In the fading glow: A search for Toronto’s last neon signs

I’ve always had a thing for bright colours. Whether it be natural colours from a sunset or artificial ones from something man-made, you can always count on me snapping a photo to mess around with later in Adobe Lightroom. Part of me wants to say that I even chose Ryerson just so I could be closer to the colourful lights of the city. 

About a year ago, I was living in the Daphne Cockwell Health Sciences Complex (DCC)  residence on campus. I remember being hungry and I remember craving poutine. So despite how drained I was probably feeling from the looming inevitably of finals, I pulled out my phone and found out that the nearest Smoke’s Poutinerie was but a 5-minute walk away. 

So I put on my jacket, braved the infamous DCC elevators (if you know, you know) and headed towards my cheese curd salvation. 

As I rounded the last corner before the restaurant, I looked to my left and was shocked when I saw the dingy, but iconic Filmores Hotel.

Filmores hotel's neon sign at night.
 Even a sign about the Leafs that looks like it’s from ‘67 can’t help us win anything. (Chen Li/ Ryerson Folio).

With a surprising amount of its neon signage intact, the hotel (and strip club) stood boastfully in the street with a surrealness I can only explain as looking through a window into the past. One second I was in sleek and modern downtown Toronto and the next I had been catapulted back to the ‘40s or ‘50s. 

Coincidentally, I had actually been meaning to find and photograph Filmores, but just never got around to it. So imagine the look on my face when I accidentally found out it was just two blocks away, secretly tucked behind a massive condo development

Filmores seedy architecture lends itself to its older appearance, but what really sets it and buildings like Zanzibar (the strip club you’ve definitely walked past on Yonge Street) apart from everything around is their prolific usage of NEON signage.

Cover the face of a building with neon lights and you’ll most likely give it a dated look. We are so used to the LEDs and fluorescent bulbs of the modern day that neon has become somewhat anachronistic. Its presence in city centres has noticeably and significantly dwindled as the years go by. 

So…how exactly did neon die?

After its commercial peak in the ‘40s and ‘50s, neon signage became so overwhelmingly abundant that it began taking on “a garish, overly commercial symbolism linked to red-light districts and gritty urban pockets,” according to a Digg article by Georgina Gustin. 

As a result, cities like Vancouver actually started to enact “anti-neon” laws. As the demand for neon signage plummeted, with it fell the number of craftspeople who made them. (I had no idea neon signs were handmade!) 

As more energy-efficient technologies were eventually introduced, neon simply became too expensive to be commercially viable.

Although it still exists on numerous business fronts, today, neon is seen more as an art form with an extremely cool retro appeal. An art form that is being held alive by the dwindling number of still-practicing neon artists. An art form that will perhaps one day die out. 

So, in appreciation of the metropolises of the past and maybe those of a distant cyberpunk future, I set out on a mission to find and photograph some of Toronto’s coolest and still proudly standing neon signs. 

As I walked through the chilly November air, I found myself pleasantly surprised with just how many remnants of a once-bustling industry still arrogantly stand. 

Look around your walk at night–maybe after restrictions loosen–and see if you can spot any particularly unique neon signs because who knows? In a few decades, commercial neon signage may flicker for the very last time.