Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Tucson is fighting to keep the historical signs, a relic of the highway era, up and running.
Tucson, Arizona, was once a glowing city, with neon signs flickering in vibrant pinks, yellows, greens, and blues. Clustered along major highways that run through the city, the signs were popular among business owners from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Owners of motels, theaters, coffee shops, or laundromats alike relied on the bold colors and dancing pictures to entice “auto tourists.”
“This was when car camping and tourism were really propelled by the interstate and highway system,” says Jennifer Levstik, the preservation lead planner for the city’s Historic Preservation Office. “People would get into their cars and travel all over the United States, and the Southwest was a really popular destination.”
That’s why you can still see many vintage signs along anything that used to be a highway or state route, she adds. But many are worn and defunct; only a few still light up. Instead of taking them down, Levstik and her team want to restore what’s left of that part of Tucson’s history.
In 2013, the city invested in a $125,000 preservation program to restore old signs that qualify as historic landmarks along what’s now known as Tucson’s Miracle Mile. Currently, two signs are being restored under that program: the 1952 sign above Riviera Motor Lodge, and the cowboy sign pointing to Hacienda Motel.
But signs like these weren’t always considered historic landmarks. In fact, beginning in the late 1960s, the neon signs became more or less an eyesore—so much so that Life magazine once declared Speedway Boulevard, one of Tucson’s neon-lit roads, America’s “ugliest street.”
At that time, cheap plastic signs had become the norm, and neon signs were considered bulky and outdated. Many weren’t maintained yet they remained standing even after the businesses themselves closed. That’s partly because of a 1966 city code that said signs like the iconic Tuscon Inn or the “Diving Girl” were too big or placed in an illegal spot—meaning anyone who took down the sign to fix it could never put it back up, says Levstik.
“Nobody would take them down,” she says, “and most were not in working condition, so we had all these derelict, blighted signs all over town.”
That changed in 2011, when the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation pushed the city council make an exception for historical signs. By 2012, restoration for many of the signs began.
But not all business owners are jumping at the chance to get their signs fixed. Under the current program headed by Levstik, business owners are required to pay 25 percent of the cost, which can be in the tens of thousands. And all signs restored under the program must be maintained for the next 10 years. Levstik says not everyone is ready, financially or otherwise, to make that commitment.
“It’s nicer to have a grouping of restored signs rather than one here and there, but either case, I’ll take it,” she says. “Anything I can do to help bring these back to life, I’ll do it.”