Whatever happened to Sin City? The dimming of Montreal's neon signs
In Signs of Love, Arizona O'Neill celebrates the bygone landscape of Paris of the North
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.
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.
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.