses, each costs about $470 to produce.
The making of nearly every street sign in the city — with the exception of some PennDot highway and Philadelphia Parking Authority signs — is the responsibility of three people: sign fabricators Antoinette Simmons, a 33-year veteran, and Marquita Alleyne; and sign shop supervisor Shane Carmichael. A fourth team member retired last month.
"It's a daunting task, to say the least," Carmichael said. "I don't know how we do it, to be honest with you."
Surrounded by stacks of signs, the workers tear letters, numbers, and symbols out of stenciled vinyl sheeting, peel the vinyl apart like Fruit Roll-Ups, and press the material onto pre-cut, reflective metal sheets that become street-name signs.
Municipal street-name signs come in a range of shapes, sizes, and degrees of visibility, from the more muted ones of Lower Merion Township to the bright, green, lighted varieties in some parts of Upper Merion Township.
Some of that individuality could have ended in January. That's when a federal mandate to increase letter size and "retroreflectivity" — a sign's ability to reflect light back to its source — was to take effect for every town in the country, an initiative of the George W. Bush administration. But municipal officials balked, citing the costs of redesign and replacement.
In 2011, the Obama administration intervened, saying towns and cities could update their signs when they needed replacing.
A few months earlier, the administration had granted an exemption to Lower Merion. With the help of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, township officials had argued in defense of Lower Merion's historic cast-iron street-name signs, dozens of which date as far back as 1915. The names on the signs were still visible, they said, even if they weren't as bright at night as Philadelphia's or those in other towns.
Manufacturers of standard sign materials say signs usually last 10 to 15 years, but some of Philadelphia’s are 20 to 30 years old. It all depends on exposure to sunlight and other elements, said Patrice Nuble, assistant chief traffic engineer in the Streets Department. Every day, she said, the city loses signs — victims of trucks, of kidnappings to basements and chop shops, and of graffiti.
Someone changed "North Hope Street" in North Philadelphia to "North Dope Street." After the Eagles' Super Bowl win, some fans bolted a homemade "Foles St." sign on top of the sign for "Brady St." in Fishtown. They were added to the Juniata Park crew's fix list.
The city usually relies on the public to report damaged, faded, or missing signs and encourages residents to call 311. But with the current backlog, replacing a street-name sign typically takes about six months, officials said. As of Wednesday, 932 street-name signs were on the city's replacement list.
For safety's sake, typically within 10 days of a complaint, the city replaces faulty or missing traffic-control signs — "Do Not Enter," "One Way," "Stop" — particularly the red octagons. "We go through those stop signs like candy," Carmichael said.
Specially requested signs, like when the city renamed a portion of Broad Street "Boyz II Men Boulevard" last year, also jump to the front of the priority line.
The city has 10 investigators in the Streets Department's traffic engineering division, whose duties include responding to street sign replacement requests and keeping an eye out for deficient signs.
"The thing we can't say enough is, we need the citizens to help us out" by identifying problem signs, said Richard Montanez, the department's deputy commissioner of transportation.
Right now, Large Street in Northeast Philadelphia has the highest number of intersections with street-name signs needing replacement.
Several upgrades to the sign-making process are in the works. The city's shop is testing a couple of printers it got in August, and officials are considering spending $200,000 for a machine that would automate most of the process and make easier to create multicolored signs — the most time-consuming to create by hand.
The look of the city’s signs has changed over the years. They once were black on white; now they’re white on green. Philadelphia used to capitalize every letter on street signs, but as those signs deteriorate, the city is replacing them with ones that capitalize only the first letters of words, following a federal recommendation to make signs easier to read.
Meanwhile, in Lower Merion, if officials surveyed residents for their thoughts about the township's signs, the chair of the local historical commission can guess what they'd say.
"I think almost universally people would say they're unique and define the character of Lower Merion," said Christian Busch, a preservation architect. But residents also would say the signs are too small and "they're hard to see at night, and it'd be great to have the bigger signs."
Instead of the reflective materials Philadelphia and other big cities use, Lower Merion uses spherical glass beads poured into the paint for the letters.
The township has decided the signs are worth the extra effort, Busch said, “even if they don’t function 100 percent as well as some newfangled thing.”