Back when we homeschooled, I got really interested in “the nature walk.” This is exactly what it sounds like: a walk—short or long, urban or otherwise—in which you and your young pupils—enthusiastic or otherwise—take note of seed pods and chickadees and the neighbor’s dahlias. Sometimes you write things down later, back at home; most times you don’t.
Looking back, I wonder if, out of all of us, I learned the most from these walks. I’ve always been a noticer, but after these nature walks I became an absorber—one who doesn’t just see but who soaks in the details. Which is how I first noticed and then became obsessed with ghost signs. So obsessed, in fact, that I wrote an essay about them, which published this week over on Story Warren:
When a ground-floor business changes hands, the storefront gets remade, its windows adorned with a new hand-painted sign, sometimes edged in gold. But those upper stories rarely change: the bricks continue to crumble artfully, their cracks and smitten masonry bearing witness to the weather and to the passage of time. Above the awnings, many of these buildings are surprisingly ornate, adorned with discs of green marble, or herringbone bricks, or a floral border cut from sandstone. I’ve seen courtyards hidden up there, their arched openings veiled with weeds, and gabled windows so small I wonder what could possibly be behind them.
At first, I thought I was just looking at these upper stories, but before long I realized that I was reading them. Most of these old buildings have names—elegant ones, like the Clover Block or the Crown Plaza, or names that, like the Windsor Hotel, give some clue as to what they used to be. The year they were built is often etched up there, too, in the peak of a roof, or above an upper window. Walking downtown has become a sort of self-guided history tour to me, full of clues to the size and shape of our city over a century ago.
But my favorite roof line discovery has been the faded signs painted on the building’s brick sides. They’re old and partly scrubbed off by the rain, but most of the ones I’ve found are still legible. To my delight, I learned that these are called ghost signs, and I can’t stop talking about this: ghost signs. That’s about the most perfect name I’ve ever heard anything called. . . .