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San Francisco’s Neon Renaissance

Culture

Joyce Slaton | October 10, 2017
With a photo book and neighborhood walking tours, two neon-sign enthusiasts have galvanized the city’s appreciation for this “forgotten” art form.

Advertising took a colorful turn in 1912 when scientist/tinkerer Georges Claude sold the first notable neon sign to a local Parisian vermouth maker. Suddenly the name of his shop was emblazoned in nearly-four-foot glowing red letters that were so bright, so beautiful, so unlike any other kind of electric light that passersby would stop to stare.

By 1919, the Paris Opera House was lighting up its entrance with red-and-blue neon. By 1923, Los Angeles had its first neon signs: two Packard beacons for an auto dealership. By 1926, Tokyo had flipped the switch on its first neon, and in 1936, New York City gave out 3,400 permits for “illuminated signs.”

Through the Great Depression, World War II, and the turbulent postwar decades, neon blazed from every commercial street, inviting patrons to eat, drink, park their car, take a bed. The vibrant beacons blinked, flashed, pointed the way, and, long before Yelp helped you decide where to stop, gave people an idea of what they might find inside: pancakes flipped, bathing beauties dove, pigs offered up their tasty flesh.

But by the late 1960s, neon had come to seem garish and downmarket. In movies like Vertigo and Lost Weekend, neon shone on drunken blackouts and tawdry affairs; in songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” and Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” references to neon brought visions of shimmering big cities that were rotten at the core. And so across America, neon signs were unplugged, dismantled, buried in landfills, and mostly forgotten about.

So why are 20 people gathered on a San Francisco street corner in 2017 to listen to two neon-sign enthusiasts in the fading evening light?

“Welcome to our sixtieth neon tour!” announces our guide, photographer Al Barna. “We never thought we’d be here. We thought we’d do maybe two or three; we never thought people would be [this] interested.”

In 2014, Barna and his partner, graphic designer Randall Ann Homan, wrote the book that crystallized the local neon renaissance: San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons. With hundreds of photographs of signs snapped from 1976 to 2014, Barna and Homan’s book galvanized San Francisco vintage hounds and preservationists who suddenly saw these signs for what they were — not mere crass advertising, but art.

“Every neon sign is handmade,” points out Homan. Yes, even the “OPEN” or beer brand logos we take for granted at every corner store or local bar. Still more impressively, since neon is heavy and fragile, it was rarely shipped — most signs were made locally by artisans. “The design and typography in the majority of these signs don’t come from corporate guidelines,” says Homan. “The artists in these small neon shops created original letterforms by hand, [designed] uniquely for the personality of the business and the neighborhood.” Not to mention the personality of the town: As Homan points out, in the “walking city” of San Francisco, signs are smaller, more intimate, meant to be glimpsed from a sidewalk rather than through a car’s windshield.

It’s only when the viewer takes a moment to admire the particulars of a glowing neon sign that details assert themselves: the graceful curve of a letter or punctuation mark, the gradations of color, the way that the artist chose to say something about the business with imagery and typography.

Don’t let the fact that many surviving signs advertise rather minor businesses fool you into overlooking their signs. Homan says she’s frequently asked why remaining signs are always at “liquor stores, bars, and cleaners.” The answer is simple, she says, and humbling: These are the few businesses that are still owned by local folks. Neon used to emblazon every drug store, but today Walgreens and CVS have taken over, with their standardized plastic signs. Restaurants and hotels? They’re all chains now.

But in San Francisco, vintage signs are beginning to blink back on, thanks to a program from the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Since 2009, OEWD’s SF Shines program has given out more than $2.7 million in grants for storefront improvements, including the restoration of local neon signs. With similar projects popping up in cities like Tucson, Knoxville, San Jose, Phoenix, and Denver, it seems clear that neon appreciation is on the rise.

Wherever you live, it’s a good bet that some neon signs survive there. Find them. Photograph them. Go inside and tell the business owner how much you like them. Because these beautiful beacons could be gone in a blink if we don’t care enough to keep them around.


All photos by the author

Joyce Slaton is a writer, editor, and tour guide who lives in San Francisco. She writes about art, movies, parenting, and all the strange and interesting things that happen in the Bay Area.

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