The Official City Spiel

Is North Lauderdale the"City of Tomorrow"? Is Wilton Manors the "Island City"? A lesson in city seals as salesmanship.

Like every town in Broward County, Dania Beach has an official city seal. But you can't see it. They won't let you.

The logo you can see -- the one that's painted on their trucks and printed on their letterhead -- isn't actually official. It's just a drawing that was sent in by an art student from the town's summer youth employment program years ago. It has a dolphin leaping, a pelican swooping, the sun rising, some squiggly lines, the usual South Florida logo stuff.

But now, a mere six months after spending city money to spruce up this unofficial icon (and adding the word Beach to the name of the town and, for some reason, a limp starfish to the foreground), some townsfolk want to dump it. They want their official seal back. Not the one they already have. Not the one they won't let you see. A new one. One that nobody has seen.

Got it?
Never mind. Even some of the most active civic-booster types in Dania Beach don't get it. "I never even saw the old seal," says Benjamin Wohl, president of Dania Beach Main Street, Inc. "What, now we're getting a new one?"

Looks like it. City Commissioner Bob Mikes, whose disdain for dolphins and pelicans is exceeded only by his contempt for starfish, has opened a campaign to rid the city of its current unofficial logo and replace it with something a little less... generic. "We're the oldest incorporated city in Broward County," Mikes says. "And we should have a logo that has some relevance to our history."

Standing in opposition is City Manager Michael Smith, a stalwart leaping-dolphin defender who nevertheless concedes that a citywide contest to choose a new seal is probably inevitable.

So here we go again. Another municipal logo war on the horizon. It's nothing new to Dan Austin, a Nova Southeastern professor of urban planning who has seen these kinds of symbol-skirmishes come and go. Austin knows how ugly they can get. "You go messing around with some city's identifying icons, and you'll find out just how big a deal these things can be," he says. "People take their icons seriously."

The question is, should anyone else? A quick look around the county reveals a plethora of logos that seem designed more as sales gimmicks than as actual symbols of cultural or historical reality.

Consider Wilton Manors. Ten years ago this town went through the same process that Dania Beach is just starting. They had a logo, they wanted to change it, and so they held a contest. The result? The logo they have now features a silhouette of a small bucolic isle with sandy beaches and swaying palm trees rising out of still water like a panel out of a desert-island cartoon. "Island City," reads the caption. It's undoubtedly a beautiful logo -- one of the best in the county. But it does have one tiny flaw.

Wilton Manors is landlocked. It has no sandy beach. The only things it's surrounded by are other cities. Wilton Manors is the Island City like Kansas is the Island State.

Former mayor Sandra Steen, a passionate defender of the logo the city adopted on her watch, insists that Wilton Manors really is an island. It's surrounded by drainage canals. "You can go around the whole city in a canoe or a small boat," she says. "Of course it would have to be a very low small boat, because of the bridges." Of course. Glad we cleared that up.

But now let's move on to North Lauderdale, another landlocked town in central Broward, but one that makes no grandiose claim to island status. No, in North Lauderdale, the sights are set much higher.

Picture this: an all-American family -- dad, mom, two obligatory young'uns -- standing in the foreground in a loving embrace. They're gazing off toward a dreamlike skyline that fills the horizon with fantastic spires, magical towers, and elegant skyscrapers. It is, according to the caption, the "CITY OF TOMORROW."

Drive through North Lauderdale sometime. Keep a weather eye open for skyscrapers and for futuristic skylines shimmering in the distance. See any? Fact is, North Lauderdale doesn't even have a distinct commercial downtown -- unless you count the usual malls, gas stations, and downscale restaurants lining Highway 441.

According to Assistant City Manager Richard Sala, the North Lauderdale logo "was part of the architect's original marketing plan." The spires and steeples weren't really meant to represent an actual city skyline. They're "beacons," he says, or maybe "bell towers" -- and they actually exist. When the city was founded in 1963, famed Art Deco architect Morris Lapidus, an investor in the town's development company, designed a cluster of structures to serve as a sort of entrance gateway to the city. The structures have since been removed from their original location, Sala says, but they are still visible from the road.

Not that it really matters. "Whether a logo has any dose of reality today isn't really relevant," says urban planner Austin. "For example, if you look at the state flag of Kansas, you'll see a covered wagon. There haven't really been any covered wagons in Kansas for a long, long time. So, a lot of these logos serve as romantic interpretations of the past -- or of the future. Sort of like, 'This is what we thought about this city when it was created.'"

For possibly the best example of a logo based on a "romantic interpretation," take a look at the municipal seal of the county's newest city, Weston. Within a stylized frame of sawgrass and egrets, the Weston logo presents a gorgeous view of the setting sun descending into a pristine swamp. There's not a building or parking lot in sight -- no hint that Weston's very existence might represent to some an example of the destruction of the same swamp so reverentially depicted in the town's logo.

Weston City Commissioner Mark L. Myers -- the man who designed the logo -- disagrees with this view. "No! No! It's just the opposite!" he barks. "It shows we're taking care of the wetlands!" Myers has a point; it's difficult to imagine Arvida, the development company that created Weston and approved this very logo, signing off on anything that smacked of negativity. (Point of trivia: Weston's is the only Broward municipal logo that contains the artist's initials hidden somewhere within -- a signature a la Hirschfeld. Look in the sawgrass.)

And in truth, when it comes to negativity, Weston couldn't begin to compare with Sea Ranch Lakes. There are no words in the logo of this gated community with a population of 619. No waving palm trees. No shining sunbeams. No leaping dolphins. Just a pair of forbidding brick gateposts standing side by side in the foreground, like two soldiers standing at attention, with a double fence line receding into the distance from each side.

Here, finally, is a logo that is the distilled essence of unambiguity, a logo that presents to the viewer a clear, simple, true message: "Do we know you?"

"There's gates here," shrugs city clerk Joan Case from her city hall office at 1 Gatehouse Rd. "You can't get into the village unless you go through the gates." No apology from her.

And no dithering either. Sea Ranch Lakes' gated self-confidence stands in stark contrast to the identity crisis at Dania Beach, where the game of dueling logos proceeds apace.

To City Manager Smith, the original seal (the one you can't see) "represents two particular industries that aren't necessarily central to what the city has to offer anymore." The seal touts jai alai and antiques as two major civic symbols, "and there's more to the city than just jai alai and antiques."

But... leaping dolphins? Starfish?
"The logo on the trucks could belong to any town in South Florida -- any town in Florida, for that matter," complains Mikes, who promises not to drop the matter until the art student's handiwork has been banished. Taking a radically different approach than some other local leaders, Mikes advocates "something with some meaning to this city -- something with some relevance."

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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