The Corner

One Hundred Years of Neon

Writing in the Observer, Peter Conrad celebrates a bewitching technology that, one hundred years on, still brings a touch of magic to the city. He also meets a woman who may be neon’s greatest fan (her blog is here, and there’s more on Flickr here), although fan is not a word that does her justice:

Hively is a connoisseur with an acute eye, eclectic sympathies and a few strict prejudices. “Yellow neon is kinda weird,” she said with a sniff as we passed an Italian cake shop. “I don’t like pink generally in life – I mean, for clothes and stuff. But I love pink neon, especially when it’s combined with lime green. Look how they’ve painted some of those tubes black so you won’t see the connections between the letters. It’s like kabuki, where you have actors pretending not to be there.”

With Hively striding on ahead, I found a succession of treasures, all of them invisible by daylight. The Heartbreak Bar is a shadowy den in which you can doctor your misery with a drink: Hively pointed out that HEART and BREAK, both in bleeding red neon, were split apart at right angles on the street corner. She then led me to Katz’s Deli, which advertises its salami and frankfurters inside a red neon map of the United States. “Beautiful apostrophe,” I said, admiring the curly punctuation mark in Katz’s name. “Ah, just wait,” said Hively. “There’s a great ampersand just up ahead.” The logogram belongs in the neon sign in the window of Russ & Daughters, a family catering firm whose shop is known, because of its cured salmon, as “the Louvre of lox”. Russ’s “&” resembles a mermaid with a slippery green fin, and on either side of the salmon-pink subheading APPETIZERS two aquamarine neon fish frolic, diving towards the door as if anxious to be killed, sold and eaten.

Read the whole thing, not least for Conrad’s discussion of neon in the movies and the revelation that G.K.Chesterton apparently worried that neon’s writing in the sky might be sacrilegious.

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