Neon isn’t native to Los Angeles, but it’s difficult to picture the city without it. Every aspect of our lives has been spelled out in neon tubes across the United States, but Los Angeles is the king of that advertising glow. No other landscape could match its sheer quantity of signs in this city that grew up with the automobile. It was indeed a visual cacophony as the neon sign vied for the eye of the pedestrian and, primarily, motorists.
Mile after mile, the streets of Los Angeles stretched across valleys and into the hillsides and mountains carrying neon messages for drug stores, coffee shops, doctor’s offices, car repair and juke joints into infinity. There was nothing neon couldn’t announce in bright, eye-catching colors and Los Angeles businesses that wanted to be modern, and up to date, had one if not five neon signs promoting their wares.
The brightest points on the city’s map were the Hollywood & Vine and Downtown Broadway shopping districts, with kudos going to Wilshire’s Miracle Mile and Chinatown. In the neighborhood of Hollywood, Vine Street was the headquarters for nationwide radio broadcasts drawing celebrities and tourists alike for work and play in theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants such as the Brown Derby. Downtown’s Broadway district drew thousands of shoppers to its numerous department stores with towering, vertical neon signs and movie palaces with glittering theater marquees.
The first neon tubes in the nation were imported from Paris, France, in the early 1920s and peaked early on. This heyday of jazzy neon followed the rise of the American automobile, but slowly waned in the 1960s as cheaper materials such as plastic signs replaced aging neon. More than anything else however, it was an active movement against roadside advertising that brought an end to its run. The quantity of neon signs clogging the streets of Los Angeles became an eyesore to some and “City Beautiful” campaigns began to eradicate and illegalize them.
Today, one may cruise Los Angeles and see numerous vestiges of its neon past, lit and unlit, here and there in older parts of town. Although tens of thousands of its neon signs are gone, when compared to the rest of the nation, Los Angeles still has more neon than any other city, Las Vegas included. And that is a fact that needs to be recognized and celebrated — here is Los Angeles, City of Neon.
Signs of Life: Los Angeles is the City of Neon photo exhibit will be on display in the Central Library History & Genealogy Department from January 18 - July 9, 2017.
Curated by J. Eric Lynxwiler
Board Member and Neon Historian, Museum of Neon Art, Glendale, California
Board Member, Photo Friends, Los Angeles Public Library
Christina Rice | Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection