Vancouver’s Neon Past: Aesthetics & Public Space

VANCOUVER, BC. Last week, I had the chance to experience Vancouver’s neon lights of the 1950s and 1960s while visiting the current exhibition of the Museum of Vancouver, titled “Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver.” I was intrigued by the cultural and artistic significance of the neon signs at that time and the debate it created in the civic sphere. After my visit, I decided to research it in a bit more detail and wrote the following post to share what I’ve learnt.

During the 1950s, Vancouver held the title of the “Neon Capital of Canada.” As many as 19,000 neon signs were part of the urban landscape, creating a vibrant mix of colours that redefined the character of the Granville and Hastings areas at the time. However, these flashes of neon soon became a topic of great controversy. Citizens were split on two different sides: some believed the signs brought glamour, excitement and were a symbol of city living, while others considered them “urban decay” and polluting the cityscape.

The Vancouver neon industry took off in the early 1920s, after a French engineer named Georges Claude, invented neon light. Those flashy tubes quickly became commercialized and found their way from Paris to Vancouver in a matter of years. Soon after, a local company called Neon Products was incorporated to produce signs for Western Canada. Many businesses in the downtown core became interested in the advertising potential of those signs and soon the industry experienced tremendous growth.

The appeal of the neon signs had to do with their aesthetic qualities, as artists and designers had an integral role in their creation. Many also believe Vancouver’s wet climate and the surrounding grey landscape played a key role in their success, as the multicolour flush of the streets created beautiful reflections in the rain. The neon signs became part of Vancouver’s urban identity and attracted many tourists fascinated by the city’s glow.

(Left: Photo courtesy of Fred Herzog, 1968 | Right: Photo courtesy of Fred Herzog, 1960)

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, as more people started migrating in the suburbs, much of the glamour that was once associated with the downtown core was now filtering through other areas. City officials and citizen groups became concerned that the signs were taking away from the natural beauty of the area and condemned neon lights for “cluttering” the environment. According to John Atkin, some even blamed the “neon jungle” for “litter and prostitution problems.”

As Joan Seidl, Curator for the Museum of Vancouver, suggested in Globe and Mail article, the city’s values were put to a test: “What kind of city do we want to be? How do we want to appear to the world? What are we saying about ourselves if we insist on saying it in this incredibly loud and glittery format? Where’s our dignity?”

In the 1960s, bylaws were introduced that limited certain sizes and types of signs. By 1974, after much lobbying from the Community Arts Council, new bylaws imposed strict restrictions on the signs and as a result, many got taken down during the following years. However, the stripping away of the city’s neon lights created yet another issue, as John Atkin explains: “It’s not surprising that shortly after the sign bylaws were passed people began discussing the ‘dying downtown.’” Many areas experienced even greater “decay,” as “residents started avoiding streets like Granville of Hastings simply because of the lack of light.”

Now, only a few signs remain on the streets of Vancouver with a few more being in the possession of the Museum of Vancouver. Much effort is employed to preserve and restore the few remaining historic signs. By-laws were revisited and this time around encouraged the development of signs in certain areas. Atkin mentions that, today, “we have come full circle” while trying to revitalize the city’s “neon heritage.”

However, as we try to rekindle the spirit of glamour and excitement from Vancouver’s neon past, new questions arise around the meaning of neon in our current culture. What does it really mean? How do we feel about neon aesthetics? And how does it fit into our current urban landscapes?

© Cover Photo | Left: Photo courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives, 1959 | Top Right: Photo courtesy of Fred Herzog, 1960 | Bottom Right: Photo courtesy of Fred Herzog, 1960

© Museum of Vancouver. Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver Exhibition, 2012

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