A Town Without Neon
by Tom Rinaldi
Reproduced from the Greenwich Village Block Association News, Spring 2011 edition.
Greenwich Village boasts a greater concentration of vintage neon signs than any other neighborhood in New York City today. I discovered this while photographing these old signs for a forthcoming book that studies them as unique design objects that defined the character of New York’s streets for much of the twentieth century. My motivation for this project came largely as a response to the disappearance of these signs in recent years. Of more than 100,000 electric signs installed in Manhattan between 1916 and 1960, I could find less than three hundred still in place since I began this project in September 2006. Only two have found their way into the collections of museums dedicated to the city’s history.
Greenwich Village Neon Montage (Tom Rinaldi)
Outside of Times Square, New York’s mid-century neon storefront signs never reached the level of flamboyance that characterized the neon signs of Route 66. Yet this has not stopped the city’s collection of old signs from achieving a kind of sanctified status among many New Yorkers today. Though relatively modest in scale, these old signs have won admiration for their handsome design, their streamlined stainless steel details and pre-Helvetica typefaces. Their tenacity in New York’s harsh climate is a testament to the skill of the hands that fabricated them: some have been in place for 80 years or more.
But more than anything, I have come to realize, the appeal of these signs owes to their association with venerable old businesses that have survived generations of seismic change to become stalwart neighborhood institutions. There is no more reliable indicator of such places than a sputtering neon sign over a timeworn storefront.
No wonder then that Greenwich Village is a bastion of old neon. But here as elsewhere, New Yorkers have mournfully noted the disappearance of these signs amid an ever more frenzied demand for real estate. When they go, the signs take with them old businesses that give the city’s neighborhoods what is sometimes called a “sense of place” – a unique character or identity. Alas, this is an inevitable turn-over – a consequence of the same organic process of renewal and reinvention that brought these old places into being in the first place. But with the disappearance of these signs, the question on the minds of many is whether today’s New York has left room for a new generation of businesses to thrive and survive to become the character-defining neighborhood institutions of tomorrow.