The joint was down a dark, narrow street. It was the kind of offbeat establishment you used to see a lot more of in Tribeca, a neighborhood known for its empty streets, edgy artists and loose cobblestones, until the moneyed crowd moved in. We could tell we’d come to the right place by the neon light spilling onto the sidewalk. Inside, a dame in a red sweater was leaning in to kiss the owner.
“Let there be neon!” she crooned, pressing her cheek to his.
And there was. A lot of it. The space was bathed in the soft glow of signs selling the vices that have ruined many a good guy and doll: beer, liquor, pizza and bowling alleys. The hot pink outline of a woman’s body stretched out seductively in the front window. Let There Be Neon was both the name of the establishment—an old shop, one of the last down-and-out industrial spaces left among the pre-ripped jeans and outrageously priced raw fish—and the prevailing spirit of the evening.
At the center of it all, glowing more than a little himself, was the man the city’s neon luminaries had turned out to celebrate, Thomas Rinaldi, one of those quintessential dreamers this city attracts like moths to a flame, or rather a neon sign. He is a one-man chronicler of things that go blink in the night, a staple of the city that is increasingly flickering out of existence. He has captured what’s left in his new book, New York Neon.
An architect and historian by day, Mr. Rinaldi spent years photographing the city’s neon signs for his book, documenting not only the signs themselves, but the kinds of vanishing establishments that they tend to hang over: storefront churches and liquor shops, funeral parlors and pharmacies, candy counters, oyster bars and delis. He prowled the city at twilight to shoot the signs in their best light, right after they’d snapped to life. The idea was to capture what he calls “the sheer charisma” of the medium.
In the course of researching the signs, Mr. Rinaldi fell in with the neon crowd, a real bunch of air-heads—fabricators, installers, designers and devotees whose eyes light up at the mention of the noble gas.
It was clear we were running with a wild set when we saw a parrot hobnobbing with the partygoers, moving through the crowd the shoulder of its owner—a woman who fluttered neon yellow eyelashes made of real parrot feathers.
At the back of the shop stood Jeff Friedman, who bought Let There Be Neon from Rudy Stern, known to many as the godfather of neon. (Not to be confused with George Claude who started the whole lighting shebang.) Mr. Stern opened the shop in 1972, when neon’s commercial popularity was fading and the old signs were being driven out by bland, clean-looking fluorescents in all the better quarters of the city. Neon became associated with seedy dives and skid row, unwholesome desires and the kinds of places where those who couldn’t control them ended up. It’s the kind of thing that could make a guy pretty jaded if he thought about it too much, but Mr. Friedman isn’t mired in the past.
“Obviously our shop holds a great love of old signs, but 90 percent what we do is new work,” he explained. “It’s not nostalgia. You can get colors you can’t get with any other light bulb.”
Robbie Ingui, who owns Artistic Neon, sidled up to the Mr. Friedman. He was, he informed us, featured prominently in the book (indeed, page 27 is given over exclusively to photos of Mr. Ingui bending glass). But it was a different photograph Mr. Friedman was interested in showing him—one of his sign fabricating father, Gasper.
Not everyone in the trade learned the art at their papa’s knee. Martin Doyle, a tall, ponytailed glass blower was struck by the beauty of neon one day when he was out doing a construction job. “I was up on a roof over a neon sign and I could see the neon moving inside the glass. I thought, ‘That has to be the coolest thing,’” Mr. Doyle said. That was the 1980s, when neon was enjoying something of a resurgence. He’s been riding out neon’s ups and downs ever since.
“LEDs are the big things now—it’s like the automobile replacing the horse and carriage,” he said, the color going out of him. “But it’s such a great medium. You can draw with light!” He described what it was like to look at his favorite sign for the Stardust Casino Las Vegas, how the light would chase from the bottom to the top of the sign, where there were little stars that would flash. He held up his hands and wiggled his fingers in illustration. “It was one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.”
Among the other prettiest things? The parrot’s owner—his wife. She and her pet were giving the neon in the joint a real run for its money. Outshining a lighted sign can be a hard thing to do, especially in this blinkered town, but she seemed to pull it off.
Let There Be Neon production manager Carl Ozehoski couldn’t name a favorite sign. “After you’ve been in the business for a few years, they’re all your favorites,” he said. “They’re like kids. You can’t pick a favorite.”
Neon installer Oldrieve Mashonganyika nodded in agreement. “It’s all neon happiness,” he said. “For me, everyday when I wake up, it’s a bright day because I’m working with neon.”
They both smiled, basking in the unearthly green glow of the sign on the wall next to them.
We found Dan McSweeney wedged by the wall next to DJ Ellbell, who was spinning, appropriately, underneath a Capital Records sign that cast her in its marshmallow white haze. Mr. McSweeney admitted that he didn’t own or work with neon—his passion was the SS United States. He was spearheading a project to dock it somewhere in New York. All the same, he had a thing for signs.
“I have the sign from Academy Hardware hanging on my wall in Morningside Heights,” he said. “I saw a guy gutting the building and he let me have it for $30. I put string lights around the border. Not, like, the cheapo Christmas lights, these are much nicer. But a real neon sign? That’s my next step.”
Several of the room’s beaming clocks showed that the hour was approaching 10 p.m., time to turn out the lights. The stacks of books had gone almost as fast as the crates of wine and bubbly, piled up empty by the door. Mr. Rinaldi, who was trying to balance the last round of book signing with a bouquet of bright, yellow tulips (they couldn’t compete with the beauties on the walls) and a glass of white wine, announced that the party would continue at the Odeon. One of the only other old Tribeca haunts left, there one can find a sophisticated menu, well-mixed martinis and, above all else, one of the best neon signs in the city.