Vancouver’s tumultuous relationship with neon signs has been a subject of much discussion over the years, in both academic and popular platforms. Once the Neon Capital of Canada, the only remnants of the city’s once vibrant sign culture are the few restored signs and the infamous “Great White Way” of Granville Street.
Neon history of Vancouver was once again a topic of discussion at the Vancouver Heritage Foundation movie night showing of Glowing in the Dark, a 1997 documentary produced & directed by two local talents, Harry Killas and Alan Goldman. The film was shown in the venue formerly known as Hollywood theatre, which can suitably be found by means of one of the oldest neon signs in the West Side.
The movie recounts the history of neon signs in Vancouver, starting in the North American neon boom of the 1930s. During those years, the use of neon had exponentially increased for big and small businesses all over the States and Canada. Vancouver alone had around 19,000 signs at the height of the neon boom—according to a Vancouver Sun article on the topic, that’s about one sign per 18 Vancouver residents.
Having a giant blinking sign on your storefront killed two birds with one stone: it was a cheap way to advertise and acted as decoration for lazy shop owners. The application of neon signage had few boundaries: it could produce nearly any color of the rainbow; the tubes could be bent in all sizes and shapes; and neon signs had the power to simulate an action by blinking on-and-off. Very soon, Vancouver night skies became saturated with neon. All was well; shop owners were happy, and so were the neon sign companies.
Meanwhile in the US, the suburban sprawl in the central cities led to a decline in money flow to downtown businesses. As a result, many shop owners would vacate the buildings, leaving behind a storefront with its wrecked neon advertisement. As this became a usual sight in city centers all over the States, the image of the neon sign changed from vibrant to depressing.
Vancouver heritage advocate and neon history expert John Atkin explains it best:
“In the movies, the sign that someone is finished is the shot of them in an undershirt, in a hotel room, with a red neon sign flashing behind them.”
At the same time, the oversaturation of neon in the night cityscape was seen as gaudy as opposed to glamorous. The signs were deemed a distraction to drivers. Vancouver authorities went as far as seeing neon as a symbol of “crass commercialism.”
“In US, neon signage became a sign of urban decay,” Atkin recounts. “Vancouver authorities made a preemptive strike by imposing strict limits on the use of neon.”
The new sign bylaws, while not directly prohibiting the use of neon completely, were strict enough to significantly discourage the use of the signs. Even a thin strip of neon outlining a windowsill was against the new rules. Glowing in the Dark describes the effect of the sign regulations with appropriate graveness, “There was nothing to distract the driver, but nothing left to lighten his soul either.”
Many of the iconic neon signs can now be found in the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver, “Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver,” while some refurbished ones can still be spotted around town (the Hotel Astoria sign, to name one).
Still, the audience of Glowing in the Dark reminisced about neon long gone. Someone recalled a sign on the Molson brewery that used to change colors in accordance with the temperature; another audience member brought up the BOWMAC sign still hanging by the Toys’R’Us on Granville. This shows that neon is not just a part of the city’s history, but also the personal history of every Vancouver citizen from the time when Vancouver held the title of the Neon Capital of Canada.
The movie is not by any means a pioneer venture into Vancouver’s neon history. The Neon Capital of Canada has been a subject of numerous articles, books, a permanent museum exhibition, and even a website (www.vancouverneon.com, for those interested). It is true that many signs have since been restored, and there has been more of an effort to recognize a heritage object before it gets torn down or traded in for condos.
However, Hollywood Theatre had its last showing in 2011; the heritage building is now used as a church. With the recent closures of Granville 7 cinemas and the Ridge, as well as the Waldorf Hotel debacle, it seems that the “out with the old” attitude still gets in the way of preservation of the city’s vibrant history.
Discussion of the importance of heritage landmarks reminds Vancouver citizens that history does not have to get in the way of innovation, but can instead be a solid foundation on which to build the city. This way, maybe reminiscing on Vancouver’s glow-in-the-dark past can make way for a brighter future.
A version of this article was published in Link Magazine.