Signs Made Here

Peter Wood

The ten miles between Rutgers in New Brunswick and Princeton (in Princeton) cover more than the distance between a large state university and the rarefied atmosphere of one of the nation’s top undergraduate institutions. Route 27 inches south, stoplight by stoplight, through a Mexican-American barrio (El Gallo Loco), a Guatamalan area (Productos Centros Americas), and a neighborhood built by refugees from the aborted Hungarian revolution of 1956 (the Magyar Bank is still in business). Then come long stretches of gray commercial sprawl which offer testimony to the efforts of numerous small-time entrepreneurs: Crandle Custom Car Cleaning, Meat Town, Quietly Kept Bail Bonds, D & J Fashionistas. Eventually Route 27 opens into broken countryside, with housing developments named to evoke Olde England (Whitehall Gardens, Somerset Mews, Carriage Run) but home to lots of upwardly mobile south Asians. Here New Jersey’s prerevolutionary hamlets mix with today’s immigrants. Princeton is a green Oz at the end of the corridor.

I’ve gotten to know the route well by taking an early morning bus from New York City to the old farm house where I stay during the week. I keep track of the landmarks, lest I doze off and miss my stop: the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; St. Peter’s Cemetery; the Subaru dealership; the Indian grocery store; the reformed church that is perpetually “Celebrating God’s Diversity” at Six Mile Run; the Durga Temple. Among these is a rundown shop adorned with samples of its wares: “Signs Made Here.”

Well, yes. As the discipline of semiotics has taught us, signs are made everywhere. There is even a journal called Signs, which explains itself as the Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and is devoted to “discipline-based and interdisciplinary research that illuminates processes of racialization, sexualization, and gendering that operate through interpersonal dynamics and familial relations.” As it happens, Signs is sponsored by Rutgers’ Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, but as far as I know, Signs isn’t made at the Signs Made Here shop on Route 27.

The road does, however, pass by a handful of storefront Pentecostal churches, which draw much of their Biblical warrant from a passage in Deuteronomy (26:8) that speaks of God bringing the Israelites out of Egypt with “terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders.” The movement builds on the teachings of John Wimber, who in the 1980s sparked a “Signs and Wonders” charismatic movement. But the phrase has numerous other claimants, including a magazine, Signs and Wonders for Our Times, devoted to unpacking the messages from contemporary Catholic visionaries.

This borders on my once-upon-a-time specialization as an anthropologist. I did my dissertation on a quasi-Catholic movement headed by a woman, Mary Ann Van Hoof, who had regular visions of the Virgin Mary and whose followers in the U.S. had built an imposing shrine to the miracles that ensued.

One lesson is that the world has a perpetual surplus of signs and no lack of eager expositors. In this case, I am just a passerby looking at other people’s signs. What strikes me most is how completely outside the world of higher education they are, despite being stretched like a clothesline between two great universities. This passage of Route 27 is a testimony to real live multiculturalism, as opposed to the grievance-mongering taught on campus. People indeed cluster in ethnic and linguistic cohorts, but they also mingle, work, shop, and live together. Route 27 is also a real live demonstration of Americans determined to make something of their opportunities. I don’t see the absence of a college degree holding anyone back from starting a truck-detailing or a catering business. Route 27 for some represents another route to prosperity.

That religious movement I studied hung precariously between reading signs and inventing new ones. It desperately wanted to be recognized as legitimate in the eyes of the Catholic Church but thwarted itself at every turn by posting, on its own authority, audacious heterodoxies.

In that, it bears some similarities to contemporary American higher education, which is likewise often eager to impose certain heterodoxies of its own while clinging to the mantle of traditional authority. To the extent that its traditional authority depends on reading the signs, I don’t think higher education is getting high marks. The landscape of Route 27 is, as the editors of Signs might put it, “racialized, sexualized, and gendered.” Beauty salons and auto wreckers have their place. But if that is all you are looking for, you miss its vitality, aspiration, and vibrant multicultural reality.

This article first appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on February 8, 2012.

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