Signs of Rebellion in Richmond, VA

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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....

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