Exploring Vancouver’s glow-in-the-dark past

How the rise and fall of Canada’s neon capital affects our discussion of city heritage

Vancouver’s tumultuous relationship with neon signs is a subject of much discussion in both academic and popular platforms. Once the neon capital of Canada, the only remnants of the city’s once vibrant sign culture are a few restored signs and the infamous “Great White Way” of Granville Street.

Glowing in the dark

Courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver

The 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 and directed by local talents Harry Killas and Alan Goldman. The film was shown in the old Hollywood Theatre, suitably found near one of the oldest neon signs in the West Side.

The documentary recounts the history of neon signs in Vancouver, starting with the North American neon boom of the 1930s. During those years, the use of neon exponentially increased for businesses across the United States and Canada.

Vancouver alone had around 19,000 signs at the height of the neon boom — about one sign per 18 Vancouver residents.

A giant blinking sign on a storefront killed two birds with one stone: it was a cheap way to advertise and acted as decoration for lazy shop owners. The flexibility of neon signage meant it could produce any color of the rainbow; the tubes could be bent in all sizes and shapes; and it had the power to simulate an action by blinking on and off.

Glowing In The Dark Owl

Courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver

Vancouver night skies became saturated with neon. Shop owners were happy, and so were the neon sign companies.

Meanwhile, in the United States, suburban sprawl led to a decline in money flow to downtown business. Shop owners would vacate buildings, leaving behind a storefront and a wrecked neon advertisement.

In city centres across America, neon signs went 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.”

The over-saturation of the night cityscape with neon came to be seen as gaudy instead of glamorous. Signs were deemed a distraction to drivers. Vancouver authorities went as far as calling neon a symbol of “crass commercialism.”

Glowing In The Dark Drake

Courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver

“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.”

New sign bylaws, while not directly prohibiting the use of neon, were strict enough to significantly discourage the use of 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.” [pullquote align=”right”]Neon signage became a sign of urban decay.[/pullquote]

Many iconic neon signs can now be found in the permanent exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver, Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver, while some others like the Hotel Astoria sign can still be spotted around town, refurbished.

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. Neon is not just a part of the city’s history, but also the personal history of every Vancouver citizen in the city’s time as Neon Capital of Canada.

Glowing In The Dark Cafe

Courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver

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, not to mention 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 us that history does not have to get in the way of innovation, but can instead be a solid foundation to build the city on. This way, maybe reminiscing on Vancouver’s glow-in-the-dark past can make way for a brighter future. [hr]

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