Sanchez poses for a photo in front of Houston street art.

photo by: Greater Houston Partnership/Theus Gyamfi

November 4, 2016

The Photogenic History Right Under Houstonians' Feet

  • By: Kirsten Hower

During a typical bike ride from Downtown Houston to Herman Park, Joey Sanchez noticed that many sidewalks still featured the historic blue tile street signs. He started photographing the signs throughout the city, noting that other Houstonians were just as interested in these hidden gems as he was. In 2015, he launched the Blue Tile Project, using social media and geo-tagging to catalogue the city’s remaining blue tile signs before they faded into history.

Sanchez recently spoke with us about the blue tiles, what drew him to preservation, and the future of the Blue Tile Project.

Can you give us a little history of Houston’s blue tiles?

The blue tile street signs are the original street markers of the first paved streets of Houston. Located inside the historic central core of Houston "inside the loop" you will find the oldest blue tile street signs, dating back to the early 1920s. They continued to build blue tile street signs into the curbs of Houston until the 1960s. These blue tiles are a time period piece dating back to a young city. Now the 4th largest city in America, we are going to bring the blue tiles back to the Bayou City.

Blue tile street sign in Houston, Texas.

photo by: Greater Houston Partnership/Theus Gyamfi

Many of Houston's blue tile street signs have been damaged from street and sidewalk maintenance.

What is the Blue Tile Project, and how did it start?

The Blue Tile Project is a street-level preservation project to document and geo-tag all remaining blue tile street signs in Houston, Texas. After receiving thousands of submissions to BlueTileProject.com and its social media sites, the project has expanded into a conduit to all things Houston. The purpose is not only to preserve the historical street signs, but also promote the civic imagery, local art scene, and vibrant local businesses of Houston.

It all started during a typical bike ride from Downtown Houston, through Midtown to Herman Park, when my wife and I began to notice the blue tile street signs. After counting more than 20 blue tile street signs, we began photographing all of the blue tile street signs along our route. We wondered how many blue tile street signs were there in Houston and this led to the creation of the Blue Tile Project. As a result, on May 1, 2015, BlueTileProject.com went live.

Is the Blue Tile Project your first foray into the world of preservation?

Yes, the Blue Tile Project is my first attempt at a preservation project. I must admit, I have always been the one to look in the future with the promise of what is to come. But I know that we would not be where we are today without the stories of our past. The past gives historical significance to today, and I think that plays a vital role in a preservation project.

Sanchez with a blue tile prop at 8th Wonder Brewing in Houston, Texas.

photo by: Greater Houston Partnership/Theus Gyamfi

The Blue Tile Project has worked with local organizations, including 8th Wonder Brewing, to spread the word.

How does social media play into the Project?

These blue tiles have been around for more than 80 years underneath our feet. But only with the recent access to social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter have we been able to tap into a community of passionate Houstonians who love their city.

Connecting all Houstonians and adding on free web tools provided through Google, we were able to start BlueTileProject.com. We crowdsourced photos using the #BlueTileProject [hashtag] and allowed social media to do the rest. A Google map was created and each remaining blue tile was photographed, geo-tagged, and documented.

The response was epic and pushed us to create the Blue Tile Project mobile app. A local app developer, David Kerr with Kerr Systems and Services, LLC, took on the app and created a seamless platform to catalog all blue tile street signs.

What is your dream for the project? What does success look like?

Bring the blue tiles back to the Bayou City. That is our one goal. Through all channels—preservation, art/images and local business—we want to bring the blue tiles back to the City. If the blue tile font becomes associated to all things Houston on a national scale, we will have created the civic image of our dreams. I believe the details are what make a city beautiful. A city's image is more art than science.

Kirsten Hower is part of the National Trust’s social media team. When she’s not helping save places, she’s using social media to help stop art crime.

@kjhower1

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