Vancouver once glowed with 19,000 neon signs

The west coast Canadian city used to be a ‘hideous jungle of signs’, with one sign for every 18 residents

HERZOG Hub & Lux 1959
Fred Herzog "Hub & Lux", 1959 Courtesy of Equinox Gallery

In 1953, Vancouver, Canada, was home to 19,000 glowing neon signs – more than both Los Angeles and Las Vegas. VanCity was a real-life Blade Runner, a visual assault on the senses à la Fear & Loathing. An effervescent surge started taking over Canada's west coast due to an advertising boom, and the city's locals were beginning to feel a bit lit up. Around the early 60s, newspapers started to decry: “Let’s Wake Up from Our Neon Nightmare”, writing, "We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs. They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous."

A bylaw was passed in 1974 to limit the erection of new signage, and classic signs so prominent in the photography of Fred Herzog – like the Smilin' Buddha Cabaret and the Niagara Hotel waterfall – were torn down. Thankfully, the Museum of Vancouver managed to salvage many castoffs from manufacturer Neon Products for its permanent exhibition Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver. MOV's curator of contemporary culture, Viviane Gosselin, walks us through the throbbing glow of Vancouver's secret history of neon.

Like a scene out of Woody Allen's Manhattan, this excerpt of Neon Vancouver appeared in a BBC-TV series, Living in the British Commonwealth

1950-1962: NEON HEYDAY

"The 50s and 60s were the heydays. If you look at the manufacturing, it started in the late 20s, early 30s but the peak years were the 50s/60s where there was an estimated amount of 19,000 neon signs in Vancouver. That was more than Las Vegas, Los Angeles – it was the neon city in North America. And in the world, because there’s nowhere else where you had as many neons as Vancouver. I don’t think that it ever picked up in Europe; it never had that kind of popularity.

It became a lightning rod for critics in Vancouver starting in the early 60s. The natural setting is what makes Vancouver famous. The way the critics were perceiving neon is as something that was disrupting the view. We have some streets that are still very heavy on neon and it is overwhelming."

1974: SIGN CONTROL & THE TUBULAR BACKLASH

"Sign control started in the 60s where you had these movements to undertake beautification of streets, but the real bylaws took place in 1974 and it prevented any new neon signs to be put up. Anything that was put up before could stay and just be maintained. The other thing that made the Vancouver neon special is the fact that the neons were leased rather than owned like everywhere else.

VRStreetEHastingsMillarJewelSaveonMPola1969N0v99CP
East Hastings street, with butcher shop turned burger joint Save-On Meats Courtesy of Museum of Vancouver

In the States in all stores, businesses would purchase the neons, whereas in Vancouver you had the neon manufacturers that would lease them – so what it meant was that they were properly maintained. If you have any kind of storm that would destroy all or portions of your neon, you would have it restored by the company. So from a manufacturer’s point of view, you had a steady income from the lease and from an owner’s perspective they were always well maintained. You know how in horror movies in the States you have motels at night flickering, and abandoned cities and you have those flickering neons? Well, it never happened in Vancouver. That seedy reputation that neons had was very much an American thing."

 PRESENT DAY: PRESERVATION

"Slowly, the neon became disliked by people who felt that a modern city shouldn’t look so garish. The theatre row on Granville Street is the most well-known street with neon in Vancouver. It has been preserved because even the critics – the committee arts council at the time – felt that this should be maintained. Vancouver was bright, it was alive. It was associated with excitement, glamour, modernity and at the same time it just happened to be one of the most visually striking in contrast to the surrounding nature, so it’s not surprising that a love/hate relationship with neon also happened here.

I think people are fascinated. That’s the fascinating thing too: there’s a real revival and people are having these new signs made in Vancouver now, or they’re having neons restored, so that’s one of the reasons the exhibition was so well-received – people have a soft spot now. It’s amazing how it changes, right?"

Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver is part of the Museum of Vancouver's permanent collection

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