The slow fade of neon signage in Toronto
It's difficult to picture today, but there was a time when Toronto was a town lit up by neon, little glass tubes that would cast street corners, storefronts, and concerts venues in a saturated electric glow. Back in the 1970s, a walk along Yonge Street was an assault on the senses, where seemingly every business announced itself with aggressive glare.
It was untidy, brash, and just a little bit sleazy, but neon held its reign in this city for about 30 years. When the Sam the Record Man sign was dismantled in 2008 it announced a sort of end, but really the process had begun in the 1990s when Yonge St. first started to be sanitized. The theatres had closed by then, the music clubs were the stuff of history, and the signs became clean.
But even as neon signage is an endangered species in Toronto, and our oldest street is in the midst of massive transformation, its last glow has yet to be extinguished. You might have to paint by number these days, but you can still craft a blazing image of the city that used to be. Zanzibar continues to inject a healthy dose of brightly lit filth on lower Yonge. For now.
And it's not alone. Filmore's can't help but dazzle towering above Dundas East, even if the sentiment seems entirely anachronistic as Ryerson's campus spills eastward. Still, the lattice-like structure that props up the old sign is a true Toronto throwback. That's how signs used to be made, whether they promised GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS or the CIBC.
Neon's last stand in Toronto isn't reduced to the strip clubs, of course. We've lost Inglis, Sam's, the Rainbow Motel, and that glorious paean to gasoline that was the Esso sign at Park Lawn and Lake Shore, but the El Mo still lights up the night at College and Spadina, while the Senator and the Imperial Pub serve as a reminder of old glory near Yonge and Dundas.
Perhaps the best example of neon's ambivalent status in Toronto these days can be found at the Skyline Restaurant. The glass tubes still decorate the faded marker hanging over Queen St., but they're as impotent as the coffee is weak. You can order a BLT and a short glass of J&B, but the allure here is confined to nostalgia. The sidewalk shows no red glow.
And that's okay. Not every sign deserves to be resuscitated. Neon is a power drain. The future is LED. Based on how people tag photos, the difference seems marginal, anyway. Apparently the much-loved Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square might as well be neon. It's certainly bright and bold, but damn is it clean.
The story of Toronto captured in the change of a bulb.
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