Register Wednesday | May 25 | 2022

Light and the City

Illuminating Urban Life

On the television screen in a dark viewing room at the National Film Board in Montreal, it’s a hot summer night in 1947. Crowds throng the sidewalks of St. Catherine Street, bathed in bright neon, theatre marquees and billboards. “All over the city, the night air is alive with the laughter and gaiety of a carnival mood,” exclaims the narrator in the jaunty, dapper tone typical of the era. Cut to more lights; happy faces fill the frame.

It’s no coincidence that some of the most iconic and beloved images of the city date from the middle of the twentieth century, when illumination was warmly embraced by the world’s metropoles. Every city with dreams of making it big boasted a Great White Way, the best and brightest part of town to which crowds flocked, looking for excitement. Ever since electricity was invented in the late nineteenth century, light has been used to define urban space and create a sense of place. Stern white light projected against the facade of a church or city hall instills a sense of power and gravitas; the blinking neon and all-consuming illumination of a busy main street, by contrast, shouts, “You are here!” with giddy enthusiasm.

In recent decades, Canadian cities have grown dimmer, their sensuality dulled by the representatives of no-fun-dom. You know who they are: cranky neighbours who lodge noise complaints when a once-a-year street festival keeps them awake past nine o’clock; or prudish letter-to-the-editor writers who huff and puff about vulgar neon signs, and the politicians who take them seriously. Luckily, there are people trying to change that, people who cherish the exciting, visceral urbanity of our cities—people like John Atkin. Atkin is one of the players in Vancouver’s neon renaissance, a self-described heritage advocate who, among other things, writes about urban history and organizes city walking tours.

Neon was first produced in Vancouver in 1928, but it wasn’t until the post-war glee of the nineteen-fifties that it really caught on. “You had entire buildings outlined in neon,” Atkin tells me over the phone. “It was quite a spectacle. There was one building where they’d close the streets so people could watch the lights come on.” At its peak, some say Vancouver had more neon signs per capita than any other city save Hong Kong—one estimate pegged the number at one sign for every nineteen residents. Even City Hall, a hilltop Art Deco treasure built in 1938, was framed by neon and crowned by a fabulous neon clock. Part of neon’s attraction is its high quality: energy-efficient with no glare, neon also emits a full-spectrum light, meaning it contains the entire range of wavelengths found in natural sunlight.

Despite the attractions of neon, by the nineteen-seventies, Vancouver had become a much darker city. Part of the blame lay with continental trends. Suburban flight led to urban decay and neon, being so quintessentially urban, became a symbol of that blight. The euphoric city lights of mid-century had morphed into the seedy, neon-lit dystopia of Taxi Driver. In Vancouver, another factor came into play. “After the war,” explains Atkin, “the city brought in planners from Great Britain who were coming from very staid cities, many of which were still on rationing.” When they arrived in Vancouver, they were impressed not by its streets and buildings but by the mountains and sea that surrounded it. In 1963, one planner remarked, “Vancouver is amazing because of its nature, but it is an ugly city by nature. We should not have the city in nature but nature in the city.”

And so the decline of Vancouver’s city lights began, at least until recently. A few years ago, Atkin, fresh from curating an exhibition on Vancouver’s neon heritage, began to organize walking tours. Some of these tours attracted city planners, who, as it happened, were looking for ways to revitalize Granville Street, a former entertainment hub of lavish movie palaces and brilliant signs that had fallen into decrepitude. Neon, they realized, would be just the solution. Changes were made to Vancouver’s strict signage bylaws to once again allow animated, flashing and oversized neon signs on Granville. “What’s really amazing is that Granville Street merchants have just embraced this,” remarks Atkin. Today, under the benevolent eye of the Vancouver Building’s neon clock, theatre marquees have been relit and new signs have been hoisted. “You can walk down the street at 1 AM and it’s full of people, and a large part of that is that they’re in well-lit places, standing in the ambient glow of neon,” Atkin says.

Other cities have renewed their interest in light. The buildings surrounding Toronto’s new Dundas Square are topped by huge billboards and video screens. It might seem crass, like some provincial rip-off of Times Square, but in fact it builds on adjacent Yonge Street’s long tradition of bright, garish signage. Hong Kong, meanwhile, is probably the most illuminated city in the world: at night, some of its main streets are as bright as day; video screens playing the news, movie trailers or advertisements are ubiquitous.

City lights needn’t all be commercial in nature. As the Architect’s Newspaper, a New York trade publication, puts it, “Though ethereal, light is one of architecture’s most important materials. Whether natural or artificial, light can accentuate architectural genius, mask mistakes, grab attention, make a place feel sacred or safe.”

Here in Canada, light transforms our cities during the shortest days of fall and winter. In late November, when the sun sets so depressingly early, many of Montreal’s street trees are draped in strings of light and illuminated Christmas decorations hang from lampposts. One of the most breathtaking sights of the year is the view north on McGill College Avenue at dusk in early winter—twinkling red and white trees stream up to the peaks and gables of McGill University, which glows amber against a dark Mount Royal like some brooding medieval castle.

There is always, however, the matter of light pollution. A growing coalition of environmentalists, astronomers and amateur sky-gazers are fighting what they see is an attack on the night sky. The wasteful, misdirected light produced by inefficient sources confuses animals, costs a fortune and generates pollution. These are perfectly valid concerns, and many cities have taken action against light pollution by replacing incandescent street lights with energy-efficient LED ones. Still, some of the anti-light pollution rhetoric runs counter to the very nature of cities. Astronomers bemoan the fact that urbanites can’t see wonders like the Milky Way, but there can be as much beauty in artificial city light as there is in the night sky. Cities should work to be more energy-efficient, but that shouldn’t mean trying to mimic a pre-industrial state when city life ended at sundown.

Illumination is what gives the city its mystique, what distinguishes it from dark suburbia and still-darker countryside. It can enrich and even define a place. So bring on the bright lights.

Christopher DeWolf wanders our streets as Maisonneuve’s urban affairs critic. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Christopher DeWolf.