Maintaining Neon Glory
When you think of neon lights do you think of Las Vegas… or Vancouver? If it’s not the latter, it’s because so much of Vancouver’s 1950s neon sign glory has been lost to time. At the height of Vancouver’s neon frenzy, there were over 19,000 signs in the city. If the scale of that number is hard to imagine, this was one sign for every 18 residents of the city, according to the Vancouver Sun. This was even more neon signs than Las Vegas had at the time! But during the 1960s, when neon became associated with “blight” and “sleaze”, almost all these signs were removed. The city did it’s best to remove all traces of neon from it’s buildings.
“We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs. They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous. They’re desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and — this is the final indignity — blocking our view of some of the greatest scenery in the world.”
‐ Tom Ardies, “Let’s Wake Up from Our Neon Nightmare,” Vancouver Sun, 1966
Since the early 2000s, the city has raced to preserve the few signs that escaped removal and capture a piece of this legacy. How does the city reconcile a past it destroyed to become the city they are today? Do they protect what’s left of their neon legacy today, and how do they do it?
“The exhibition raises interesting questions about how we collectively construct the way our city is portrayed,” says Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver curator, Joan Seidl, Director of Exhibitions and Collections at MOV. “There was a real push in the 60s and 70s to redefine Vancouver as a green, natural space. While we may love neon today, there was a real outcry against neon signs, which represented a more industrial, urban city.”
Some of the signs that were taken down live on in this museum space. But what happens to the few that have remained on city streets once the businesses they represent shut down? Does the city have a duty to protect the signs themselves as historic, adding them as a heritage landmark and ensuring they are preserved regardless of who moves into the space next? The City has fought against those that have changed existing signs without permission, but in this case the building the sign was attached to was also a historic landmark. Are the signs themselves a landmark the city has a duty to protect?
Does the city create new signs to replace the ones it destroyed? This is a current trend. Replicas of old signs that have been lost are appearing in Downtown and Chinatown, such as the Sai Woo Rooster that was recreated in the summer of 2017. Modern businesses are also embracing the legacy of neon and no longer considering an eyesore, such as the neon piece commissioned for Kit and Ace’s Gastown store. In small ways, Vancouver is bringing back some of what it destroyed, but there are still challenges ahead for protecting this legacy and balancing neon lights against those who still consider it visual blight.
Learn more about the signs that still remain in Vancouver by reading this post on Vancouver is Awesome.