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[whitespace] Sign Son of Sign: Accordionist Morgani's model shows that even a sign has feelings.


Sign Challenged

The City of Santa Cruz is thinking of selling the River Street sign on eBay. Locals, who have mostly maligned the sign since it was erected, greeted this latest twist in the saga with muted optimism in an informal poll taken by Nüz on Pacific Avenue.

"Why not? You never can tell what will sell," said Sue Williams, who once sold excess inventory to buyers in Florida via eBay's cyberspace auction. But Williams thinks residents have themselves to blame for what councilmembers are now calling "an oversized mistake."

"People weren't involved in the process, and then they complain. Oh well," shrugged Williams, noting that there were three public hearings before the design was OK'd.

Local resident Rolf Pot was hopeful the sign would sell, but couldn't see any practical use for it. Except in Vegas.

"Maybe a person who gets off on collecting scandalous things would be interested," said Pot, who once bought a defunct health food store sign and stuck it in his front yard.

"It said 'Sequoia Natural Foods' and cost me $25," said Pot, who thinks the River Street sign should be given away to whoever will haul it out.

But Cruzer Karin Karlsson was irritated at the city for carrying on so much about the topic.

"There's so much going on above and beyond that bloody sign," said Karlsson, who is adamantly opposed to the city paying an estimated $20,000 to remove it.

"If the city has that kind of money lying around, then spend it on real issues," said Karlsson, who'd prefer to wait and see what the foliage looks like when the River Street remodel is completed.

"And I'd be willing to repaint it from its current UCSC colors," said Karlsson. "But if we remove it, what'll happen the next time we ask for money?"

CalTrans gave the city an $83,000 grant to erect the sign, money that ultimately came from federal tax dollars--an equation sufficiently tangled that the city gave itself 60 days (starting Feb. 12) to explore questions of financial liability for removal or sale of the sign.

Future Sign

Meanwhile, Councilmember Ed Porter is checking out the eBay option. Asked about the mechanism of placing the sign on eBay (which last week was featuring "authentic 1930s gorilla fur skin coats," but no "oversized mistakes") Porter said everything on the cyberspace auction is posted on a contractual basis, so going ahead will depend on whether putting up an exploratory offering, not to mention creating a whole new category, is possible.

"As soon as our staff determines what the financial factors might be, you may be able to see a sign-flattering announcement of its availability on eBay," said Porter, who's considering creating a website dedicated to offloading the sign.

"But it would be nice if someone came forward and offered to redesign the sign," said Porter, who's not alone in trying to make sign lemonade.

Local Scott Graham suggested that either Cincinnati's River Front or Pittsburgh's Three Rivers stadium could use the sign--if they shuffled the letters a bit.

Santa Cruz performance artist and accordionist Frank Lima, a.k.a. Julio Morgani, has already explored this notion with a miniature model of the sign, onto which he fastens letters, voodoo-doll style, to create new messages, the latest of which reads, "Oh No: Nobody Loves Me" accompanied by a sale sticker: "Originally $83,000. Now $49.95. Including EIR."

But Morgani, who playfully describes his model as "Son of Sign," says he's witnessed an incredible amount of anger toward the sign, including a woman who wanted to burn it down--along with his model.

Local artist Stephen Laufer thinks the sign is ugly, but suggests, if it's got to stick around, making it more accurate, changing the fonts--"the typography sucks"--and having some fun with it.

"Maybe we could use it like a marquee, or with an arrow indicating that downtown is that-a-way," said Laufer, who has designed several amusing River Street makeovers.

Public records show the council explored changing the size and wording of the sign mere months before it was erected, but backed off when given a $10,000-plus estimate for a last-minute redesign. And according to Michael McClure of the Oakland-based Arrow Sign Company (which made the River Street sign and makes more gateway signs than any other company in the nation), respraying it now could cost between $5,000 and $10,000--and would probably involve removal and reinstallation of the controversial gateway.

Though some have suggested selling the rights to Hollywood to blow up the sign, the River Street sign has at least one fan: local resident Thomas Geerin, who describes himself as a "Ph.D. in Comparative Arts."

Comparing Santa Cruz's reaction to the opposition with which the Eiffel Tower, the Washington Monument, the Marin County Civic Center and even the World Trade Center were first greeted, Geerin notes that "these structures have become landmarks and symbols." Venturing his opinion that the sign is a "remarkable example of postmodern minimalist design," and "the most daring and successful public arts project erected in Santa Cruz," Geerin asks that "this noble structure not be altered, camouflaged or removed. Rather I would urge you to consider designating it as a landmark."

To which David Zwanger, outgoing chair of the city's Arts Commission, retorts, "But it was not conceived as art!"

Meanwhile, Congressman Sam Farr assures Nüz there is no question of repayment to the feds--just don't expect them to pay to take down or replace the sign.

Which brings us to a brief reminder of why the thing was originally designed in the first place. The sign's principal architect--Greg Tung of the San Francisco-based Freedman, Tung and Bottomley--says the sign was envisioned "to draw attention to the fact that River Street is a commercial artery to downtown."

Charlie Stroud, art director of the Arrow Sign Company, says people need to see the sign in the context of the whole River Street Redevelopment Project. Says Stroud, "The sign is one piece of a larger project, which retains a windy road going into downtown and was meant to complement and help revitalize the area, which has a highly eclectic mix of stores. But people have jumped in at the end, with no idea of the project's history, which is a little unfortunate. It's as if the River Street sign has become the lightning rod for all the cognitive dissonance you might expect in a relaxed beach town that has the least affordable housing in the nation."

Meanwhile, Randy Swanson, owner of the Toucan Crane Co. in Aptos, says the $20,000 removal estimate is "outrageous" and has offered to remove the sign--for free.

"I told Mayor Chris Krohn we would take it down carefully--in case the city wants to resell it--and place it in the city yard. God knows there are enough photos to sell it on eBay without it still being in place."

Says sign angel Swanson, "If they do take it down, I'd be willing to replace it with whatever they've got for free."

Sounds like the sign challenge is on.

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From the February 20-27, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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