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Granville Street and the Great White Way: Neon and Civic Identity

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Museum of Vancouver, Vancouver, British Columbia

Granville Street and the Great White Way: Neon and Civic Identity
Learn about the rise and fall of neon in Vancouver, as a way understanding how architecture contributes to a variety of assumptions about civic identity.
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Audio 1 - Bill Pechet
Here is Bill Pechet on the motivations behind the Great White Way light installation design.
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© 2012, Museum of Vancouver. All Rights Reserved.
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Audio 2 - Kevin Dale McKeown
Kevin Dale McKeown recalls a recent visit with his parents to see the Great White Way for the first time. But not everyone has the same immediate affection for the new light installation. Civic historian John Atkin has mixed feelings about it.
Museum of Vancouver
© 2012, Museum of Vancouver. All Rights Reserved.
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Theatre Row
Theatre Row
Granville's Theatre Row.

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© 2012, Museum of Vancouver. All Rights Reserved.
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Theatre Row 1951
Granville's Theatre Row in 1951
Granville's Theatre Row in 1951. At the height of neon's popularity in the 1950s, lights from the Vogue, Orpheum, Capitol, Paradise, and Plaza theatres reflected off Granville's rainy pavement. Artray Studio photo, Vancouver Public Library 81525A

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© 2012, Museum of Vancouver. All Rights Reserved.
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Theatre Row 1960
Granville Street in 1960
Granville Street in 1960. Beginning in the late 50s, anti-neon activists argued that Vancouver's "neon jungle" distracted from the city's natural beauty. But Dal Richards remembers it differently: "We might have been a neon jungle, but [it] was a very artistic jungle, I would say." Ken Oakes photo, Vancouver Sun

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Vancouver Block
Vancouver Block
Vancouver Block neon.

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Vancouver Block 1912
Vancouver Block 1912
Construction on the Vancouver Block was almost complete by August 21, 1912. When Vancouver's centre moved away from Hastings, the Vancouver Block helped Granville emerge as the business hub of the city. W.J. Cairns photo, City of Vancouver Archives Bu P502.1

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Neon and Civic Identity: Activity 1 (Discussion Questions)
- Why did people love neon signs and structures, like the Vancouver Block, to begin with? What did neon in the city signify?
- Why did businesses want to be represented by a neon sign?
- Why did some people say, after the influx of neon into Vancouver, that it should be restricted? What were they afraid of?
- How is neon related to urban decay and the advent of sprawling suburbs?
-What happened when neon was restricted in 1974?
- Why are architects trying to revitalize the neon scene on Granville street? What do they think will be accomplished with the Great White Way? Do you think they have succeeded? How can you tell?
Neon and Civic Identity: Activity 2 (Writing Exercise)
From the point of view of one of the characters described in the script (a low-income person, a teenager, a business person) or a character of your own making, describe your impression of Vancouver’s neon strip. Use photo “GWW-(1-of-1)” as your setting. What do you see? How does it feel? What is happening on the street? Who is there? What do you think of it?

Learning Objectives

- Introduce students to civic architectural planning
- Draw links between architecture and civic identity
- Demonstrate knowledge of historical and contemporary factors that help define Canadian civic identity, including culture, community, environment and geography
- Analyze and evaluate information from a secondary source a like news article
- Evaluate a selected civic decision according to its impact
- Demonstrate effective research skills, including accessing and assessing visual and auditory information and primary documents in order to form a critical opinion
- Write an imaginative text that thoughtfully represents the city from different social positions and points of view