Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York’s Past
By Frank Mastropolo
Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 2019 Hardcover, 128 pages. $19.99

Reviewed by Ronald Ladouceur

Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York’s Past book coverFor crying out loud, you’re in Manhattan, look up. No, not at the new supertall or other showy structure trying to command your attention. But instead at the weathered, broken, and graffitied bits of commercial history that still cling to the City’s gritty surfaces. As Frank Mastropolo demonstrates in Ghost Signs: Clues to Downtown New York’s Past, you’ll be richly rewarded, for these artifacts, invisible until they aren’t, are portals in time.

As they say, every picture tells a story.

Mastropolo, a veteran journalist, photographer, and former ABC News 20/20 producer, tuned into his neighborhood, the East Village and Lower East Side, in its hippy heyday in the late 1960s and early ’70s. And he has a couple of rolls of film of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other famous Filmore East performers to prove it. His later life wanderings, accompanied by his keen-eyed wife who he credits as his sign spotter, haven’t taken him far, but have taken him deep. Since at least 2013, Mastropolo has been painting a pointillist history of immigration and commerce in New York magazine’s Bedford+Bowery blog.

Moe's Meat Market signBigelow ghost sign

Two images from Ghost Signs, courtesy Schiffer Publishing:
237 Elizabeth Street, p. 110, and untitled, p. 120.

Ghost Signs packages Mastropolo’s wanderings in a sturdy gift book.

After a brief introduction spread across the first 31 pages, Mastropolo organizes his finds into six categories: shopping, working, meeting, discoveries, make-believe, and going … going … almost gone. It is in these sections, which pair original photos with brief biographies, where the author’s humanism shines. Mastropolo lets each ghost tell its story. Literally. We hear directly, by quote whenever possible, from Samuel Beckenstein, Giacchino La Rosa, Samuel Slotkin, Francis Avignone, Martin Zeliger, Elizabeth Denny, and dozens of other first-generation merchants, who in a paragraph or three, place us on the street, in their store, and in their heads 50, 75, or 100 years ago.

Mastropolo takes liberties with the term “ghost sign,” extending the category beyond faded remnants of promotions painted on brick walls that typically define it, to include metal casting, neon, enamel, carved, applied, inlaid, and other sign types. It would have been nice if the images had more space to breathe, and frankly the layout and typography could have been more flattering. But his is not a history of advertising or manufacturing techniques. Instead, Mastropolo’s Ghost Signs is urban archeology that uses surviving artifacts to help us visit neighborhoods and streetscapes that have all but given way to the homogenizing forces of gentrification, the imperatives of business consolidation, and the realities of rising rents.

Ronald Ladouceur is a 38-year advertising industry veteran, an adjunct professor of marketing at the State University of New York, University at Albany, and a ghost sign fanatic. He has photographed more than 300 surviving examples (published to Flickr), has lectured on their history and meaning, contributed the Foreword to Joseph Marlin’s recently published Fading Ads of Chicago, and has written several articles on the topic for the SCA.

This book review originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Fall 2020, Vol. 38, No. 2.The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

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