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Landscape Electric

A program that renews the city's urban spirit by relighting Philip Marlowe's neon L.A.

July 04, 1999|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and University Professor at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s."

Urban renewal can sometimes be an expensive proposition: tearing down entire districts, constructing vast public works, cutting through neighborhoods with freeways and boulevards. Urban renewal can sometimes function as moral renewal by tapping into better identities, energized by the best imperatives of culture and religion. Sometimes, urban renewal can be as simple as the relighting of a neon sign on Wilshire, Hollywood or Sunset boulevard, lights that recover the past and point to an equally bright urban future.

Neon! Remnants of a lost Los Angeles, city of the mind, remembered and yearned for, the neon lights of L.A.--celestial fires of another sort, green, gold, ruby red, electric blue--guide us down the Wilshire corridor, up through Hollywood and out along Sunset Boulevard west. If Paris is the City of Lights, L.A. is the City of Neon, possessed of a comparable (yet antithetical) beauty and capable as well, like all great cities, of giving rise in the magic of the night to hungers of body, mind and spirit.

"The lights were wonderful," noted detective Philip Marlowe, driving through the city in Raymond Chandler's "The Little Sister" (1949). "There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon lights 15 stories high, solid marble. There's a boy who really made something out of nothing."

Something out of nothing? Is that not a good description of a town that, in the 1920s and 1930s, boomed and boosted itself into an important U.S. city? One of those boomers and boosters, Packard dealer Earle C. Anthony, visiting Paris in 1922, beheld a new kind of electric sign, devised by Georges Claude, who owned the company Claude Neon. The company made a glass tube filled with argon gas that, when an electric current passed through it, glowed with colors, sassy and bright. Like George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924), neon announced the 1920s as a decade enamored of urban sophistication. Before he returned home, Anthony commissioned three orange and blue neon signs saying PACKARD, one of which he installed in 1923 atop his dealership.

Over the next two decades, until 1942, Wilshire Boulevard, together with the boulevards of Hollywood, thrust Los Angeles into a golden age of neon. Few aspects of the city were more expressive of the improbable, even arcade nature of L.A. than these pathways of light, which, like the city itself, took simple materials and made of them a visual landscape and language of dreams.

Driving down these neon corridors by night, writers such as James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, John O'Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, William Faulkner, Christopher Isherwood, Budd Schulberg and Raymond Chandler, epic poet of the city, felt themselves in the presence, as Fitzgerald put it, of a vast and meretricious beauty: a city in the borderlands of fact and fantasy, dream and desire, corruption and innocence. For Chandler especially, the neon-lit hotels, apartment houses, stores, bars, restaurants and theaters offered by night a landscape electric with subliminal power.

Cuban-born Adolfo V. Nodal, today general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, felt the power of these neon signs in a direct and personal way. Perhaps it was because pre-Castro Havana was also a city of neon light, or perhaps it was because Nodal, a Chandler fan, had just finished "The Little Sister," with its brief but effective testimony to the power of neon. In any event, Nodal devoted himself to relighting the neon signs surrounding MacArthur Park. It turned out to be the first step of a decade-plus program called LUMENS, an acronym for Living Urban Museum of Electric and Neon Signs but also a play on the Latin word for light. At the relatively minor cost of about $400,000, LUMENS has relit dozens of neon signs along what is today called the Historic Wilshire Neon Corridor. The program is currently taking aim at 43 neon signs in the Historic Hollywood Neon District.

In February 1942, after an air-raid scare, Mayor Fletcher Bowron ordered the neon lights of L.A. turned off, lest they guide Japanese planes or offshore submarines (Goleta, near Santa Barbara, had just been shelled) to their targets. Already, many neon signs had gone dim in the Depression, casualties of hard times. Thus, starting in the mid-1980s with the MacArthur Park Project, when electrical contractor Ray Neal, owner of Sun Valley-based Standard Electrical Services, took his electricians atop roofs of MacArthur Park and Wilshire, they encountered signs that had been dim for as long as 60 years. The oldest sign to be restored, the animated bowler announcing JENSEN'S RECREATION CENTER in Echo Park (technically not neon but incandescent lamp in its technology), dated from 1919.

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