The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?


For several days and counting, the new Safeway at Granville and 70th has been stuck with half a sign. All safe and no way. I walk by the first time, amused at the delay. We see buildings mid-construction but we don’t often see words. We don’t read an author’s half-finished manuscript. We read the published book with the illustrated cover on display in Chapter’s. We don’t listen to a half-done speech from a president, sports star, or other figure in the public eye. We are used to whole words, even though we think in half words and half-finished sentences all the time.

Last week, I talked about reading the city through text on buildings, and asked are we reading them or are they reading us?

Text reads differently when it’s separated from what makes it familiar. When it’s disconnected from its usual reality.

I know what the text on this building should have said. Everything I know from growing up in urban environments tells me this building should read “Safeway.” But because it didn’t, it made me stop. Smile. Pull out my camera. Read the building in a whole new way.

The funny thing is, SAFE isn’t a half word. I think that’s what struck me so much—that it made sense in and of itself. That it is such an ordinary word displayed so visibly, so unusually, so as to render it extraordinary.

“Protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed.”
Baseball: “having reached a base without being put out.”

I like the baseball definition better because it doesn’t imply that you’re not in the game, that you’re not taking risks. No, you are playing, you are hitting, you are running. And when there’s so much set against you that can take you out (balls, bats, opponents), you’ve landed on a base that is holy ground so to speak—sacred because it’s safe. Nothing can harm you while you’re on it.

The building isn’t “Safeway” until it gets its name. Naming is everything. We name our cities, neighbourhoods, children, pets, cars, boats, computers. Naming says you have an identity. You are worth something to me. You are personal. You are mine.

Right now, the building is SAFE.

It is not a grocery store.

It is a glass rectangle with a swoosh across its façade.

It is a four-letter word on a building.

It is poetry.

It is telling me, making me Safe. A reminder that in a city—any city—where there is so many things and so many people who aren’t safe, that Safe still exists. There is no prescribed Way to find it or to find it without confronting danger first, but it is there. There are places and people who are Safe. Safe has a reality beyond its sign.

I walk by a second time on Monday, Vancouver’s first snowfall of the 2013 winter season. To my delight, SAFE is still there. I hope the construction workers have trouble finding the WAY so that SAFE can linger a while more, reminding me and other city-dwellers through the liminal state of a grocery store what we all long for.