Montreal·Creator Network

Whatever happened to Sin City? The dimming of Montreal's neon signs

When the giant Super Sexe sign displaying three flying red-caped, bikini-clad women was consumed by fire in 2021, video artist Arizona O'Neill mourned the loss of another downtown Montreal icon. She looks back on a bygone era when the city was bathed in neon lights.

In Signs of Love, Arizona O'Neill celebrates the bygone landscape of Paris of the North

Signs of Love

3 months ago
Duration 8:04
For CBC Creator Network, video artist Arizona O'Neill looks back on a bygone era when Montreal was bathed in neon lights.

This video was produced by Arizona O'Neill as part of the CBC Creator Network. Learn more about the Creator Network here.

I was born in Montreal at the end of the last millennium. Growing up in this storied city, I have always been startled by images of what its downtown looked like in the century before I was born. 

Up until the 1970s, Ste-Catherine Street was aglow with neon signs of all descriptions. There wasn't a building that didn't have a giant unique sign covered in light bulbs, breathless words, winking ladies. 

Looking at photographs from that era, I find myself wishing the city was still that visually stimulating. The neon signs are gone, replaced by corporate logos as far as the eye can see. 

Illustration of the old sign for Montreal strip club Super Sexe
The old sign for Montreal's Super Sexe strip club was destroyed in a fire in 2021. (Arizona O'Neill)

Signage decorates and defines the urban landscape, and Montreal is coming close to looking like every other North American city. 

How did we get this way? What happened to all of Montreal's breathtaking neon signs?

When the giant Super Sexe sign displaying three bikini-clad women with red capes flying through the sky was destroyed by fire in the fall of 2021, I mourned the loss of an icon of Ste-Catherine Street's bawdy history. 

I decided to look into the disappearance of downtown's signs. 

Illustration of a woman in a giant champagne glass with a well dressed man and woman watching.
During the Prohibition era, Montreal was known as Paris of the North — but also as Sin City. (Arizona O'Neill)

Whenever you look into Montreal's history, the answer is always more surprising than anything you might have imagined. It turns out that language politics and an attempt to rebrand the city's image both played a role in the dimming of our neon constellations. 

Dive into the history with me. 

Let's start in the 1920s, when our party town was nicknamed Sin City — where the alcohol flowed, the girls danced all night long and the gangsters rubbed shoulders with the regulars at the Montreal Pool Room, eating hotdogs.

The Creator Network, which works with emerging visual storytellers to bring their stories to CBC platforms, produced the piece. If you have an idea for the Creator Network, you can send your pitch here.


Arizona O'Neill

Freelance contributor

Arizona O'Neill is a Montreal-based multidisciplinary artist whose videos have been exhibited online, in gallery settings, in apartments, on CBC and on street corners. She has created original videos for artists such as Walter Scott, Laurence Philomene and Patrick Watson, and her monthly illustrations for Drawn & Quarterly are on display at the Mile End bookstore. O'Neill has edited two anthologies: one composed of cat illustrations and the other, reinterpretations of Victorian dating manuals. Her book of illustrated interviews with celebrated and controversial Quebec artists, Est-ce qu'un artiste peut être heureux, was released in December 2022.