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Chicago is empty of people but full of signs. They can make you laugh, like the neat notice on the doors of the Chicago Theatre: “Widespread Panic: Postponed.” (Tell that to the guy who rations the toilet paper at Costco.) Or they can make you wince, like the sign on the Women & Children First Bookstore, sitting below its motto: “Opened in 1979, Open Today, Open Forever.” The sign says: “Temporarily closed.”
Every city is like this now, as if our protective masks stifled the ability to speak and left us to communicate only in writing. The notes tell the story of the more than 10 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the last two weeks, as almost every state has shuttered nonessential businesses in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The American city has always been coated in words, from barroom neon script to the slogan on that fast food marquee. But rarely has this written layer felt so coordinated. On the Kiski Kar Wash in Pittsburgh: “Flu Season Is Here, So Wash Your Hands and Your Car.” On a suburban sidewalk outside Denver: “Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder.” At a New Hampshire supermarket: “Senior shopping hours, 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. everyday.” They are both practical and inspirational, an instruction manual for a new era and a card catalog for a society in crisis.
Messages have appeared on storefronts, sidewalks, in the windows of apartments. They are printed on 8½-by-11-inch sheets, drawn on whiteboards, and scrawled in Sharpie. Restaurants say they are open for takeout, sometimes with perks: a cocktail! A roll of toilet paper! Fill a growler from the keg? Please?
From a liquor store in South L.A. comes the following message, which I can only convey in its entirety: “COVID-19 is some real shit. Cover your fucking mouth. Shut the fuck up! Buy your shit and leave immediately. Absolutely NO titty or sock money! Stand back at least 6 feet, playa. Store capacity limited to 5 motherfuckers at once. You cough, you die. Drink responsibly.”
At the corner of Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village, someone has built a makeshift memorial. Two vases of flowers sit alongside a board that shows a tally of the dead, beneath a handful of American flags. Adjacent on the park railing, a hand-painted warning reads, “Stay six feet apart or be six feet under.” As a collective expression, New York’s coronavirus signs recall “Subway Therapy,” the 5,000 Post-it note messages written on the subway walls at Union Square after Donald Trump was elected president.
With Americans isolated by distancing rules, signs lend each exchange the thrill and weight of performance. In Seattle, a pair of teenagers taped notes in their windows to thank the nurses next door (and also brought cookies). The nurses put up a sign to thank them back. After the state barred visitors from nursing homes, a Connecticut man named Bob Shellard made a poster to wish his wife a happy 67th wedding anniversary from outside her window. (He also called her on the phone: “Can you see my sign?”)
Brendan Cormier, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is collecting photographs of COVID-19 signage. They remind him of the “Sorry, Out of Gas” signs that popped up at gas stations during the oil crisis in the 1970s—emergency communication, written with whatever was at hand. “All cities essentially have an editorial layer to them—a layer of words displayed in the public realm,” he wrote to me. “This for the most part is top-down, safety signs, rules, advertisements and shopfronts. So, with the proliferation of hand-written signs, you see that editorial layer shifting back towards a more democratic and multi-voiced scenario.”
Most of the notices appear hasty and impromptu, as if each proprietor had stepped out to lunch and never come back. Quirky, like the Brooklyn newsstand offering home delivery of your favorite magazines and newspapers, signed: “From, Us.” Who else? Or the note from the eyeglasses store down the block, printed capitals the size of a fist, so that even a man who’d broken his glasses could understand why they were closed. Or a sandwich board outside AlleyCat Comics in Chicago: “We will hold, ship, or throw comics at your car as you drive by.”
The government has rolled out its own campaigns. On an Ohio interstate: “Limit Travel. Stop the spread of Covid-19. We’re all in this together.” On a city subway: “Please practice social distancing.” It does take practice, recalibrating the little magnets in the head that steer you through a crowd. But there is plenty of room for that, because the sidewalks are empty, and also plenty of time, because no one seems to be in a rush. To regulate supermarket lines, safely spaced hashmarks have been drawn on the floor or on the pavement outside. It’s the sidewalk ballet, stripped down to the stage directions.
In neighborhoods, children do most of the work, in chalk and colored pencils: “Flatten the curve.” “April distance brings May existence.” Notes of thanks and support and encouragement have popped up in windows.
In Philadelphia, a virtually mapped scavenger hunt for sidewalk rainbows has turned the whole city into a spectrum. Like Italy’s balcony songs or the French game show played from window to window, it’s an example of creativity pushing through confinement.
In the same city, the artist Mark Strandquist asked artists to create posters that could be reproduced to bring life back to the city’s blank spaces. “Everything we see sends a message,” he told me, “and the message I was confronted with was loss.” His project, Cover the Walls With Hope, began with submissions from artists he knew but then drew dozens of works from around the city and beyond. He pasted them up himself around town, and then realized other people were doing it too—in the windows of a local nonprofit and a print shop, as a backdrop at a food bank.
A wheatpaste he posted, by the artist Kayan Cheung-Miaw, shows a face mask beneath a pair of eyes. It says, in English and Mandarin, “Don’t let racism go viral. We will get through this together.” The artist Molly Crabapple drew an old-law tenement, surrounded with flowers, in yellow watercolor and pastels. “Housing = Healthcare. Rent Freeze Now.”
In a separate project, the arts group Amplifier has organized a global call for submissions, offering $1,000 to 50 artists whose work epitomizes the spirit of resilience.
The art sends a message that this will end. The children think so too. The notes on the businesses are not so sure. With their typos and mixed-up fonts, they make every hibernating storefront feel human—and mortal. “We’ve been here 40 years,” says the owner of the Brooklyn newsstand. Only a few customers have taken him up on the deliveries. “Business is way, way down.”