GOOD Design Daily: How You Can Save New York's Neon Signs

Kirsten Hively is documenting all the neon signs in New York. But she's also trying to make sure the businesses that own them can keep the lights on.

There is perhaps no piece of urban infrastructure more endangered than the neon sign. Blame its fading glory on our quest for energy efficiency, its expensive (and highly toxic) materials, and the fact that it's a fading art form with aging masters. But one woman is doing her best to save them, by not only documenting the signs themselves, but patronizing and publicizing the businesses within.

Project Neon
documents architect Kirsten Hively's search to seek out the illuminated tubes throughout New York. What started as simple documentation has turned into full-on urban exploration, as Hively now ventures deep into the outer boroughs, always at night, to snap her beloved signage. In an essay and slideshow for Urban Omnibus, Hively describes why she began her quest. "I have been told that New York’s neon is unexceptional in comparison to Chicago's or Portland's. I wanted to prove otherwise," she writes. "I also wanted to demonstrate (mostly to myself) that the quirky, independent New York is still here — it’s not all chain stores, standard-issue vinyl awnings and luxury condos."

Rescuing that vanishing New York is also the reason that Hively's project has such a interesting twist. She doesn't just do a walk-by shooting; she actually stops in to the businesses and drops some cash. (Mostly, due to the nature of neon-lit businesses, she will "buy cough syrup, get my shoes repaired or just have a drink.") Adding the context of the people who turn on those signs means supporting and featuring hundreds of small businesses—some famous, some not so famous—from every corner of the metropolis.

Hively has compiled a Google Map of all the photographed locations, and you can see hundreds of her photos at Flickr. You can help by alerting her to more neon signs she's missed around New York. Or simply follow her lead: Find an interesting neon sign—or interesting building facade, or beautiful aging storefront—and take a photo. But remember to head inside and buy something, too.

All photos by Kirsten Hively