The Magazine

Wattage Industry

There’s more to urban lighting than illumination.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By ELISABETH EAVES
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These days, the most creative and lasting neon billboards have become objects of nostalgia. There is now a Neon Museum in Las Vegas, and cities across the United States have seen neon-sign preservation campaigns. In 2004, when PepsiCo began to dismantle a 147-foot-long cursive neon Pepsi-Cola sign, which had shone over New York’s East River since 1936 (in a color you might call Congo ruby), citizens’ protests prompted the company to reverse course. More recently, the builders of a new apartment tower next to the sign set back the lower eight floors in deference to it. Once a symbol of the future, then of despair, the neon sign is now a retro icon. 

If there’s a lesson here, it may be that we should think twice before condemning every newfangled, distracting, mesmerizing thing. Ribbat notes that, even before neon, urban lighting was controversial. Once invested with the kind of ominous significance that professional worriers would later devote to rock ’n’ roll, fast food, and sundry fashion trends, neon lights turned out to be no more and no less than decoration. Their failure to bring about the collapse of civilization is proof that ugly never killed anyone, and that if you let it hang around long enough, it won’t even be ugly. Sometimes a sign is just a sign.

Elisabeth Eaves is the author, most recently, of Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents