San Francisco's Historic Neon Comes to Life

We see them every day, so much in fact that they blend into the streetscape, frequently beyond our notice. But when we stop to think about neon signs, their technology, and their history, we find fascinating stories that help us better understand our city.

Neon signs, in particular the weird, historic, and beautiful ones that grace the walls and hover above the roads in California, are the topic of an upcoming lecture and informal tour on Nov. 21 at San Francisco's Chinatown YMCA, hosted by Eric Lynxwiler, of the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles.

"Not all neon is created equal, but for the museum's purposes we save signs based on cultural, aesthetic, and technical merit. And that's what I'm going to be discussing at this lecture," Lynxwiler told me. For example the Grauman's Chinese Theater dragon, in Hollywood, is technically interesting because of its animation, and historically important because of its role in the film industry's golden age.

Lynxwiler plans to offer a virtual tour of some of San Francisco and Los Angeles's more noteworthy neons, such as the long-since disappeared Hamm's brewery sign, and the soon-to-be revitalized New Mission Theater. Expect to learn about lesser-known gems as well. "One I always bring up are liquor stores. They often have incredible signage, and they're mom-and-pop shops," Lynxwiler said.

Following the lecture, Lynxwiler will lead an informal walk through Chinatown to admire the signage and enjoy a cocktail at Empress of China. "That's high on my list, not for its neon, but for its incredible interior that people need to see and appreciate," Lynxwiler said.

"We're hoping this will be an introduction to a feature in the city's historic fabric that a lot of people easily take for granted," said Laura Dominguez, of SF Heritage, which organized the event. "San Francisco has one of the most vibrant collections of neon signage in the country, and there are neighborhoods that have really remarkable concentrations of historic neon."

Chinatown is definitely one of them, and this talk and tour will be a good chance to explore it a little more purposefully than we usually do.

Tickets for the 6 p.m. event are available through SF Heritage. All above images courtesy of Heather David.

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