Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver opens at MOV

Image: Museum of Vancouver

Flying pigs. Smiling buddhas. Owls carrying take-out. Curling seahorses. Colliding cars. Are these bright beacons of Vancouver business garish or charming? The Museum of Vancouver’s latest exhibit, Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver—opening today, Oct. 13—tackles the city’s historic neon debate, placing our new found nostalgia for neon in the context of past criticism.

In 2011, it’s possible to star gaze while pounding the pavement in East Van. But if you took a stroll down Hastings in the 1950s, you’d be astounded a barrage of glowing neon colour. Vancouver was once the brightest city in Canada with 19,000 neon signs–one sign for every 200 residents. But by the 1960s, neon was already heading out of fashion and the signs were taken down until only about 45 remained.

Read on and weigh in on whether neon signs add glamour or detract from Vancouver’s natural scenery.

Vancouver’s neon craze

Neon signage took off in Vancouver in the 1920s. The city population and commercial activity boomed from the turn of the century onward, and the popularity of neon lights was part and parcel of the bustling activity in the downtown core. City historian John Atkin attributes the early appeal of neon to Vancouver weather, explaining that neon lights against a grey, rainy sky equals super sexy. The ambient glow of neon was visible from a distance, whereas street lights have a much shorter range.

The crackdown on neon

Neon fell out of favor for two reasons. In the 1960s Vancouver’s middle class left the downtown core for homes in the suburbs. Neon signage, a symbol of the downtown core, became associated with the pitfalls of urban flight and urban decay. Second, following World War II, cultural taste changed. Natural beauty, like Vancouver’s over-abundance of ocean and mountain views, was favored over commercial imagery. Neon signage was seen as detracting from the aesthetics of the urban landscape. The city bylaws reflected this sentiment, placing greater and greater limitations on neon signage until business stopped using them and the existing signs fell into disrepair.

Interactive map of heritage neon signs still up

Open File’s interactive heritage neon map.

Use Open File’s interactive map here.

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver events

Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver runs Oct. 13, 2011-Aug. 12, 2012. Tickets are $12 for adults and entry includes curator talks if you time it right. Joan Seidl, director of MOV collections and curator of the exhibit, will give a talk and tour of the exhibit on Nov. 1 and Dec. 3.


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