On December 3rd, I was two weeks into a new job on the Upper East Side. I have rarely spent time on the Upper East Side over my 17 years in New York. It is not a neighborhood that has ever felt welcoming to me, especially in the dark days of mid-winter, when the streets are pitch black at 5pm. So, I was looking for a reason to like this neighborhood where I suddenly found myself five days a week — and that’s when I discovered my love of neon.
The Upper East Side has quite a few excellent neon signs: Goldberger’s Pharmacy, Cork & Bottle Liquors, and the original location of Papaya King, just to name a few. I was charmed. So, when I saw that December 3rd marked the one-hundredth anniversary of neon signage (more on that history in a moment), I decided to take my camera and follow the glow.
And so, I set out to document the neon of New York — working signs only and, for the most part, avoiding chain-store signs that can be found all over the city. I have been told that New York’s neon is unexceptional in comparison to Chicago’s or Portland’s. I wanted to prove otherwise. I also wanted to demonstrate (mostly to myself) that the quirky, independent New York is still here — it’s not all chain stores, standard-issue vinyl awnings and luxury condos. I too often hear about all the great things that are gone, going or about to go. I needed, in the dark depths of winter, to find good stuff that’s still here.
The history of commercial neon signs really begin in 1902, when French inventor Georges Claude perfected a technique for liquefying and slowly reheating air, which allowed him to separate out the component gases and thus cheaply extract the trace amounts of the noble gas neon from air. Although the trick of making certain gases glow with electric voltage had already been discovered, suddenly neon was plentiful. Claude demonstrated a long, glowing tube of neon at the Paris Motor Show on December 3, 1910, one hundred years ago. But if you missed this anniversary, don’t worry — there are other neon landmarks to celebrate, including November 8, 1911 when Claude filed for a patent for a “system of illuminating by luminescent tubes,” or January 19, 1915 when the patent was granted. There’s also 1923, when the first neon sign appeared in the US, for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. (You can read more about neon’s early history at the American Sign Museum’s website.)
Neon signs, I have learned, don’t always contain neon gas. Different colors are obtained by using neon, argon, helium, krypton, and xenon (all noble gases) singly or in combination, with each other or with mercury, though neon and argon are the most common. The interior of the tube is often coated with phosphors to increase the glow.
I love neon signs that have a sense of place, that mark a place, that feel unique and evidence their hand-made origins. The glow, the colors, the hum when you get close, the flicker when they need repair. They are lively and engaging. They are landmarks or even icons. A familiar sign can seem like a helpful friend in the dark of the city at night. If I have forgotten which street Old Town is on (as I often do), I know I can just walk up from Union Square and the glow of the sign will catch my eye.
Smaller neon signs often gather in the neighborhood of a great one. Every glimmer seemed to lead me to the next. Are the smaller signs inspired by the glow of the larger? Or do neon sign sellers concentrate their efforts on key locations? Do certain neighborhoods have the right characteristics to encourage the population of neon to grow? I haven’t figured it out yet, though I suspect a combination of all three. Of course, certain business types are more likely than others to feature neon. Liquor stores, bars and strip clubs are all classic spots for neon — but so are parking garages, drug stores, Chinese take-out places and shoe-repair shops. All places you might be in a hurry to find, at night, possibly in an unfamiliar neighborhood — hence the neon.
Not that neon is confined to the metropolis — some of the best neon signs on earth are lighting up old motels off the beaten path or in small towns at the local movie palace. But the neon sign is, for the most part, a cosmopolitan creature.
I have spent hours darting all over the city in the last two months, visiting neighborhoods I’ve never been to, discovering new signs I’d never seen, stumbling upon half-forgotten landmarks, revisiting old favorites, and encountering for the first time great signs I’d only seen in pictures or during the day time.
So what are New York’s best neon signs? We all have our own aesthetics, of course, and I have to admit I sometimes find it difficult to separate my love for a sign from my love of the place it advertises, but there are more than a few stand-out signs worth a visit. The images in this post’s slideshow are some of my favorites.
Manhattan is home to some incredible neon, but Brooklyn and Queens aren’t far behind (I haven’t yet found any in the Bronx or Staten Island — please tell me where I can find some!). Montero’s Bar on Atlantic Avenue near the BQE is a beautiful sign…
…as is Hinsch’s Confectionery in Bay Ridge.
Project Neon has only just begun. I’m continuing to explore and document the neon of New York, and I plan to visit one neon-signed establishment each week (both places I have already photographed and new locations) to have a drink, get my shoes repaired, or eat some BBQ. I want to photograph Sunny’s in Red Hook — one of my favorite signs in the entire city — and, of course, the Wonder Wheel in Coney Island, which is also a gem. I’ll write about each visit on my Project Neon blog and you can track my progress on this Google Map (blue markers are places I haven’t yet photographed, green markers I have already documented and the red markers indicate my favorites so far). I’m also assembling a field guide to New York City neon, which I hope to expand to other neon-filled cities in the future, and exploring the possibility of making this into an iPhone app.
Some have said that neon’s days are numbered. LED technology has been steadily improving, but the quality of LED light is not even in the same league as that of neon. LEDs are appropriate for many uses, but neon is worth preserving because nothing — not fluorescents, not incandescents, and not LEDs — can replicate its glow. And so I’m going to continue working on Project Neon, documenting the great signs of New York, mapping them, and visiting the businesses that support them. I hope Project Neon will inspire more New Yorkers to appreciate our metropolis’ treasure trove of neon, encourage shop owners to maintain fading or damaged signs, and persuade citizens to support the businesses that light up our city. New York would be a much poorer city without neon.
What is your favorite New York neon sign? What other cities do you think have good neon? Would you be interested in a field guide to neon for New York or any other city? Speak up in the comments below!
All photos by Kirsten Hively. Hively received her MArch in 2007 from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. When not architecting she can often be found photographing or writing about New York City, where she lives and works.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.