San Francisco has some seriously iconic signs — like the grand marquee above the Castro Theatre, the impossible-to-miss martini outside the 500 Club or the Port of San Francisco sign glowing above the Ferry Building. These signs have one thing in common — they’re all neon.
It may be hard to imagine today, but San Francisco was once full of neon signs. The city was right up there with places like New York, Los Angeles and even Las Vegas when it came to neon. Market Street alone had hundreds of signs lighting up the night.
“Every commercial corridor was just studded with neon,” says art historian and neon aficionado Al Barna. “It’s just amazing the amount of neon that San Francisco had.”
Barna and his wife, Randall Ann Homan, are the authors of “San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons,” a photo book dedicated to the city’s neon heritage.
“A lot of the signs were designed for pedestrian traffic, whereas in Los Angeles, they were designed to be seen from automobiles,” says Barna. “So there’s a little more intimacy.”
Within the San Francisco city limits, signs in each neighborhood had a distinct look.
“In the Mission, the signs are bigger,” Homan explains. “You have the Mission Theater, the Roxie and the 500 Club.”
Cow Hollow and the Marina district are on the opposite end of the spectrum, with small signs.
“They fit the scale of the neighborhood and buildings there,” Barna adds.
In the late 1960s, interest in neon began to dim.
“Neon came to be seen as blight,” Homan says.
Movies of the era used neon signs to highlight danger. It became associated with gangsters, crime, dodgy bars and strip clubs.
“You always think of the man standing by the window, desperate and alone, with the neon sign flashing in his face,” says Homan.
Not only was neon seen as the light source of seedy places, but it was also viewed as expensive and polluting.
“But that’s far from the truth,” says neon artist Shawna Peterson. “If you properly dispose it, it’s not more toxic than other lights, such as fluorescent lamps.”
Peterson is one of the few remaining neon artists left in the Bay Area. In the past decade, she and her colleagues have had a hard time accessing the materials they need.
“We are buying up old shops that people put on eBay … their old glass stock and equipment. We’re turning into hoarders of neon,” she says. “Our local distributors, that we used to buy everything from, they’re not carrying neon anymore.”
This is even more frustrating to Peterson, as neon is slowing making a comeback and business is picking up.
“Everyone is reverting to a historical look, a vintage look. It’s very popular now, but there’s less of us doing it, and we’re all swamped,” she says.
The city has changed its tune on neon signs, too. The tenant facade improvement program that once gave businesses money to remove their neon signs now gives out grants to restore signs.
Market Street will probably never again look like it did in the 1950s and ’60s, but with more businesses opting to go neon, some of that old glow is returning to San Francisco.
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