Fontroversy: Ad firm yanks North Philly ‘blight’ font after social media uproar

Manayunk’s celebrated, as are Old City, Rittenhouse and even (sorta) West Philly. But boards? Really?

These words are in the new North Philly font. The question mark isn't, though. That's in Desdemona.

These words are in the new North Philly font. The question mark isn't, though. That's in Desdemona.

Billy Penn Illustration

Updated at 6:45 pm

Cliff Ross, a local typeface design and ad firm, released a set of Philly neighborhood inspired fonts yesterday. But what seems to have struck the biggest chord is one meant to represent North Philly.

And not for a good reason.

The lettering, which resembles wood boards patched together, represents the derelict architecture in the neighborhood — specifically, blight, and boarded up windows.

The North Philly font was inspired by some of the rough and blighted neighborhoods that still exist there,” the description on the website read. But, apparently, “North Philly has come a long way since the 1980’s and continues to improve.”

After we published our report, the North Philly font was removed from the Philly Fonts website. The ad firm could not be reached for comment. When we hear more from Cliff Ross, we will update this story.

A budding uproar around the fonts grew after a article walked readers through the fonts and their descriptions. For Manayunk, there was the Manayunk Bridge. For Rittenhouse, there was the neighborhood’s “elegant architecture.” For Center City, there was its “gridlike layout and severe angles on its high-rise buildings.”

Some locals found the West Philly version, which represents graffiti, offensive as well: Graffiti, when practiced on unwelcome walls, can be named vandalism, which connotes a sense of criminality. But, graffiti is also a recognized and rewarded medium for art in its own right. As it can’t be argued that blight is a tradition within art, North Philly’s representation on the list of typefaces stood out.

The West Philly font

The West Philly font


Cliff Ross, who leads the firm based in Philadelphia and Easton that bears his name, told Billy Penn he was genuinely surprised by the controversy. “It’s not meant to characterize [any neighborhood] as a whole, but an aspect of it,” said Ross. “You can’t get the whole neighborhood in an alphabet.”

He points to Eastern State Penitentiary, where they drew inspiration for the Fairmount typeface. That institution, which is one block away from his Philadelphia office, doesn’t really cover all of Fairmount, he said. 

Examples of Philly Fonts.

Examples of Philly Fonts.


But, Ross concedes, he can understand why this particular description rubbed people the wrong way.

“It wasn’t meant to be negative per se, but I can see why someone would see it that way,” he said.

Ross was surprised to receive accusations of racism, but acknowledges what critics have raised.

Malcolm Kenyatta, a North Philly community advocate, said a lot of people in the neighborhood are offended and have written him about it.

“I think the issue here, and a big part of the work I do is [correcting] this stale, trite narrative of North Philly that’s always about destruction, that’s always about decay,” Kenyatta said. “That’s not the story of North Philly. The story of North Philly is one of resilience, and strength and growth.

Kenyatta found the font itself rather ugly. The description on the site, he said, is “a little callous.”

“We are sick of being referred to in that way,” he continued. “A lot of people have put a lot of blood sweat and toil and in their communities. If you want to make a font on us, make it aesthetically pleasing and make it accurate.”

Ross spoke with passion about how the city, from section to section, inspired the fonts. He moved to the Philly area in the ’90s, but didn’t feel comfortable naming which neighborhoods he’s lived in.

More neighborhood fonts are on the way. A South Philly font, not included in the first round, is in the works. Their plan is to represent more subsections of North Philly and West Philly too. In North Philly, they’re considering fonts for Cecil B. Moore, Swampoodle and Strawberry Mansion. Ross really loves the names of the latter two.

All Philly Fonts are currently free for download, for a limited time. The next round of fonts should drop in early March.

Want some more? Explore other Neighborhoods stories.

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