In the Fab Fifties, there was a short-lived craze of drilling kids in school to hide under their desks if the Russkies ever Dropped the Big One. Never mind the fact that the Big One could incinerate desks, schools and kids pretty much instantaneously if it was dropped in the right place.
There was also a series of public shelters, authorized in school, church and apartment house basements. H.G. Wells predicted this in the 1890s, when in his The Time Machine the basement cowerers evolved into the Morlocks, while the surface people became Eloi, simple folk who were preyed on by the Morlocks. When push comes to shove, I’d rather be the preyer than the preyee.
Now, there are still dozens, if not hundreds, of small “Fallout Shelter” signs affixed to the buildings in which they were featured. Just walk through any urbanized neighborhood, and you’ll see them.
However, they had larger cousins, yellow signs saying ‘Public Shelter’ with an arrow and avery big S for Shelter. These, too, were posted with amazing frequency, and I was still seeing a few of them in the 1990s, before Forgotten New York was conceived. By the time FNY debuted, though, I thought they were gone.
I’ve found two specimens in Forest Hills and Astoria, and my pal Vinny Losinno has found another one on East 28th Street just north of Kings Highway.
The sign has just about rusted through and has survived through secrecy and indifference. Now that the Department of Transportation knows where it is though, it likely won’t last.
Here’s a photo of a Shelter sign in its prime on the Queen of Avenues in midtown, mounted on a distinctive stoplight used only on 5th Avenue–which also had a unique wastebasket design, strolled past by society matrons in fur-lined coats and gloves. Two way traffic means the photo was taken before 1966.