As a kid one of my fondest memories of New York was watching it through the rear window of my parents station wagon. That song was right, the neon lights were really bright on Broadway. Safe to say, anyone whose been struck by the glowing fluorescence of signs for a cheap back rub or liquor could probably say the same. Kirsten Hively understands, and is taking it upon herself to document and preserve these incandescent pieces of New York’s past in a myriad of ways, including a free iPhone app.
Do you recall the first time in your life you were really struck by neon signs?
There have been a bunch of times that individual signs struck me, but the first time I was really bowled over by a bunch of signs was when I went to Portland for my brother’s wedding a few years ago. That city has a great collection of signs! Not long afterwards I visited Chicago, which also has some gems. I ended up taking quite a few neon sign pictures both places, which made me realize I didn’t have any pictures of neon signs in New York City, because I just took them for granted.
Was there a particular sign that was the impetus for this project?
Yes, two: Goldberger’s Pharmacy and the Cork & Bottle. Both of these signs are near my job in the Upper East Side—I had started a new administrative job in late November after being unable to find architecture work. The days were getting shorter and I was spending my workdays in a neighborhood I just have no connection to. I really needed to find a reason to love the Upper East Side when I noticed Goldberger’s, and the pink glow of the Cork & Bottle further down First Avenue. I knew Papaya King was further up, and I started wondering how many more signs were in the neighborhood. I couldn’t find a comprehensive list of working signs online anywhere—lots of elegies to lost signs, or old photos of signs that might or might not still be there, or daytime photos that gave no clue to whether the sign was still functional, but no guide to what’s out there, lit up at night. So I decided to start one myself and Project Neon was born. I made sure to always document the business name and address, and when a sign I’ve photographed vanishes, I make a note of it so people will know. Every time I go out I research the neighborhood to find a few signs I’m pretty sure will be there, but I’m always surprised by signs I didn’t know about, big & small, and it’s really addictive—it’s hard to stop when I can see a glow down the street. Maybe it’s some spectacular new sign. I have to go check it out. So I end up wandering all over the city, sometimes for hours.
A certain sign that is your favorite?
That’s even harder. There are several great signs for shops that close early which I haven’t seen lit because the longer days caught up with me before I could get to them—I’ve got a list ready to go for next fall. Also some signs look really great in photos, but aren’t so dramatic in real life, and vice versa. A few of my favorites are the signs at Nathan’s in Coney Island, The Subway Inn in Midtown, Lenox Lounge in Harlem, Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook, Clover Deli in Kips Bay, and of course Goldberger’s, since I probably wouldn’t have started the project if I hadn’t seen that. But those are just the tip of the iceberg.
What drew you to turning this project into an App, as opposed to say exhibition or book?
One thing that’s really important to me is that other people go out and see these signs (and photograph them if they like) themselves. I also really want to encourage people to support the businesses that host these great signs, which is why the blog I post to weekly is about me going to a neoned shop, restaurant, bar, or whatever and actually going in and buying something instead of just standing outside taking pictures.
With the app it’s really convenient—you have all the information with you in your pocket so whether you set out intending to track down a particularly great sign or just have some time to kill and are curious what’s nearby, you can easily get the information you need. The app will also let people rate signs, so it’s not just me saying what I think is the best sign.
That being said, I am planning a photo show in the fall at the awesome City Reliquary in Williamsburg, and hey—I wouldn’t turn down a book deal, but I think the app is really the best way to get people actively involved. And if I can find additional funding (or if my Kickstarter goal is exceeded!), I hope to bring the app to other platforms as well so it can have a wider audience. I have also thought about doing a small printed pocket guide, but it’s tough because there’s so much information. I’m still thinking about what that might look like.
Would you ever continue the project in another city?
Oh, definitely! I want to concentrate on New York right now because I want to really do it justice, but I very much hope to visit the other great neon cities some time in the future so I can include them in Project Neon.
Why do you think neon signs resonate so much with on-lookers/passersby?
I think there are several reasons. One big reason is that the neon signs that have been around for awhile become icons in our mental map of the city, like big glowing pushpins. When I’m going to Old Town Bar north of Union Square, for example, I never remember which street it’s on, but I know that if I walk north from the park I’ll see the glow, so it’s this friendly beacon in the night, and I associate all the good memories I have of Old Town with that sign. And if you look at the types of businesses that tend to have neon signs, they’re often places you go for help or solace or rest of some kind—hotels, bars, pharmacies, churches. Places you might need to find at night or in an unfamiliar neighborhood, so the signs are very welcoming.
Also I think the fact that they are handmade is really appealing. The craft of neon is something I definitely hope to learn more about over the next few months.
Mostly, though, I think it’s just that they’re beautiful. They have these very particular saturated colors that cast amazing glows on their surroundings, and many of them have really wonderful typography. Plus even though they can be really colorful and have elaborate letterforms, they’re kind of minimal in a way, because at night so much of the visual chaos of the city falls away into the darkness. I also love that they often have a little flicker or hum that just seems so much livelier than, say, a vinyl awning. I’m fond of a lot of different kinds of signs, but neon signs are definitely in a class of their own, and happily I am not the only who feels that way.
Have you had any funny interactions while photographing signs?
Yes! One was the first night I went out with my camera. A stout fellow was smoking a cigar and watching me take photos of the Goldberger’s Pharmacy sign. I think it looked extra-odd because I’ve been using a 50mm lens that works well in low light, but it means I end up standing further back than you might expect to get a good shot (and have often ended up standing in snow berms or street medians). He watched, chomping on his cigar, and when I finished and started to walk away he asked what I was doing. I said I was taking pictures of the sign. He was pretty incredulous that anyone would care about the sign (I’ve run into quite a few people like that), so I finally said, “Also, it’s also the 100th anniversary of neon.” At that he broke into a huge grin, looked up at the sign, and said, “Happy birthday, neon!” It was really sweet.
What’s your favorite part about taking on this project?
There are so many things I love about this project—I love looking at the pictures, I love going out and exploring all these neighborhoods, and I love having a reason to go into all these pharmacies, bars, and restaurants—some quite old, others pretty new. I think my favorite thing, though, is hearing from all the people who have talked to me about the project. Preservationists, designers, historians, urban explorers, visitors, foreigners… so many different kinds of people. And running the Kickstarter campaign has definitely forced me to spread the word about it in a way I never would have done on my own, which has led to talking to even more people about it. One of the reasons I first expanded the project beyond the Flickr set where it started was because of all the feedback & encouragement I was getting there. The audience matters, and the more the audience participates, the more the project grows. Thanks to everyone who has backed the project, written about it, suggested neon signs I should find, or otherwise encouraged me. I would never have done all this without all that.