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Neighborhood Neon Icons and How to Save Them

  • California Historical Society 678 Mission Street San Francisco, CA, 94105 United States (map)

Historic neon signs represent small businesses and neighborhood gathering places where generations have met to watch movies, drink martinis, buy groceries, and park cars. The surviving neon signs that glow brightly throughout the California landscape permeate almost all cultures and lifestyles. They are not disposable advertising, but a bridge between the past and present. They have become iconic community landmarks. But what are the best practices to protect and restore these neighborhood icons? Join Randall Ann Woman and Al Barna of San Francisco Neon to take a look at some iconic neon signs in California, learn the fascinating stories behind them, explore the struggles and the payoffs in saving them, and the neon best practices that may, or may not, be part of the plan. The Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco has more than 100 surviving neon signs, and a recent initiative called Tenderloin Neon A-Z (a collaboration between the Tenderloin Museum, SF Neon, and San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development [OEWD]), aims to restore a cluster of neon signs every year in an effort to illuminate this historic neighborhood.

Katie Conry, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Museum, will profile the Tenderloin and the positive impacts of restoring the neon glow to the streets. The talk will close with a screening of Lost Neon Landscapes, neon-focused footage from the Prelinger Archive. This 15-minute film includes clips of home movies and short films that reveal San Francisco’s lost neon landscape from Market Street to Playland.

About our Speakers:

Al Barna and Randall Ann Woman are the co-Founders of San Francisco Neon & Historic Sign Network, which produces the annual Neon Speaks Festival and Symposium. They are also the authors and photographers of San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons (Giant Orange Press 2014) and Neon Best Practices: A Community Guide (Giant Orange Press 2018).

This event is part of The Tenderloin Match Book: Historical Ephemera Project a multi-faceted project that also encompasses the publication of The Match Book: Vintage Matchbooks from San Francisco’s Tenderloin, an artfully designed history book of the Tenderloin featuring the matchbooks of local businesses and cultural institutions; the Tenderloin Ephemera Exhibition, featuring historical Tenderloin ephemera from the 1920’s-1950’s, including bar signs, glassware, postcards, menus, matchbooks et al.; the first addition to the Tenderloin Museum’s permanent exhibit, The Matchbook Map Exhibit, featuring a searchable, interactive touchscreen map that connects matchbook imagery to historical info on the associated business and address. 

Through the everyday act of picking up a matchbook and striking a match, one is transported to another place and time; the past is remembered through a pedestrian interaction with a tangible object. Matchbooks are emblems of local culture: accessible, utilitarian ephemera that functioned as the chosen form of advertising for small businesses in an era before plastic lighters and health concerns about smoking. These ritual objects exist at a fascinating intersection of material culture, local history, and design art; matchbooks (and other local business ephemera) are striking populist artifacts that serve as portals to places and people in a neighborhood’s past. The Match Book: Tenderloin Historical Ephemera Project presents an illuminating new perspective on the Tenderloin’s often overlooked history, enriches the detail and depth of the neighborhood’s narrative, and ignites the Tenderloin community’s historical imagination.

In partnership with the Tenderloin Museum.