“Too many cooks…” It was an aphorism decades before it became a cult short film–maybe even centuries. We all know how it ends. And we can all think of examples. After thirteen years at the helm of this blog (American Dirt is finally a teenager!), I had to use my website’s own search function to see how many times I’ve used the phrase. And, much to surprise, the answer is zero. So here’s a perfect example of where it is clear that a surfeit of government agencies have sullied their own output, in the form of directional arrows. And it comes from, of all places, Washington DC, at the site of copious parkland along the Anacostia River.
It doesn’t even merit much explanation. Here along this bike-ped trail in a park filled with athletic fields in the distance is a confusing jumble of directional arrows. I count ten of them visible from this angle, though there might be more, pointing along the yellow dotted-line path on the right side of the photo, which the bulk of the signposts conceal. But this begs the question: are there really that many attractions in this park, and why did it need two signposts, of different heights and aesthetic styles?
Does it even matter? This approach to signage is an assault on the eyes, eliciting an informational overload. The contrasting styles (and obviously different time periods) looks tacky. I’ll concede that it’s a manageable overload: at least all of the passers-by (runners and bicyclists mostly) are perfectly capable of stopping safely to ponder which direction they want to go, in contrast from the situation if a motorist countenanced such a glut of directional arrows all at once. Most people can’t process this much information while traveling 20 miles per hour or more, without slowing or stopping, and vehicles don’t always have such an opportunity. And at least one of the references is redundant: Kingman Island, an engineered land mass in the middle of the Anacostia River, which the US Army Corps of Engineers created over a century ago by dredging river soil to improve navigability and stimulate commercial activity along its banks. The 40-acre Kingman Island and tiny companion Heritage Island now serve as extensive, District-owned parkland, much of it wilderness (all 6 acres of Heritage is untouched), though the northern half of Kingman Island is a portion of the Langston Golf Course. As the close-up indicates in the photo below (for those willing to squint and do the reading), the pole on the left hosts a directional arrow for both Kingman and Heritage islands (along with the distance to the ped-bridge access point); the one on the right only features Kingman Island (and no distance).
But redundancy is again a minor quibble. The pole on the left overall features far more info than the one on the right. And none of the details create a logic puzzle, as one might occasionally encounter with the signage restricting on-street parking in busy urban areas. These directional arrows are manageable. Again, the bigger questions emerge after gazing at them a bit more…long enough to suss out all those points of interest. And, upon further consideration, it’s easy to discern how they both came into being; the bigger question is why the powers that be decided to build them both anyway.
The one on the left, with all the extra details, is the older of the two; that peeling paint should be a dead giveaway. It carries the customary cultural brown and serif font that those in the know associate with National Park Service properties. Most of the Anacostia riverfront is parkland, and Anacostia Park, where these twin poles stand, is a prominent National Park Service property. It’s a supreme advantage to the citizens of the District of Columbia that a sizable portion of their city’s generous parkland is under the care of Department of Interior through NPS: Rock Creek Park (the biggest), the National Mall (the most prominent), and East Potomac Park (the sportiest), are among just a few. (NPS relinquished control of Kingman/Heritage Islands in the mid 1990s.) What this means, of course, is that the entire US taxpaying public pays for some of the biggest and best of Washington DC’s parks, even if they live 1,500 miles away. The National Mall, at the least, is “America’s front yard”, visited by hundreds of thousands of the country’s citizens every year. The other major parks earn most of their use from folks within the DMV. This includes Anacostia Park and the two Islands.
Working in tandem with the NPS, however, is the DC Department Parks and Recreation, which manages and maintains the District’s smaller parks, the pocket parks, the green spaces conceived outside of the purview of Pierre L’Enfant’s National Capital Plan, and most of the various recreational facilities: the swimming pools, the soccer fields, the recreational centers, and, since 1995, the two islands in the middle of the Anacostia River. Confusing enough? Here in Anacostia Park, the space surrounding the aging and underutilized Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Stadium languished for decades due to minimal use. Much of it served as little more than parking for events at the Stadium, which hasn’t hosted a professional sport since DC’s Major League Soccer team, DC United, left for brand-new Audi Field in 2017. (At this point, the 60-year-old RFK Stadium will face the wrecking ball in 2023.) The land under that vast expanse of neglected parking lot deserved better. Here’s a map that demonstrates the general configuration: note Anacostia Park, RFK Stadium, Kingman Island, Heritage Island.
The city’s convention and sports authority, Events DC, embarked on a vast improvement campaign, transforming 27 acres of Anacostia “Park” parking lot into artificial turf fields suitable for soccer, lacrosse, baseball, as well as a pavilion, playground, and picnic space. The unveiling of the Fields at RFK Campus (also listed on the above map) took place in the summer of 2019. Prior to this ribbon-cutting, most of these lands within Anacostia Park were crumbling asphalt lots, under the putative care of National Park Service.
But here’s the rub. We have both NPS territorial claims and Events DC managing the activities that take place on this land. DC Parks and Recreation, which would typically control playgrounds and ballfields in the District, is in this case a red herring. I find no evidence that Parks and Rec does anything at Anacostia Park, though it manages the islands nearby. Returning to the photos, Events DC installed the directional arrows on the righthand pole—the spartan, modern, crude ones where “Kingman Island” already seems to be drooping, as though someone jumped and smacked it out of place. Even higher on this freshly painted pole is the “Events DC” logo. And we, the confused passers-by, encounter such a tangled web of bureaucrats controlling the lands and the activities that take place, that nobody bothered to sit face-to-face and ponder whether it was necessary to have two poles side by side, semantically doing the exact same thing. The outcome is too minor and insignificant to qualify as a disaster, but it manifests how easily a plethora of government meddlers can spoil the broth.
4 thoughts on “Directional arrows in excess: the squires’ turf wars cause serfs’ confusion.”
Not to mention that “Kingman Island” on the new sign already seems to be broken. Wonder who will take responsibility to repair it? Or, since the old sign has far more useful information, just forget about fixing the new one. 😜
Yeah, I noted the droopiness of the Kingman Island sign. I bet someone tested how high he could jump and played tag, only to learn that–surprise surprise–it was made of a cheap material.
The NPS signs are much nicer and really part of a brand. Throughout the DC area (and probably throughout the country), the Park Service uses that same distinguished “cultural” brown and a font that I’d like to say is Caslon. Slap a coat of paint on the pole and it’s obviously superior in every way.
So here is a “sign” story. I know of a church, situated on a city “square” (which is actually a circle; think of an enormous roundabout). The sign for the church sat like a ray coming out of the street, visible from two sides. Pedestrians could see one side as they approached, and those walking the other direction could see the other side. After passing the sign, anyone who looked back could see the reverse side.
Some concern was raised that drivers could not see the sign so well, and it might be better to move the sign a quarter turn, so that the flat side would face the street. Of course, a committee was formed. This committee took enormous pains to examine the issue, hired a consultant, and arrived at a plan to revamp the small church lawn. These plans included a mini-plaza with a bench or two near the sidewalk, improved landscaping, and a columbarium running along the ramp/sidewalk leading from street level to a main entrance. The estimated cost was a lot.
A long-time parishioner, much involved with recent church renovations saw the plans and reminded the committee that the lawn was, in fact not a real lawn, but 18 inches of dirt placed over a rubber membrane providing a water-proof seal for the classrooms below. This membrane was already past its guaranteed warranty, and when it needed to be replaced it would involve removing the grass, small tree, soil, and everything. The proposed columbarium would also have to be taken off, and then replaced. Grandma’s ashes would not only suffer this indignity, but, it was pointed out, the design (rather low, like a wall with a ledge) was a perfect place for “bad people” to use for personal hygiene, love-making, or drug use. And it was pointed out that in New York’s St. John the Divine, some less than savoury words were scratched onto stone monuments.
But the best part of the whole shebang was that in this mega-plan, the church sign stayed exactly where it was, facing exactly the same direction.
I think I’m vaguely familiar with a church like this, and the visibility of such a sign might indeed be sub-par. But it would be far worse if it weren’t for the delicate, often implicit choreography of the circle/square upon which it fronts…where vehicles are not just forced but generally WANT to proceed through the circle slowly, not just because of the density of pedestrians but because there are no fundamental regulations concern who stops and starts. Those not yet in the circle yield to those who are, and they enter at the next opportunity, then proceed to move veeeerrrrrrry slowly through the circle/square, well below 20 mph (often below 10 mph), given them abundant time to soak in the street scene and to read signage. It’s one of the most elegant and pronounced centerpieces of any major city in the country, a clean balance and symbiosis between cars and peds/bikes. Yet people far more well-connected than me (and possibly you too) wanted to completely reinvent the delicate interplay with clearer traffic regs, a potential complete pedestrianization, or (god filling) some mild traffic signals. No doubt these ideas were conceived by one committee, passed to another, funded by design consultants, and then pushed with a broom and dustbin into the corner after spending a whole awful lot.
Yes, it happens everywhere. The simplest example: the famous patching of a pothole, with 16 people assigned to the task, where one fella does all the work and 15 others stand around watching. Maybe holding a sign…visible from two sides, of course (because that’s good planning)