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More Neon, Less Sprawl

Highway beautification tackled the wrong problem, and drained the roadside of color and flair.

Hitch a ride to the end of the highway / Where the neons turn to wood — Creedence Clearwater Revival

The highways don’t really “end” anymore, and it takes quite a while for them to escape the gravitational pull of low-density suburbia. But neon, once practically a byword for roadside development, has also been slowly disappearing for decades. 

Not completely, though, if you pay attention. I’m a big fan of long night drives. Once the errand-running and rush hour is over—in the D.C. area, commuter traffic evaporates by about 7pm, and with COVID there’s barely any—you have most roads, except for a few segments of the Beltway, to yourself. It’s a little taste of what driving must have felt like when the automobile was still a novelty, and when today’s tacky, run-down commercial stretches on old U.S. Highways were brand-new, sparkling “miracle miles.” It’s not hard to see why driving appeals so deeply to the American spirit or why cars went so quickly from luxury items to consumer staples, with vehicle registrations per 100 U.S. households skyrocketing from 2.3 in 1910 to just short of 90 in 1930

A big part of the look and feel of early-20th century urban downtowns and early auto-centric strips was the neon sign (neon was first widely adopted in cities, slightly predating the dominance of the automobile). Neon, compared to the backlit printed plastic signs that have overwhelmingly replaced it, is a form of art as well as a kind of manual labor. Producing a neon sign requires real mechanical and artistic knowledge, from the delicately bent glass tubes to the proper selection  and blending of gases. Colors are produced by tinkering with the gases themselves, as well as with additives and phosphor coatings on the tubes. Many neon signs are not only unique images but unique handcrafted devices. While they can certainly be mass produced, like those for Howard Johnson’s or Holiday Inn, they nonetheless must be manufactured, not merely printed. In the neon sign, artistry, chemistry, and commerce converge.

Vintage Krispy Kreme sign along U.S. 1, Alexandria, Virginia. Addison Del Mastro.

Neon, like Elvis, is one of those harmless, nostalgic things that produced a firestorm of controversy in its heyday. As the early postwar boom gave way to growing environmental and social concerns, neon increasingly took heat for its alleged tackiness, garishness, and for the stereotype that it tended to advertise downmarket or seedy establishments. It’s no coincidence that Vance Packard, Rachel Carson, Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes,” the Wilderness Act, Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification, and anti-neon ordinances all hail from this era.

About Highway Beautification. Both a movement and a 1965 Act nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill,” it’s famous for tight regulation of billboards and removal of aesthetically unpleasant (though economically important) land uses like junk yards from public view. But the Highway Beautification Act’s control of roadside advertising also had a depressing effect on neon signage. In fact, Lady Bird Johnson personally disliked neon, to such an extent that a Richmond newspaper’s profile of a local neon sign maker dubs her “neon killer”: 

[Lady Bird] Johnson’s husband signed the federal Highway Beautification Act…and this snuffed out the spark for neon benders across the country. It didn’t directly ban neon signs, but encouraged their removal through strict regulation of outdoor advertising.

By the 1980s, when neon in shopping malls experienced a resurgence, there were few neon artists left to meet the demand. The craft was nearly lost….

“She [Lady Bird Johnson] said it was gaudy-looking,” Rudd [the Richmond-area sign maker] once told an interviewer for a documentary film about neon in Richmond.

Sign for Virginia Lodge Motel, also along U.S. 1 in Alexandria. Addison Del Mastro.

However, the aesthetic concerns of tastemakers were not the only factor in the decline of the neon sign. They were power-hungry and expensive to maintain and repair, particularly the larger and more complicated signs with flashing elements, simulated motion, or mixes of neon and lightbulbs. In a commercial world of oil shortages and increasingly tight margins, eliminating them was low-hanging fruit, not dissimilar to replacing check-in desks with self-service kiosks. They could also produce an annoying low-level electrical hum, and their piercing brightness also raised concerns of light pollution. The near-death of neon, like the death of the streetcar, was unfortunate, but not quite a conspiracy.

Today, neon is enjoying something of a comeback, in the same self-consciously retro vein as vinyl records or Polaroids. A small but increasing number of intact midcentury motels are being remodeled and returned to their original glory, with the addition of modern lodging amenities (the sign might still blare “air conditioning” and “color TV,” but just for fun.) Some hip spots sport brand-new neon signs in the classic wayside style.

Vintage Arby’s sign sporting a combination of neon and lightbulbs. In Laurel, Maryland along U.S. 1. Addison Del Mastro.

But what remains of the original neon build-out should not be neglected, especially amid a mood of new aesthetic appreciation. Many of these remaining vintage signs, now roughly anywhere from 50 to 70 years old, are still vibrant and in working order. The preservationist instinct should resist being triggered merely by things that are old, but the solidity and craftsmanship of these iconic devices, and the nearly lost art of neon workmanship that went into them, would seem to suggest some form of preservation.  The older stretches of highway where these original signs can still be spotted are almost like museums or fossil records, places where new, more distant exurban growth or relative economic stagnation have preserved much of the look and feel of the first couple of generations of construction. They should be seen as living compendiums of a distinct piece of American culture and life.

The Highway Beautification Act was, perhaps, noble in its attempt to lift up and dignify highways and commercial thoroughfares and bring them more fully into the public realm. But it did not ask the more pertinent question of whether the ubiquity of the highway, and the associated hegemony of the automobile, were themselves consistent with the public realm.

Iconic but not fully working Giant Food sign dating from the mid-60s in Laurel, Maryland, along U.S. 1. Addison Del Mastro.

It is unfortunate that we responded to the proliferation of suburban sprawl with surface-level policies like anti-neon ordinances (or, for that matter, with the Wilderness Act, which was more symbolic than anything else for the majority of Americans). The point is that we did not, by and large, question the fundamental land-use pattern of suburban-sprawl development; we did not ask whether such a radical departure from every known method of building human habitats was wise. But we did drain away what measure of color and character the highway once had, taming it around the edges while leaving its destructive core elements—social atomization, long commutes, traffic congestion and pollution, massive drains on municipal budgets, diluted tax bases—more or less fully intact.

Neon, in some ways, became the scapegoat that allowed vaguely discomfited late-midcentury Americans to feel that they were doing something to ameliorate an uglifying environment. That isn’t quite what happened, and we’ve still got plenty of dreary, faded, erstwhile miracle miles. They might as well have a little more color.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.