CITY OF LIGHTS
Written by Joy Dutcher
Vancouver has a colourful history of neon signs. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the city had over 19,000 neon signs lighting up our streets—more than Las Vegas or Los Angeles. With the ratio of signs to Vancouverites hitting 18:1, the city's population became polarized over the visual aesthetic of the signs. Some loved their glamour and others felt they took away from the city's natural beauty.
“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
In 1974 a restrictive neon sign bylaw passed and the signs started coming down. As pieces of the city's history were turned off, we lost an important element of Vancouver's personality. As many of the signs were located in East Vancouver and Chinatown, when the lights dimmed, the city also turned its attention away from the local businesses. These communities went through a severe economic downturn in the 80's and 90's, and most of the remaining signs came down as a result.
With so many heritage signs being lost over the years, the 21st century brought a new appreciation for the city's old businesses. Heritage Vancouver started to prioritize putting older neon signs on the annual list of Vancouver’s most endangered heritage sites to reclaim lost stories. A fixture on the downtown skyline, the 'W' of the iconic Woodward's building was saved when the building was demolished and installed above the new apartment complex that was build on the land.
“It’s just of a hell of a time trying to save these things.”
– Don Luxton of Heritage Vancouver
In 2009, the City of Vancouver installed tall, white lights on Granville Street in the heart of the downtown core in an effort to revive the pedestrian only shopping corridor. The lights were unveiled for the 2010 Olympics and have brought back the street's old nickname "The Great White Way". In 2011, the Museum of Vancouver opened a permanent exhibit called “Neon Vancouver | Ugly Vancouver” that captures the history and colour of the city with many of the original neon signs.
As the community of Hastings-Chinatown has been experiencing a revival of creative businesses and bars, the signs have going back up as a nod to the area's history. A bright, art installation of the East Vancouver cross was created in 2009 by artist Ken Lum at the intersection of Clark and Great Northern Way. Where the city had once shunned big neon lights, it now had one shining over the city like a beacon.
"To me, neon was the best public art project ever. It completely expresses the neighbourhood that it’s in.”
— Judy Graves, City of Vancouver advocate for the homeless
As one of the few single-screen theatres left in Vancouver, the Rio Theatre on Broadway at Commercial has a neon sign that has lost it's lustre in recent years. After fighting and winning a 4 month battle with the BC Liquor Board over archaic provincial liquor laws preventing it from serving liquor and showing movies, the business was financially drained. To dig out of the legal debt, the theatre programming has grown to include a mix of films, festivals, live music, burlesque shows and variety shows; supporting an eclectic mix of films and local live talent. In the spirit of Chrismas, the theatre is partnering with the community in an Indigogo campaign to raise $15,000 for LED lights to brighten up it's historical sign once again.
If you want to help bring some neon back to our city's skyline, this December, buy a lightbulb to support the Light Up the Rio for Christmas. The Vancouver Sun said it best in 1934, “Vancouver is a city of perpetual fete… Vancouver has no rival and her signs will continue to illuminate her business section with a brilliance and variety that is a source of pride to her residents and a surprise to her guests.” It's time to make that quote come alive at 1660 East Broadway.