In Portland, the electric signs of an old motel strip create identity for a transitional neighborhood.
By Sarah Mirk | Online Only | Dec. 5, 2008
Sixty years ago, Interstate Avenue in North Portland was a modern, sexy strip of motels and bars for the tourists. Thirty-foot-tall neon signs blazed for nighttime travelers, luring them to stay and rest awhile with unique, iconic images: a massive sword through the O of the "Crown Motel" and, down the road, the words "The Palms Motor Motel" above neon palm trees and electric coconuts.
Then came the construction of the I-5 freeway, which killed the neighborhood's economy. During the 1970s and 80s, the once-glamorous stretch became known for its boarded-up buildings and crack dealers. But many of "Interstate's" famous neon signs remained. In the nineties the area became a prime target for Portland's extensive urban renewal program. Light-rail tracks brought new, higher-end development.
While some longtime residents welcomed the changes, others feared that posh new condos and apartments would price out old timers, turning the ethnically and economically diverse area into a characterless condo canyon. In 2007, when a new housing project was slated to replace the Crown Motel's neon sword and golden crown, neighborhood activists and historic preservationists realized that the threat to erase Interstate's past was real.
But the rallying of support for neon during the fight to save the Crown Motel sign ended in victory: in July, the Portland city government declared a whole neighborhood the a "historic neon sign district." Portland's historic designation may serve as a model for other cities looking to preserve community via retro artifacts of the past.
"What these signs represent is an earlier time: roadtrips and family," says Jeff Kunkle, a Portlander who runs the website VintageRoadside.com with his wife, Kelly Burg. In their recent roadtrip across the country, Jeff and Kelly saw "neon graveyards" in many small towns. "Once you start looking around town, you'd see these skeleton-like iron towers where big neon signs used to be," says Kunkle. But in some towns, residents were pushing grassroots efforts to revive their historic downtowns, including restoring old neon.
"Neon is disappearing even from Las Vegas," says Danielle Kelly, operations manager for Neon Boneyard, a neon museum which rescues old signs from Sin City. Kelly says that while business owners across the country are replacing their big neon signs, she sees some strong reasons to hope. For one, demand for tours of the Boneyard's has more than doubled since last year. "Every day I'm getting more and more emails from people interested in what we're doing," says Kelly, "There's something to be appreciated in the singularity of the signs. They're one of a kind and so particularly capture a sense of their place."
In a troubled neighborhood like Portland's Interstate, these neon signs create a distinctive sense of place and a strong identity. "It gives it kind of a unique flavor; it's kind of a reminder of the history of that stretch," says Eric Gale, president of the area's neighborhood association. "There's not another stretch like it in Portland." Signs that once existed to advertise now have become cultural icons that embody the mixed history and identity of Interstate.
"The first battle you have is that people associate the last 20 years with crime and prostitution. They can't really see it the way it was," Burg says.
Still, the proposed demolition of the Crown Motel sign kicked local preservationists into high gear. Neighborhood activists and a group called the Mid-Century Modern League organized meetings, pushing city officials and property developers to rethink destruction of a neighborhood icon. While carefully removing the 33-foot-tall sign was significantly more expensive than just tearing it down, neighbors eventually mobilized enough support to convince the city to save the sign. Finally, on St. Patrick's Day of this year, three cranes hoisted the giant sword and crown off its rooftop perch, laying it on the bed of a truck. But so far, the Mid-Century Modern League hasn't been able to raise the $35,000-$45,000 it will take to restore the vintage crown and sword. Until then, the sign waits in storage.
Portland's new historic district protects the vintage signs and even encourages new development to incorporate neon. Portland city planner Chris Caruso says she has not heard of a similar neon preservation district anywhere in the country.
The irony of these neon signs is that while they have become city icons, digging up information about the artists who made them is difficult. Bars and motels along Interstate changed hands many times during the area's difficult decades. And neon sign makers around the country have disappeared as businesses shifted from hand-blown neon to cheaper, backlit signs.
"The majority of these big signs were designed specifically for the owner," says Burg. "These signs were made before corporate branding and homogeneity swept the country." Half a century after the Palm's sign was crafted, the artist's choice of gaudy pinks, blues, and greens still electrify the sign's bland phrases, turning "Vacancy" and "Free TV" into exciting, flashy promises.
A few blocks away, the iconic red-and-yellow tiki torch sign for "The Alibi" flashes over the popular karaoke bar. In 1947, a new owner took over the Alibi and began turning the place into a tropical-themed waypost. Today, the kitschy theme gives the place a time-warp vibe, and Portland's amateur singers drink in the 1950s feel along with their cocktails.
Although the stories of those who crafted the Alibi's orange tiki torches or the Palm's fronds have been lost, preservationists are fighting an uphill battle for respectability: getting bureaucrats to recognize that old motel and bar signs are artifacts of cultural heritage takes some hard work. But in Portland, some of that neon heritage shines on.
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