February 23, 2017 – Vintage Neon

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Before the Interstate Highway System was developed, state routes and roadside motels dotted the southwestern landscape. Privately owned businesses lined these thoroughfares with unique signage offering a variety of services for the long-distance traveler. Greasy-spoon cafés and auto-service stations shared the strip. With the introduction of the Interstate System, travel was faster and more convenient, but the quality of character was supplanted by larger chains and a decidedly more corporate appeal.

Denny’s and Auto-Zone replaced these local businesses, few of which survive today.

More than half a century ago now, this particular sign – a red and white vintage neon for Leo’s Auto Supply – was purchased and moved to the intersection of Glenn & Stone in Tucson, Arizona, by the proprieter of Don’s Hot Rod Shop. One of the owners, Leo Toia, had it relocated.

Along the Old Benson Highway, many of the small old roadside Motels survive, and Tucson boasts a host of vintage neon signs along the now-infamous Miracle Mile. Many of the old businesses have been lost, but there is a rich history here in Tucson, and this Leo’s Auto Supply sign is one of the survivors.

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February 10, 2017 – Neon Doorways

neon-walls-post

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I leave this image of the day with a simple quote I stumbled across – a quote that very accurately describes how I feel when I pick up my camera and head out into the city to see what I might find.

“No place is boring if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film.”
Robert Adams

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February 16 – Sunland Motel

02-16 SunLand Motel postAs car culture began to take root in Arizona, the Old Spanish Trail Highway was established in 1916. This route represents a massive construction project intended to thread from Southern California to Florida. Motels and gas stations sprung up from the route, and some of the old remnants just so happen to survive today.

The Old Spanish Trail merged with other routes on the north side of Tucson, creating a network throughout the city. In the 1920s, the road became US Highway 80, which snaked down through Benson, Bisbee, and onto Douglas. Another vein sprung up, US Highway 89, stretching down through Tubac, Tumacacori, and on toward to the port of entry in Nogales along the Mexican border. Highway 84, known as the Casa Grande Highway, is now called Miracle Mile – it led north to Casa Grande and Phoenix.

Miracle Mile is today a somewhat notorious stretch of road, with low-rent rooms, weekly rates, a strip club, and a bowling alley. But that isn’t news. The area began to decline in the late 1960s, and Miracle Mile became synonymous with drugs, prostitution, and other illicit activity.

Only recently has the area has begun to shed it’s negative reputation, and it may be a while yet before the old stories fade away. Reinvestment has seen renovation, but many of the motels still seem relatively neglected, and the low rates still have the appearance of attracting a particular type of clientele. I guess time will tell what’s in store for old Miracle Mile road.

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January 24 – Downtown Tucson

01-24 Rio Nuevo post

I was a freshman at The University of Arizona back in 2001. The whole of downtown Tucson has completely changed in the years since then. University Boulevard was a third-world country; the old brick buildings at the intersection of Park & University were a shelled-out scene reminiscent of 1980s East St. Louis. The only missing set-piece would be an arrangement of chopped cars on cinder-blocks. The old drug store was razed that year, piles of bricks and construction equipment lined the streets, and the sound of jackhammers provided the background music audible from my eighth story dorm room in Coronado Hall.

Downtown wasn’t entirely different. Congress Street, the main thoroughfare, had it’s own share of problems. The Screening Room still had events every weekend, Hotel Congress was a hub for live music & adult beverage, and The Grill – open twenty-four hours – always had coffee, beer, and tater tots for the restless insomniac artist. The scene was markedly different in the light of day, though; many of the storefronts on Congress were shuttered and vacant, rents were low, and a series of businesses seemed to play musical chairs with commercial space.

A lot has changed since then.

Today’s ‘photograph of the day’ is an old market just south of Tucson’s downtown area on 6th Avenue. I don’t have a lot of information about the old business, but I’m guessing it was one of the many bodegas near Barrio Viejo that eventually fell into irrelevancy. The structure appeared to sit vacant during the entirety of my tenure in Tucson, the ten years stretching from 2001 to 2011.

Revitalization hasn’t just hit Congress and 4th Avenue – the old KY Market has been purchased by a gentleman named Danny Vinik and converted into a multimedia space for his company, Brink Media. I worked for the company, briefly, but I don’t think I possessed quite the skill-set, and the project I was working on didn’t seem to be too tremendously focused. The people that work there, however, are some of the most brilliant web developers, graphic designers, and videographers I’ve ever met. I was happy to be a part of the operation, short-lived and fruitless as it may have ultimately proved to be.

I have a lot of pre-restoration photographs of downtown Tucson, and this is one that has a little bit of meaning for me. Progress happens, and I’m happy knowing that the building is finally being put to use; one of the greatest friends I’ve ever had works there today. But I also selfishly enjoy the rustic aesthetic of abandonment. Maybe I just have sour grapes that the whole time I lived in Tucson, the whole of downtown was like a pile of rusting beer cans in the desert, and now it all seems to have sprung to life – you know, now that I’m not there to enjoy it.

So it goes.

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January 20 – Here’s Your Sign

01-20 Your Sign post

Our life is what our thoughts make it.
~Marcus Aurelius

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I’m not the only photographer that has a weird fascination with signs. It seems like a habit a lot of us have fallen into. I don’t think it’s the signs themselves that attract us, but the era they evoke. Designs from the golden age of commercial neon signage, starting roughly in the 1950s, have long ago gone out of style. Vintage neon tubes are getting harder to find, especially in their original context. Buildings are torn down and the signs are often demolished, too. A few survive in their original context, usually on registered historic buildings, and others survive in personal collections.

Old buildings, ghost towns, unique architecture, and vintage signs present something of a game to image collectors; objects like these are like checklist items in a photography scavenger hunt. The image above is actually a bit of a “non-sign,” I’d venture to say. It’s likely the entrance sign for an old two-pump gas station on this street corner. There’s a shuttered repair shop, aluminum doors locked, and the gas pumps have been removed. This sign frame is a rusting heap keeping vigil over a shack and a loosely organized pile of whitewashed cinder blocks that vaguely resemble a low-rent apartment complex.

Hell, since the original picture was made five years ago – never previously published – the area may be completely different today.

The street corner is on South 4th Avenue along the Old Benson Highway on Tucson’s south side, across from the Lazy 8, Tucson’s “cleanest budget motel.” A lot of you Tucson folks have probably driven that stretch of highway but never stopped to look at the scenery; mostly cheap hotels, run-down apartments, abandoned commercial structures, rent-a-fences, and dumpsters. You’ve probably clapped eyes on the Lazy 8 sign on your way to the airport, but never had a reason to pull over and check it out.

That’s what I like about this photography gig. Boring things become interesting. You stop and look around when you normally wouldn’t have any reason to hit the brakes. Sure, the suspicion that there might not be anything of interest often proves to be true, but it’s still a different kind of experience. There’s a slow-down that happens when you look at the world through the lens. I became addicted to that sensation when I first started making pictures, and I’ve never gotten over it.

I encourage everyone to take the time, even just once, to walk around with a camera and start looking at the world through that funny little box with a lens. It can be pretty eye-opening.

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