Bringing Neon Light Back to Cuba

Posted: 23-Jun-16 11:27

Decades ago thousands of neon signs illuminated Havana city streets much like New York or Paris, eventually going dark after years of disrepair. These days, though, two Cuban-born visionaries are shedding new light on the city by spearheading an effort to restore the neon signs, hoping to mark a new era for the country and its people.

Bringing Neon Light Back to Cuba

Once viewed as too expensive and unnecessary to maintain, two Cuban-born men are now on a mission to light up Havana with a series of neon signs. In an article recently published by the LA Times, author Deborah Vankin reveals details on why the signs virtually disappeared in the first place and who’s responsible for the resurgence.

Vankin credits the new emphasis to Havana Light, an urban restoration and public art project. The creative effort is the work of the Cuban-born former general manager of the LA Department of Cultural Affairs, Angeleno Adolfo Nodal, and Kadir Lopez Nieves, a Cuban contemporary artist. Inspired by the work Nodal did in restoring more than 100 vintage neon signs in Hollywood, California and surrounding areas, the duo began a self-funded project of their own in Havana.

The article quotes Nodal as saying the project comes at the same time as profound change, including newly emerging Cuban entrepreneurship and an easing of travel restrictions, allowing more Americans to make a trip to the island.

Once referred to as “the Paris of Latin America”, Havana was crowded with commercial neon signs from the 1930s through 1950s. The author explains that the signs became unpopular during Fidel Castro’s rise to power. In addition, they were too expensive to take care of so many were either turned off or taken down altogether. After the fall of communism in the Soviet Union in the early 1990s Cuba began to experience daily power shortages. While most of the few remaining signs were turned off, some of them were turned into scrap metal.

Havana Light is trying to bring them back. The first two signs restored for the City of Havana were at the Megano and Payret theaters. Eight more signs were put up as part of an art installation named Alumbrando el Barrio, to coincide with the Havana Biennial in May 2015.

They’ve now finished a total of 42 signs, mostly along 23rd Street, the Malecon waterfront and Old Havana’s Paseo del Prado. While some of these signs mark the location of closed businesses, other businesses are still in operation. The project is not easy. When new signs are needed the group relies on old newsreel footage and black and white photographs to design the signs, mostly guessing on which colors to choose. For restoration, neon benders have to hand-shape the glass, clean up the old metal frames, add in some electrodes and then use gas to fill up the tubing. Ironically it’s likely the same method that was used in the 1930s and takes up to three weeks to complete.

In addittion, funding the project is the biggest issue for it typically costs between $700-$3,000 for each sign they rework. The two original founders fund the project through paid sign tours, fundraising parties, online crowd funding and with some of their own money.

They also have plans to open a neon sign and classic car museum in 2017, generating income from visitors plus offering space for restoration work and for businesses to contract for neon signs of their own.

As for now though, the two are not making money off the project themselves. While they do pay the electricians and glassblowers they use, according to Nodal:

“One hundred percent of the profits go back into restoring the signs. It’s a labor of love.”

The visionaries say they’ve received positive feedback from locals who mostly see the neon signs as a positive move for Cuba in moving forward in the future. Nodal adds that illuminated signs also make neighborhoods safer and are a sign of progress.

As for Havana Light, the goal is to light up 150 signs in Havana within the next two years, someday upping that to 500 signs. They are also looking into possibly using solar-powered neon in the future. LA’s Project Restore is funding another major signage project on the horizon. The plan is to restore the old Los Angeles sign in Cuba, a vintage movie theater that gained notoriety, as it was once the destination of Hollywood movie premiers.


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