A city of lights

What is neon?

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]eon stands out in broad daylight, and for kilometres at night. It draws us in and captures our attention. There’s just something about that glow.

In a very strict, material sense, neon signs are created by filling a hollow glass tube with a low-pressure noble gas. The tube is capped at both ends with electrodes, and then connected to an electric current. The gas turns into a plasma and begins to conduct electricity and starts to glow.

The incredible popularity of neon led to creation of more colours. Pure neon by itself only gives off reds, oranges, and intense pinks. The development of an argon and mercury mixture allowed for a greater variety of colours. The mercury in these new tubes produces ultraviolet light, which, when interacting with a fluorescent coating on the glass tube can produce a full array of colours.

Increasing popularity

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]eon signs first became popular for their novelty and bright assertiveness. They became an icon for the modern world, and remain tied to our perceptions of progress and commercial success. From diners and barbershops to cinemas and morgues, neon became ubiquitous within a couple decades and just as fast began sliding out of fashion.

Advertising is a fickle industry, and new developments in plastics led to new trends in signage. As larger businesses strove to maintain their air of modernity and success, they replaced their neon signs with new alternatives. Neon was left in the hands of smaller businesses, the working class, and the poor — none of whom could afford replacement, or in many cases even repairs.

Signs in disrepair remained that way for months or years, with their owners unable to afford the pricetag. Neon, with its familiar flicker and crackle, furthered a sense of decline in troubled neighbourhoods. The stereotype of the run-down highway motel with the sputtering neon sign was born.

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In Vancouver

[dropcap]V[/dropcap]ancouver’s neon landscape was unique in this respect. Local manufacturers didn’t sell neon signs, but leased them. The signs became a manufacturer’s long term investment. Their products were a source of pride that joined a network of everlasting advertisement spread across the city.

By 1953, Vancouver boasted 19,000 signs, most of which were owned by Neon Products which manufactured and maintained them at a warehouse on Terminal and Main. Leased out, the signs were kept in working order sometimes outlasting the decay of the businesses they stood over.

Vancouver’s neon market was strong, and in its heyday, was second only to Shanghai. This environment allowed local manufacturers to prosper and multiply by taking developments in neon manufacturing and combining them with practice and experimentation.

Our signs came in all shapes and sizes and were designed by art school graduates who combined modernity with art on the assembly floor. Vancouver’s neon scene was a marriage of technical and artistic skill that produced unique neon signs of high quality.

These neon signs framed a broad culture of being in the public realm. Cherished by businesses attempting to catch the eye of customers and motorists, neon signs became animated, more colourful, and more intricate.

In such a crowded and busy environment, everyone tried to be different and there was space to do so. This was the era of the bustling downtown street scene. This was before the advent of suburban shopping malls and alternative town centres. From across Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs, downtown was where you went.

Neon was found across the city, but was concentrated in the areas of Chinatown, Hastings, and Granville. The cityscape of the  ’50s and ’60s sold everything under neon. From cameras, to seafood, to Jesus, neon framed the destination.

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Where did it go?

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]alling into decline across the world as new trends replaced it, the decline of neon in Vancouver was of our own kind of politics. By the mid ’60s, neon was subject to a faltering popularity, and became subject to the kind of urban improvement campaign which rattles the city every few decades.

Though our neon signs were in a good state of repair, their air of modernity and progress nevertheless fell out of vogue. A public campaign attacked neon on aesthetic terms, as  both gaudy and ugly, and as a visual menace. Vancouver’s cityscape had become cluttered beyond belief by the accumulated stresses of urban pollution, billboards, signs, and neon. It was spiralling out of control, seemingly without any regulation in the public sphere.  

Garishly bright, and now associated with the working class, neon was blamed for all manners of social problems. It became the centre of a civic disagreement about Vancouver’s future and identity. Threatening not only the fabric of our society, neon also infringed upon the natural environment that surrounded the city, distracting the viewer from our natural utopia.

With the power of the system at their disposal, the anti-blight campaign convinced the city to rein in neon. Through several bylaws, neon was legally restricted to decline in the city by 1974. Bans on animated signs were followed by bans on new signs. Eventually, old signs couldn’t even be taken down for repair, necessitating costly and complicated on-site repairs of damaged signs. Decay was inevitable.

Neon lost that fight for the city’s soul; however, neon was only one manifestation of the issues at hand. The city has long been a battleground for character, blight, and aesthetics. From neon, to the squeegee kids of the 2000s, to the view cones and height restrictions of the Downtown core, Vancouver has a long and storied history of policing its own appearance.

The crusade against neon is part of the broader trend in the city to clean itself up, and structure the urban landscape according to perceived ideals. It is a symptom of Vancouver’s constant attempts to hit above its weight and appear world-class.  

What’s left now?

[dropcap]H[/dropcap]aving lost the fight, Vancouver retains only a few dozen of those historic signs today. The passage of time, restrictive bylaws, and declining business prospects have driven a lot of of neon signs into the garbage.

Recently, the City of Vancouver has shown a renewed interest in supporting new neon signs in Granville, Chinatown, and Hastings. They’ve assisted businesses in the renovation of historic signs, like that of the Hotel Pennsylvania on Hastings Street. This shifting interest suggests that neon will remain a part of our cityscape in some way, though it will never attain the ubiquity of the ’50s.  

The preservation of historic neon signs is difficult. Like all old creations, they break and decay, especially considering some are over 60 years old. With neon signs being the marriage of technology and artistry, new replacement parts and tubes can still be made but new neon tubes shine differently than old ones. Even refurbished, there is always change.

Raising awareness about the vitality of neon, the Museum of Vancouver does its part with a permanent exhibit titled Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver. As the original businesses close, historic signs lose purpose. With limited resources the MoV can’t accommodate all orphaned signs, so they are often trashed.

Occasionally, they are saved and repurposed even when they change hands. For instance, the neon sign for Helen’s Children’s Wear which features a young girl on a swing, was repurposed to advertise the Burnaby Heights neighbourhood. It has since become a symbol of the region.

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Moving beyond neon Vancouver

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith neon, it’s easy to get caught in a nostalgia about Vancouver’s lost past. Hastings Street, Theatre Row, neighbourhood corner stores, and neon signs are all elements of a changing city. Elements caught in the eventual slide to decline.

Every look at Vancouver’s historic past is part appreciation and part limitation. Tomorrow’s Vancouver will always be different than yesterday’s, and the sugar-coated gaze of nostalgia, as tempting as it might be, negates the possibility for us to improve our tomorrow.

Looking through Fred Herzog’s photography, it’s possible to get a comprehensive look at the lost Vancouver of the neon days. Herzog is amongst the pioneers of colour photography as an art form, and prolifically recorded the Vancouver of the ’50s and ’60s. Amassing 100,000 negatives, he focused on what is now termed “street photography.”

His eye for capturing the everyday and the working class shows a cityscape that’s a turbulent mixture of chaos, energy, and nostalgia. This is a city with a bustling street scene and public sphere. Yet it’s also a city full of smog, clutter, and grime.

Neon Vancouver was gritty, with an ecological underbelly that’s often overlooked through the sugar-coated lens of what is now lost.

What neon means

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]eon is more than advertising. It is a statement of character. Momentarily ubiquitous in our urban landscape, neon shapes the environment with its bright lights and characteristic noise. Seared into our collective imaginations through film, music, literature and our own experiences, neon is part of the city life. Part fantasy, part modernity, it exists in both a future cosmopolitanism and a nostalgia for decades long gone.

Mixing technology and art, neon is the hustle and bustle of city. Straddled between advertising and identity, neon isn’t just a sign — it’s a story.

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