Project Neon

Architect and designer Kirsten Hively has an enthusiasm for urban space and form that is contagious. Her curiosity about cities is active — she takes notice of a particular structure or sign and seeks out its story. Last summer, Hively told us about the Candela Structures, two almost-forgotten waterfront structures in Flushing Bay that found new life through her investigations and a subsequent exhibition and online project dedicated to surfacing their history. Recently, Hively has discovered a passion for the neon signage of the city and has launched Project Neon, an effort to seek out, photograph and encourage appreciation of the glow of New York City. Read on to learn more about neon’s place in the city, its history and its future and click on any of the images below to launch a slideshow of selections from the over 200 photos (and counting!) she has taken thus far. –V.S.

City Chemist
City Chemist

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.

Roebling Tea Room
Roebling Tea Room

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.

Vitny Video
Vitny Video

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.

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 authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


matt February 3, 2011


Tim February 3, 2011

Best of luck with this project! I am 100% behind any project that celebrates our city’s built environment, especially the fragile and easily disposable signage layer of the city. It was really fun to see how many I recognized and how many were new to me. Perhaps the Staten Island Ferry sign might be one to include? (is it even neon?) I wonder how much neon will be lost as Coney Island is redeveloped. Please keep us posted.

Kirsten February 3, 2011

Thanks for the kind words. I still have so many signs left to visit (as you can see on the Google map, and I’m sure there are more I haven’t found yet), including Coney Island, but the mood out there is melancholy these days. At least the Nathan’s & Wonder Wheel neon aren’t going anywhere. And thanks for the reminder about the Staten Island Ferry Terminal! (Ironic I left that out since I used to work at Schwartz Architects.) It’s now on the list!

Scriptopolis February 4, 2011

This is a beautiful and exciting project, we’re looking forward your next posts!

tom February 7, 2011

Thank you so much for doing this! I am one of the few left that still make a living making neon, it’s dying, but not dead yet! Beautiful photos!

John February 10, 2011

Actually we met with Kirsten when she was in town and let me tell you, she has a very unique way of seeing neon art. It was very interesting and I loved to see your post.

jim February 11, 2011

Kirsten, this is a great project. I hope it inspires people in other cities to capture their own neon artifacts before they are gone.
I think another (day time) project could be historic commericial painted signs on masonry walls. Those might be an even more endangered species.

Love the work! jim

larry February 24, 2011

Awesome work!!! I applaud your vision.

Originally from Coney Island, neon lit up every summer night. Nothing like neon.

Now, I work in Las Vegas for a sign company synonymous with neon signage [YESCO].

I have been doing my own photos of the Las Vegas landscape. I hope to get these online soon.

Tami February 25, 2011

I’ve always loved the art of neon. Thanks for sharing the big city lights with this small town girl.

alice June 29, 2011

“Let there be Neon” was (is?) a gallery on White Street near West Bway in Lower Manhattan that exhibited and sold wonderful neon signs and sculptures. Are you familiar with it?

Kirsten June 29, 2011

Thanks, Alice–I do know about Let There Be Neon
…and I’m hoping when things calm down a little I can visit there and some of the other great neon shops around NYC.

Cherie Ernest July 7, 2011

Are you interested in photos of classic neon signs from small towns in other parts of the country?

Kirsten July 7, 2011

Hello, Cherie.

Right now I’m focusing on documenting NYC signs, because otherwise it would be overwhelming, but some of my favorite signs are in other cities or in the country. I’ve photographed those in the past, and I hope to expand Project Neon to include them in the future as well, once everything settles down a bit. I’m always happy to hear about great signs, regardless!

patrice July 7, 2011

What a wonderful eye you have in preserving this dying art. I have always loved neon signs and when I lived in San Francisco the photo opportunities were endless.

I saw in one of your postings that you don’t always use a tripod. Just wondering how you’re able to capture such stunning shots without camera shake? And, I see that you mainly use 50mm prime — the 1.8 or 1.4?

Thanks Kirsten! Keep up the great work.

Kirsten July 8, 2011

Hi Patrice. I haven’t been to San Francisco in years, but I do hope to get back there again some time in the not-too-distant future.

Yes, I rarely use a tripod–mostly only when I need to use my zoom lens (like for the Pepsi sign–I’d have to be standing in the river to frame the whole thing with the 50mm). The 50mm is the 1.8. Some day I hope to upgrade!

As for camera shake, the lens is a little forgiving of it since it’s not zoomed, and I’m also able to open the aperture up a lot and so take a relatively fast picture. I’ve gotten used to the lowest setting I can take a clear picture at, and I brace myself whenever possible, stand solidly, and let my breath out before snapping. the usual tricks! that and taking lots of pictures if I’m not sure how well one came out (even zooming in on the display doesn’t always tell you).

Len Davidson July 20, 2011

Glad you are taking NY neon photos. There are dozens of us who have been photographing, preserving and restoring vintage neon for the past 25 years. Welcome! What we all need is someone to set up a single NEON PRESERVATION site that lists all the books, articles, sites, photos, museums, etc that have been done and that are still being done now.

Often it seems that the network of neon preservers across the country is mostly people 50, 60 and older, so its great when younger people start to see what is left and what has been destroyed. I had a college student visit me today who was fascinated by neon so there’s always hope more people will wake up to this amazing North American heritage and young people will get involved.

Anyway, my hope is that someone who is fluent with computers will make a compendium of all that has been done so that we don’t hear about your project one day, and what someone in Detroit is doing 2 weeks later, and what someone in Vancouver did 20 years ago.

We need a neon archivist. My museum can’t do it, but the American sign Museum in Cincinnatti has done a lot of this.

Kirsten August 2, 2011

I didn’t know about your collection, Len! I hope I can pay a visit some time–it looks like you have some really lovely signs.

Unfortunately, the work involved in coordinating everything would be tremendous–much more than I could possibly handle. Many people have asked about coordinating various neon appreciators, though, so I will think further on how this could best be accomplished and who might have the resources to facilitate that. Suggestions welcome!