Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new book documents the city’s 20th-century obsession with glitz and glow.
It’s ironic that the survival of neon lights increasingly falls to historic preservationists. As the lights rose to prominence in the urban landscape in the first half of the 20th century, they signaled newness, innovation, and the bright promise of modern life—as well as its dimmer, more tawdry aspects. In the U.S., Los Angeles wholeheartedly embraced and embodied that symbolism. A new book of photographs chronicling the early heyday of neon signage in southern California, Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles, 1925-1965, makes a compelling case for L.A. as the 20th-century city of lights.
The pages are filled with more than 200 vintage photographs of the young metropolis dazzling neon with Hollywood marquees, drug store signs, neighborhood markers, and roadside restaurants. The mostly black-and-white images span an era that authors Tom Zimmerman and J. Eric Lynxwiler dub the city’s “Golden Age” of neon. In an introduction they write about how technological advances by French physicists—who discovered that sending currents to a glass tube filled with neon and argon gave off red and blue glows—coincided with the explosive growth of Los Angeles after World War I:
Well over a million people were living in Los Angeles by the end of the 1920s—660,000 of them having arrived during the decade. All these newcomers had left someplace else, bound for paradise. They were after the best climate in the nation, and were eager to live in a city that promised to deliver all that was new, modern, and exciting. Neon lights helped fill that bill. They were bright, fanciful, and strictly twentieth century.
Construction codes of the era encouraged the use of glowing signage, the authors explain. Up until the 1950s, downtown buildings weren’t allowed to be built any higher than 150 feet, or about 12 stories. To stand out, tenants erected double-sided neon boards exclaiming their names and products, turning L.A.’s core into a canyon of light, with each tower competing with its neighbor. Those signs became an integral element of film noir in the 1930s and ‘40s, a genre that leaned heavily on impressions of downtown’s seedy artifice. And as the city evolved as the world capital of cinema, Hollywood and other neighborhoods were pressed into the glitzy action. The streets of Los Angeles, it seemed, had to be as bright as its stars.
By the late 1950s, however, plastic signs illuminated by fluorescent light began to eclipse neon’s glow. Though they lacked the warmth and richness of neon, they were cheaper to produce and easier to maintain. Nowadays, LED lights are edging fluorescents out and have begun to dominate L.A.’s marquees and billboards. They “ape the quality of neon, but are colder and less luminescent than their predecessors,” write Zimmerman and Lynxwiler.
Though a number of neon signs do live on in Hollywood, they are not the fixtures of the urban landscape that they once were. That’s why organizations like the Museum of Neon Art, founded 35 years ago, collect and preserve these beacons of the past. “What an infinitely duller place Los Angeles would be without the color and glow of neon,” write Zimmerman and Lynxwiler. These photographs, too, are a way to keep the lights on.
Spectacular Illumination: Neon Los Angeles, 1925–1965, $35 at Angel City Press.