Home>Highlight>On those atrocious Holland Tunnel decorations, and why they made me scream with horror

On those atrocious Holland Tunnel decorations, and why they made me scream with horror

(Some ideas on what we could do instead of constantly repeating the same poor design decisions over and over, or not)

By Amy Wilson, December 16 2018 4:47 pm

You have undoubtably heard about the story of the guy with the petition complaining about the holiday decorations at the Holland Tunnel. In response to that whole story, the Port Authority – in a rare example of being open and receptive to public criticism and feedback – has proposed four possible versions of how they might decorate the opening of the tunnel, currently up for public vote. From their website:

All the choices are terrible, every single one. Immediately, any decoration that renders TUNNEL as TONNEL should be stricken from consideration. Even the one option that doesn’t do that is just “meh” at best.

But, I’m digressing from the original point I wanted to make: that the proposed changes presuppose a number of conditions that may or may not be true, and do so totally unquestioningly. Those conditions include: that the PA must have decorations on the Holland Tunnel; that the only possible holiday decorations can be on the sign and nowhere else; that the only winter-themed iconography that can be considered are perfectly triangular Christmas trees and wreathes that look like donuts. This is what I’d like to discuss, along with some thoughts about why this matters at all.

We have to have decorations.

Look, this is the silliest part of this whole conversation. Most motorists, upon approaching the Holland Tunnel, are probably not thinking, “wow, I really hope the tunnel entrance is festively decorated for the season.” They’re more likely thinking, “I hope the traffic isn’t terrible” or “I’m claustrophobic and hope I don’t die” or something of that matter – which is to say, they’re probably thinking of practical and not aesthetic things. We could really sidestep this entire debate by not decorating at all; after all, does anyone put up eggs for Easter or lucky clovers for St. Patrick’s Day on the sign? Would we want them to, if they did? And don’t act like a big chunk of the world wouldn’t totally lose their minds if there were some menorahs or Kwanza decorations up there as well. This is a minefield that PA is stepping into.

However, I acknowledge that now that the PA has started the tradition of decorating, it would be hard to stop doing it. An important part of doing anything in public is that once you start, people complain; if you stop, they also complain, sometimes more. So we’re probably stuck with there being decorations, at least for Christmas.

The only possible option is putting stuff on the sign.

If we accept that we have to have decorations, why on the sign itself? With its depressing white/gray background and dull gray text, it’s not exactly something that lends itself to being easily made festive. I can’t find a lot of examples of other municipalities decorating their tunnels (possibly because it’s a relatively dumb idea to begin with), but if I were to start a Pinterest board to inspire the people of the PA, these two would be on it:

Nabano no Sato, Nagashima, Japan

This is a shot of the light festival in Nabano no Sato, on the island of Nagashima, in Japan. Understandably, recreating something like this in the Holland Tunnel would be an absolute nightmare to install and cost a fortune, but the point is, it could happen. If you wanted to do something that really created an experience for travelers and really made an impression, this is one possible alternative. And if you’re thinking, “hey wait, this is a botanical garden and the Holland Tunnel is a huge, public roadway with lots and lots of traffic,” I submit to you this:

Avinguda Diagonal, Barcelona

The image above is on a street in Barcelona which, the internet tells me, goes on for many, many kilometers. Again: impractical? Yes. Expensive? Likely. Impressive and super cool? Totally.

My point here is that if the PA actually really wanted to get into the season and make something nice for commuters, there’s a lot of different ways to do it that don’t involve just slapping up some crappy decorations on the sign. We have options. Possibly options that are way out of reach, but options all the same.

It has to be trees and wreaths.

Look, I’ll keep this brief. It could be Christmas lights:

Christmas lights not shown to scale, but it would be kind of cool if we had gigantic lights, right?

I’m sure you’re getting the impression from this post that Amy really likes Christmas lights, and yes – yes I do. But I like them for a number of reasons – they’re pretty, they’re inexpensive, they’re cheerful, and they’re so ubiquitous in the winter as to be essentially non-denominational. They call them Fairy Lights in other countries and maybe we should too. I don’t celebrate Christmas, and yet I happily put lights out whenever I can.

You know what else I like because it’s right in the sweet spot of winter/cheap/practical/nondenominational? Snow. What about something as simple as snowflakes?

Ok, perhaps this makes a mockery of the PA’s poor response to snowstorms, but all the same – you want festive options? There’s one for you.


Why does anyone care about this?

The guy behind the petition suggests that the Holland Tunnel decorations as they are currently are potentially damaging to people with OCD. I find that to be a stupid argument and a borderline offensive one as it seeks to define people who have a mental illness as being completely at the whim of their illness and unable to handle a simple task like driving through a tunnel without having a total meltdown. I think that the decorations are triggering to anyone with halfway decent taste, mental illness or not. But then, how do you explain the many people defending the current decorations? Do they simply not have any taste?

I’d like to suggest the reason why this whole petition has touched a nerve has very little to do with good taste and bad taste, or the Port Authority, the Holland Tunnel, or any of the other obvious players in this. The real culprit here is memory, and the memories we all have stuck in our brain associated with the holidays. We see something that resembles a feeble attempt to be merry, and we instinctually have a reaction – either good or bad – which connects us to the past. We’re not reacting to the trees and wreathes; we’re reacting to the cherished memory of how the holidays were done right, in whatever arbitrary way they were during a time that was important to us, and how what we’re seeing measures up to that memory.

A friend and I were having drinks recently when the topic of Christmas cookies came up. I brought up my plans to make the greatest Christmas cookies ever – those Italian rainbow cookies, obviously  – and he sort of crinkled his nose. “Those cookies suck. Chocolate chip cookies are the best,” he said. I was immediately horrified and repulsed; I felt duped; I had assumed my friend to be a person of exceptionally good taste, and here he’d ruined it all by liking a completely blasé cookie over the clearly superior one. If I can’t trust him on cookies, what kind of person is he? Had this entire friendship been built on a stack of lies? It certainly was looking that way.

After I calmed down considerably, I realized: this has nothing to do with cookies whatsoever. It has to do with being a child and my grandmother taking me to her favorite bakery, and pointing out the rainbow cookies and telling me those were the special ones for a special occasion. It has to do with us only getting them around the holidays, and then we’d only get a few at that time, so I would carefully and deliberately plan out how and when I was going to have them, because they were such a special thing. Yes, sure, I like the almond flavor and the apricot (or raspberry; there are two schools of thought on this) taste of the filling, but are they really miles and miles better than chocolate chip cookies?

I mean, obviously yes – but to me they are, because they come with all these other associations built up. Would I like them nearly as much without all that? Probably not. (Vox recently had a cute video that explains why I love that stupid Mariah Carey song despite it representing everything I hate. Note in particular the year the song came out, and its connection to people of my generation. It fits in perfectly with what I’m trying to say here.)

So I think part of the reason why we all went bonkers over this story is that we just see Christmas trees and wreaths and get immediately transported to a special time for us. Christmas is magical, and seeing someone stray from what we personally consider to be perfect feels like a personal affront. Like the holiday, the sign for the Holland Tunnel.  Likewise, the sign for the Holland Tunnel is loaded with meaning – perhaps seeing it means you’re headed for a fancy night out in NYC, or that you’re going to visit friends, or that you’re just that much closer to getting home (or, to work). Maybe it means you’re about to be stuck in traffic, cursing your life like a dog – whether the connotations are good or bad, they’re all there. When you take these two super-loaded symbols and put them together, you’re necessarily headed to a situation where some people are going to be very happy with the result and some are going to be very upset to the point of being emotionally wounded. There’s just no way to avoid it.

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One thought on “On those atrocious Holland Tunnel decorations, and why they made me scream with horror

  1. Great piece but only someone truly depraved would suggest that those tricolored cookies, which have the flavor and texture of a cinderblock, are better than chocolate chip cookies.

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