While the Hollywood Park neighborhood on the North Side didn’t offer much in the way of Culture when I was growing up, a few blocks over on Lincoln Avenue what may have been one of the largest and best collections of neon signs in Chicago was always on display.
I frequently saw this cluster of fantastical motel signs from the back seat of my mother’s car as she drove between our neighborhood and somewhere else. For several long blocks, the signs lit up both sides of the street. Some with flashing bulbs, some with burnt out bulbs, and each with a distinctive look and message. They marked our progress to or away from home and I saw them as both familiar and strange.
It made no sense that a street minutes from our house was lined with so many motels and their hard-to-miss neon signs. I knew motels from family vacations, where they were on toll roads going from one state to another. What was the point of motels in the middle of the city? My mother once explained that Lincoln Avenue had been a major road into the city, and the area where we lived was at the edge of the city, where it was cheaper to stay. What she didn’t say was rooms in some of these motels went by the hour.
My recollections of the now-vanishing neon motel signs on Lincoln Avenue were inspired by Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago, a book of photographs by Nick Freeman. [Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.] Freeman has spent years photographing neon, so he has photographed signs that no longer exist as well as ones still around to charm us. The majority of the photographs were shot in Chicago and the suburbs with a handful from smaller Midwest towns like Beloit and Belvidere.
In his introduction to the section on lodging, Freeman notes that “recent signs of gentrification in the area [on Lincoln Avenue] may indicate that the ‘sin strip’s’ days are numbered” and “the more enticing the sign, the less attractive the prospect of an overnight stay.” But there was a time when not all Lincoln Avenue motels were rundown and identified with illegal activities.
One of them, the Acres Motel, was wholesome enough for a family reunion in the late 1960s. On the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah, our relatives from across the country came to Chicago and stayed at the Acres. I remember us all–aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather–seated around the outdoor pool at the Acres on the day after my big event, having a ball.
The Acres Motel, I just learned last week in a comment to a post, was once owned by cousins of one of my classmates at Peterson School. I never cease to be amazed how much the Hollywood Park neighborhood was more like a small town than I ever imagined–everyone was related to somebody nearby.
North Side Neon Classics
Freeman doesn’t include every great neon sign I recall from my childhood–missing is my all-time fave, Nicky (backwards K) Chevrolet in Skokie–but many are here, like the gorgeous image of the Heart “o” Chicago Motel sign on the book’s cover, the Tip Top Motel and Superdawg, which is owned, as anyone who reads this blog surely knows, by two Von Steuben alums, Maurie and Flaurie Berman. Other North Side classics included in the book are Jubilee Gas For Less; Cole’s Appliances; Charcoal Oven and Par King Golf.
I haven’t given much thought to neon signs over the years, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Good Old Neon, revisiting signs I remember so well and discovering ones I hadn’t seen before, like Horwath’s Good Food on Harlem and Hotel Roosevelt on South Wabash. With simple images that surprise and delight, neon signs create vivid memories strongly associated with a specific place. They may be out of fashion and even outlawed by some municipalities that strive to maintain a classy commercial district, but years from now, we can be fairly certain, the kids of today won’t look back and reminisce about the many distinctive commercial signs of their childhood.
Title: Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago
Author: Nick Freeman
Price: $17.95 – Now $15 when your order from the publisher, Lake Claremont Press.
Page Count: 140 pp.
Pub Date: November 2014
Format: Trade paperback, 7″ x 7″
Features: 135 photos, location index
For a look at the mid-century modern architecture of the motels on Lincoln Avenue, see A Chicago Sojourn, Seed & Sin: Lincoln Avenue’s Motel Row.