Drop into the various shops, restaurants and bars behind New York's old neon storefront signs, and you may notice a curious common thread: the old signs outside are represented inside, too. Little versions of them turn up on menus and matchbooks, t-shirts and business cards. And, almost invariably, they feature front and center on the business's web site.
Block Drugs T-Shirt. (Jeremiah's Vanishing New York)
As I came to find in writing the neon book, the signs are not just beloved by casual admirers, patrons or passers-by: many are also celebrated by their owners as treasured mascots. Some owners have gone to great lengths to keep their signs lit. When Capital Fishing Tackle re-located to a new storefront on West 36th Street a few years back, they took their sign along with them, giving it a thorough restoration and featuring it on their website at the same time.
On Manhattan's Upper East Side, the Subway Inn lately did the same. They don't have a web site, but their sign gets top billing on the bar menu.
Such devotion is not entirely impractical: these signs have undeniable caché in the city today. This was not always the case, however. For decades, beginning as early as the 1930s, businesses began turning their backs on neon. Neon signs were expensive, finicky. The signs cost as much as a new car to install, and they needed regular maintenance to keep up with their flickering tendencies. By the 1950s, they had become associated with down and out dives, shorthand for urban grit.
Today, however, those old neon signs that survive are widely admired. In the New York Neon book, I trace the fascinating story of neon's fall from grace and its incredible climb back to good standing in our collective consciousness. Today, there are few better manifestations of neon's high esteem than the pride these businesses owners often take in their old signs. That pride has its basis in more than just sentiment: to have such a sign marks a business as a survivor, one that has probably been around longer than everything else on the block, maybe the whole neighborhood. Small wonder, then, to find the signs held high, like great urban figureheads.
True, every so often a business owner yields to the temptation of cheaper LED signs, and an old neon mascot goes dark forever. But for the most part, the disappearance of an old neon sign in New York means the death of the old business it advertised. For as long as they last, the signs are not just the pride of their respective business owners, but of their neighborhoods and of the city whose streets they make just a little bit brighter, both literally and figuratively.