The Vanishing Icons of Metropolitan Avenue: A History of Williamsburg’s Handmade Shop Signs from the 1980s

When I moved to Williamsburg in the late ’90s, I loved walking past the unusual signs suspended along Metropolitan Avenue near the BQE – a giant paintbrush outside Klenosky Paint, a tailor’s spool, and a fist gripping a lightning bolt outside the electric company. Across the street was the Crest Hardware hammer, which is still there today.

The foam objects showed exacting detail in the contours, like the ridged black bristles of the paintbrush, which made them all the more charming. Others in the same style dotted Graham Avenue, including a diamond ring, a cigarette pack and an elaborately scaled blue-green fish.

Iconic and playful, handmade and a little worn, they added another layer of character to the richly textured Italian neighborhood. They felt like something out of another time, while they also touched a childlike, preverbal chord. There was a far-flung irony to them, too, since they reminded me of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a futuristic society in which the women, forbidden from reading, did their grocery shopping at stores marked with symbols like eggs and cows. So despite the Williamsburg signs’ old-fashioned, kitschy qualities, they also had a bit of an unwitting edge.

Over the next decade the objects gradually dropped off the streetscape, as owners either took them down due to disrepair or closed up shop. Two remained on Metropolitan as recently as a year ago, but when I walked by last summer and the paintbrush was gone, I realized this distinctive little aspect of the neighborhood could soon disappear completely. That’s when I started asking around about the signs.

Karen Hudes
Curator

Crest Hardware on Metropolitan Avenue. Photo by Matthew Huber, 2010.

The Grand-Metro Shopping District

Though they looked even more retro, the signs originated in 1979 as part of a local revitalization project by the St. Nicks Neighborhood Preservation Corporation, a community advocacy group based on Catherine Street.

The project came about as a response to Williamsburg’s economic woes. Banks had largely divested from the area and local shop owners were struggling to secure loans and hold onto their businesses. St. Nicks sought to give them a quick boost and foster more cohesion between Grand Street, a predominantly Latino stretch, and Graham and Metropolitan Avenues, which were part of the more deeply rooted Italian neighborhood, in which shopkeepers were more likely to be property owners. The group drew up a plan dubbing the area the Grand-Metro Shopping District.

As part of the initiative, St. Nicks’ then-executive director, Gary Hattem, came up with the idea of creating 3-D merchants’ signs. “We wanted to get people to think differently about the neighborhood and give it a sense of pride,” he says. Through the signs, reminiscent of old craft guilds’ symbols, they sought to create something accessible that would fit in with the local culture while it got people talking. “It was whimsical while everything was pretty bleak,” he adds. The group received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to carry out the project.

Stanley Wisniewolski, the staff graphic designer, went to work drafting images and experimenting with materials. After several trials, he came up with Styrofoam, gluing together three sheets to make a carving block. The first sign he created was a pig for a pork store on Graham Avenue.

Over the next six years, Wisniewolski sculpted over 75 signs, representing grocers, pharmacies, opticians, butchers and bakers. He often spent weeks on each object, making them a “labor of love,” Hattem says. Plus, he had a “1950s style” that worked for the project and the surroundings. “The older neighbors could relate to Stanley’s aesthetic.”

Stanley Wisniewolski and His Workshop

Stanley Wisniewolski emigrated from Poland to New York in 1930, when he was 11 years old. He grew up in Brooklyn on S. 6th St. near the Williamsburg Bridge, and later moved to Greenpoint to raise his family.

His older daughter, Theresa Baranoff, says he always liked to draw, and after serving in the army in World War II, during which he did mapmaking, he studied advertising design at Pratt on the G.I. Bill, and later fine arts at the Art Students League. He took night classes while he worked at U.S. Bronze, where he designed plaques, including the one of Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium.

Since he honed his skills before there were computer design programs, Baranoff notes that he developed a great deal of technical precision to do all of his work by hand. In addition to drafting and metal casting, he was a talented calligrapher who could write in any type of script.

In the ’50s, Wisniewolski got married, had two daughters, and went into business with his brothers-in-law, opening a polyethylene sheeting factory on Moore Street called Metropolitan Plastics. He continued sketching, just as a hobby. Following the petroleum embargo of the ’70s, the factory was sold, leaving him looking for something to do. His younger daughter, Rosanne, who was attending St. Nicholas High School, found out about the new organization looking to hire neighborhood residents, and encouraged him to apply. He joined St. Nicks in 1975.

Wisniewolski was an “unusual resource for a nonprofit to have,” notes Hattem. Among a group of idealistic twentysomethings, he was the lone staffer in his mid-fifties, and slightly more conservative than the rest, but adored by his younger colleagues. He also shared a passion for strengthening the neighborhood and creating “an environment where small businessmen could flourish,” Baranoff says. He brought all his supplies to the budget-strapped organization, including his drafting table, rasps, brushes and paints, and used creative methods to gather materials, going to garbage dumps and lumber yards to find what he needed.

“He came in with these art skills,” says Mike Rochford, who was the project manager at the time, recalling that Wisniewolski, who turned an entire classroom into his studio, had a rigorous production process. He would first carve the objects out of soap to get the proportions right, and then spend days sculpting them from Styrofoam blocks. Once he was satisfied with the forms, he’d paint and seal them, and build hooks into them so they could be hung from wrought-iron brackets, which St. Nicks commissioned a metalsmith to design and produce.

Wisniewolski stayed with St. Nicks for 15 years. Among other projects, he designed the Greenline newspaper, drafted maps and painted a mural that was displayed inside the Graham Avenue subway station in the late ’80s. The mural said “Welcome to Greenpoint/Williamsburg” in 11 different languages. He moved to Florida in 1990, and passed away in 2002.

Rosalee's Italian Bakery on Graham Avenue (ca. 1980s). Photo courtesy of St. Nicks Alliance.

The Mark of a Neighborhood

When the project began, St. Nicks spread the work among shopkeepers and invited them to Wisniewolski’s workshop. “The signs were sold with Stanley as a package,” Hattem says. Each one was custom-ordered and produced at a charge of $100, including the iron fixture and installation.

Manuel Franquinha, who opened Crest Hardware with his brother in 1962, thought the signs were a great idea. “They gave an identity to the store owners and tied the neighborhood together. It was unique to the city.”

While a number of businesses on Grand Street participated, the project gained more traction on Graham and Metropolitan Avenues. Hattem recalls a positive response from both shopkeepers and residents, noting that the only controversy involved a sign for the smoke shop – not because the neighbors were concerned about the hazards of nicotine, but because the cigar looked like more than a cigar. “It was too phallic-looking,” he jokes. “It became a scandal in the neighborhood. They made us take it down.” It was replaced with a less inflammatory cigarette pack.

The objects weren’t built to last – they were really seen as something novel that might hold up for five years or so. But some of them did stay on display for 10, 20 years or more. Wind damage ultimately did many of them in, and the stores’ proprietors often didn’t keep up with maintenance. Franquinha says that periodically resealing the hammer has helped it last.

What’s Next

Obviously Williamsburg has made enormous social and economic shifts over the last 30 years, due to the 1990s and 2000s influx of young artists and post-collegiates followed by moneyed condo buyers, all slowed down more recently by the recession, which carries some echoes of the ’70s.

Through it all, the neighborhood just east of the BQE still shows a good bit of the personality it had decades ago. Many of the same residents still live there, keeping its old bakeries, butcher shops and home repair stores intact and catering to both longtime and new neighbors, who relish the local feel. A thread of the Grand-Metro signage continues as well.

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