Bright lights, big city: The neon of Sacramento

In the lower-left corner of the SacRag home page, you’ll often find local pictures from the Sacramento group on the image-sharing site Flickr. One of the most prolific contributors to the group is Tom Spaulding (tspauld), who follows his muse to document an urban element most never really notice: Vintage neon signs.

I tripped across Tom’s work on Flickr several months ago, and came to look forward to each of his postings. Since he lives in Sacramento, much of the neon he finds is around town. But his field trips take him all over Northern California, and show a true appreciation of a faded era.

I dropped Tom an e-mail, and asked if he’d talk about his images of Sacramento’s vintage neon, and how he sees Sacramento in general. He reluctantly agreed:

“I’ m not sure it will be all that interesting,” he wrote. “Taking photos of signs is just something I fell into. I never had a well thought out reason for it. I do have the collecting disease, which led to me having way too much stuff. I’ve been trying to get rid of the stuff and just collect digital photos and mp3s now, since they don’t take up space in my apartment.”

Once we got past his reluctance, he shared his thoughts with Sac Rag.

Sac Rag: How long have you lived in California? Sacramento? Where’d you come from?

TS: I moved to Davis to start the Ph.D. program in English in September of 1996. But I didn’t get around much at first, because I didn’t have a car. I got a car in September of 1999 and started exploring Northern California. Rapidly rising rents forced me to move to the Arden-Arcade area in August of 2002, which is where I live now. I grew up in Billings, Montana, went to school for my B.A. in Williamstown, MA for 4 years (extreme northwest corner of the state, by the Vermont and New York borders), and got my M.A. at the University of Montana, where I lived from 1993-1996. I have very few photos from those years.

SacRag: What do you like about Sacramento? What don’t you like? What would make it better for you?

TS: I adore Sacramento. A lot of people in the English program chose to commute from the Bay Area, as they found Sacramento too boring, but Billings is the largest metropolitan I had ever lived in before, so I find Sacramento plenty interesting. I love so many things about it–the history and historic buildings, the cultural diversity (particularly in terms of ethnic restaurants), the mild winters, the Sacramento River, the American River Parkway (although I don’t like the poison oak you find there), the close proximity to wine country, the coast, San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada, the vintage 1940s-1960s buildings and signs throughout the Central Valley, the three Spanish-language stations I get on cable (I only got 1 in Davis), the Sacramento River Cats, the California Railroad Museum, the Crocker, the Capitol and Capitol Park, McKinley Park, the Old City Cemetery, William Land Park, Cesar Chavez Plaza and the free Friday night concerts, the Tower Bridge, the I Street Bridge, the Garden Highway and the restaurants on the water’s edge, the River Otter Taxi, etc. I bought a guidebook when I first moved to the area and I have played the tourist ever since. I never get tired of doing touristy things.

Let’s see, I have “Inside Guide to Sacramento”, “Gawking Guide for Geezers”, “Sacramento: Excursions Into Its History and Natural World”, “Historic Spots in California”, “Photo Secrets of San Francisco & Northern California”, “The Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California”, “California Hiking”, “Backroads of Northern California”, “The Tahoe Sierra”, “Weekend Adventures in Northern California”, a few books on San Francisco, and various field guides to the flora and fauna of the area.

What I don’t like is the traffic and the design of the suburban areas like I live in, in which a car becomes an absolute necessity. Bicycling is dangerous around here, there is little public transit, and there often are no sidewalks. And I don’t like having to drive so far to find someplace cool to hike. I’ve already done all of the closest hikes in the Sierra, so now I’m going to have to drive two hours to a trailhead.

Oh, I almost forgot: I love palm trees. Having grown up in Montana, seeing palm trees always makes me feel like I’m on vacation, even after 10 years here.

SacRag: On to the photography! Although all your work is interesting, what has caught my attention over the last view months is your documentation of old noen signs. Why did you start this? And what’s the attraction for you?

TS: It’s very easy to say when it started. July 3, 2000. And old friend from Montana was out to visit me while his wife attended a conference at UC Berkeley. He had started me collecting old 1970s and 1980s video games. So I took him to tons of thrift stores that day (another thing I love about the Central Valley) to hunt for video games. We stopped at the Goodwill in West Sacramento next to Sammy’s (formerly the Astro Club–there’s no longer a Goodwill there). He pointed to the sign and commented on how cool it was, so I handed him my compact 35mm camera and told him to take a picture of it. My shot on Flickr I took the next year when I got my first digital camera.

After that, I started noticing vintage neon signs. I was running all over the area taking pictures of historic buildings anyhow, so I just started taking pictures of the signs as well. And that quickly became my favorite subject. If you look at the photos I have marked as favorites on Flickr, you’ll notice that the great majority of them are of vintage neon signs. I admire other photos and comment on them, but my favorites are always the vintage neon shots.

SacRag: Do you have a favorite or two among your Sacramento signs? I think my favorite is the Coronet Photography one.

TS: Well, that’s certainly difficult. I think my favorite sign is The California bar in Auburn.

I have a bad shot of it at night that I will replace this fall (I generally take my night shots when daylight savings time ends). Otherwise I guess I’m most attached to the photos of signs that are no longer there, most taken with my lousy APS camera. That camera really got me started taking photos, as it came with 10 rolls of film, which I decided to use up. Before that I took one or two rolls per year. My favorite shot from back then is of the Pacific Motel sign on Auburn Blvd.

All of my photos of buildings or signs that have disappeared are tagged “kaput.” Oh, and I’ve been particularly fond of this photo, and have thought about printing it to a t-shirt transfer and ironing it on a black t-shirt.

SacRag: What sort of reaction do you get to your Sacramento sign images?

TS: I’ve found a lot of like-minded people on Flickr who have become my contacts, who also take pictures of vintage neon signs in large numbers. Many of them also enjoy the funky vintage commercial buildings that interest me too (in my set Commercial Vernacular). Last summer my Sacramento Signs set was linked to on boingboing, and some of my sign shots jumped to over a 1000 views, and others got a few hundred. But few of those people bothered to look at my other neon sign photos from around California. I’m quite fond of the ones in Stockton and Lodi.

I get a lot of stares while taking the pictures, and I’ve had several business owners come out to see why I’m taking the photos.

SacRag: Seems like downtown is a natural spot to go “sign-hunting,” but have you turned up some other hot spots? West Sacramento? Old town centers, like downtown Elk Grove, or has growth doomed old signs in such areas?

TS: I’ve only been to Elk Grove once, to eat at the brewery. I don’t remembe signs there. I may have to check. Mostly, what you want is the old highways that have been bypassed by freeways. In the Sacramento area, that means highway 99 and historic US 40–West Capitol through old Sacramento, 12th St. south and 16th street north, Del Paso, El Camino, Auburn Blvd. I have a set with old buildings and signs and Lincoln Highway markers on the US 40 route.

Most of the signs on West Capitol will be gone soon. There is a law restricting signs to eight feet in height. Businesses with pre-existing signs were given a few years to come into compliance. I talked with the manager and/or owner of The Fremont motel, and he was quite upset about it.

SacRag: Do you think we’re losing something as these old signs disappear? It seems the newer signs just aren’t as creative.

TS: There are some good and creative new neon signs, but they are rare, as it is much cheaper to get a plastic, back-lit sign, and you don’t have to worry about broken or otherwise not-working neon tubes that way. So few invest in it. But they do pop up from time to time, like the Crest Cafe, The Black Pearl, Xochimilco, or the Sweetwater Grill.

But certainly, I do think we are losing something. I most regret the signs I saw and didn’t get around to photographing in time. There was a hamburger stand on 16th near the Salvation Army with a cool sign. It is now a taco stand with a plastic, back-lit sign. There was a Mexican seafood restaurant in Woodland with a great sign, and there was a old, weathered sign for motor homes on El Camino just east of Del Paso. I’m mad at myself for not making more of an effort to get shots of those before they disappeared.

SacRag: Anything else you’d like to add?

TS: Sure, here are my two favorite neon sign photos taken by other people. Both
of them have the sign reflected in water:

And my favorite photo of my own is not of a neon sign. It’s this shot, taken at a RiverCats game.

SacRag: Thanks, Tom. I also like your scans of vintage Sacramento postcards, by the way.

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