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Signs of Rebellion

While the city struggles to coordinate a $3.3 million sign program, Ralph White takes matters into his own hands.



Officials in Richmond's economic development department want to streamline the city's cacophony of old and new signs — many pointing to historic sites. But one man in the city's parks and recreation department is quietly — or not so quietly — busting through the red tape.

Ralph R. White, manager of the James River Park System, doesn't know how many directional, historical, interpretive, public safety and regulatory signs he's put up around town in the 30 years he's worked for the department. He knows there are a lot. He's also the first to tell you that he dodges official city procedures to get some of his signs approved.

Richmond has struggled for years to secure the money and coordination needed to implement the Downtown Signage Program, a capital-improvement project with an estimated cost of almost $3.3 million. It would update fully the city's signs for tourists on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Recently, with yet another request for proposals for markers in the works, it appears as though the city is starting from scratch.

Ralph White, meanwhile, is putting up signs all over.

His efforts can be seen on Riverside Drive, Bank Street and East Main Street, among other spots.

“There's no excuse for not getting work done,” White says. “If it's done at very low levels, my level … then it can happen.” But White doesn't apply for sign permits or ask for permission in advance.

“Nothing has been done without telling people,” White insists. “Now the issue is whether every sign was then debated in a committee and given a purchase order number and a review and all of that, and the answer to that is no.”

Nor does he use public money, he says. Instead, he relies on the James River Park Fund, a coffer combining donations, honoraria received from White's public speaking and money from recycling aluminum cans to pay for the signs he writes himself. White solicits volunteers and park staff to assemble the signs, which are made at Budget Signs on North Boulevard.

Sign shop owner Jim Burnette says White's been a patron for about 15 years. “Ralph comes in about once a week,” Burnette says. “He unloads his mind and he'll write it on paper and we'll put it on a sign.”

Years before he began using Budget Signs, White says, he made his own through an informal material-sharing arrangement with the transportation engineering department's marker shop near Parker Field. There also was a brief period when White hand painted his signs with the help of an area calligrapher. He later married her.

City officials don't always look favorably upon White's passion. He's had scuffles with traffic engineers, though things seem friendlier these days.

“Ralph on occasion has chosen … to come up with his own signs and put them in the public right of way,” says Tom Flynn, the city's transportation engineer. Flynn recalls one sign on Riverside Drive imploring motorists to slow down.

“At one point I was accused of putting up signs on Riverside Drive, and at one point I did,” White acknowledges. “And then I stopped, but kind of like the lady in red who's given up her profession, the reputation lingers.”

On a recent Thursday morning, White, a bespectacled 65-year-old with a neatly trimmed white beard, wearing a black mock turtleneck, herringbone jacket, brown loafers and a Greek fisherman's cap, offers to show his “signs of controversy.” Those include a small brown-and-white directional sign pointing drivers on Bank and 14th streets to the excavation site of Lumpkin's Jail, the infamous slave auction house that was part of the Shockoe Bottom slave trade.

Another historical sign White built is the brown-and-white one titled “Slave Auction Site” in an empty tree lot on the sidewalk at the intersection of 15th and East Main. It's not particularly sophisticated — there's still that homemade feel — but it gets the job done, directing visitors in atmospheric detail to slave auction sites such as the St. Charles Hotel and Lumpkin's Jail. The signs cost $250, White says.

A $50,000 donation from Venture Richmond recently bolstered efforts to complete a separate project by the Richmond Slave Trail Commission to mark spots on the city's slave trail. But White, a member of the Slave Trail Commission, already has helped point out some of those spots.

“You know, in a little while the [Richmond] Slave Trail Commission will install their own very fancy signs,” White says. In the meantime, White takes pride in his efficient fix. After all, the city has taken down many of the signs he's put up through the years, and he's learned to embrace the temporary nature of his work.

He just wants to get the message across.

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