How Neon Enlivens Street Life
Before the great lights of the Las Vegas Strip, there was the “Great White Way” on Vancouver’s Granville Street. The first neon sign was lit there in 1925 and at the peak of its popularity in the 1950s, there were 18,000 neon signs illuminating the streets of Vancouver.
Vancouver was one of the first cities in North America to embrace neon. In 1924, Granville Street merchants brought neon signs to Vancouver from Paris, France. The technology was invented there by George Claude, who patented it in 1915 and granted licenses to users.
One patent license was owned by Vancouver-based Neon Products, a business that would become one of the largest sign companies in the world. Its local presence contributed to the popularity of neon in Vancouver (although smaller companies ignored their exclusive claim to the technology and began producing the signs themselves).
Vancouver (Photo: Fred Herzog)
Vancouver’s neon past has been well documented by Fred Herzog’s photographs and the Vancouver Museum’s Neon/Ugly Vancouver exhibit (curated by Joan Seidl). I was able to learn more when I attended a lecture by John Atkin at the historic Hycroft Manor. He’s co-founder and past president of Heritage Vancouver and the top expert on neon signs in the city.
Hastings Street (Photo: Fred Herzog)
He spoke in detail about the rise and fall of neon in Vancouver. Initially the lights drew people into the downtown core, especially at night. They illuminated buildings in a way that street lights never could, creating a busy, lively atmosphere on the sidewalks below. This love affair with neon lasted through the 30s, 40s and 50s, until the dark days of urban planning - the 1960s - led to their demise. According to Atkin:
“By the 1960s abandonment of the inner city for the suburbs meant neon became associated with increasing urban decay. In Vancouver the growing awareness of the city’s natural setting and the decline of the business district along Hastings Street meant the glory days of neon were ending. Opinion-makers and civic leaders were making noises about the “neon jungle” and the “hideous spectacle” neon created.”
Granville Street (Photo: Fred Herzog)
Bylaws were passed severely limiting the type and size of sign, which led to a new lack of ambient light. The most interesting thing I learned from Atkin’s lecture was the impact that this lack of light can have on street life.
“Few realized the role the color and movement from these signs played in creating the spectacle of a lively street (especially in the rain) and it’s not surprising that shortly after the sign bylaws were passed, people began discussing the dying downtown, ” said Atkin.
Illuminate Yaletown (Photo: Dan Barham)
Vancouver is now seeing a resurgence in the popularity of neon signs in revitalizing areas like Gastown and Chinatown. Although we can never truly recreate the city’s glorious neon past (large neon signs cost upwards of $80,000), with the BC Place Roof, the resurgence of the Woodwards ‘W’, and light festivals like Illuminate Yaletown, the city is finding new and creative ways to illuminate the city and draw people downtown.
“Signs contribute to the vitality of the street through light and movement and colour. Neon then becomes a part of the revitalization. So we’ve just come full circle,” said Atkin.
New Neon Signs in Vancouver (CoV website)
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