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Neon shines anew in Harlem, but are all the old signs gone?

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

neon sign at Angel of Harlem

Have you heard? Neon is in again. Once linked with the flashy (and even sinful) glow of Broadway and Vegas, and more recently with cheap motels and neighborhood bars, neon is turning another corner–a hip one.

neon signs at Filtered and Streetbird Rotisserie

The trend is easy to spot uptown. From Angel of Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard with its "Harlem State of Mind" motto to Streetbird Rotisserie a few blocks down with its high-tops-wearing rooster to Filtered on Amsterdam and its mod "coffee" sign, fun neon is shining brightly in Harlem's new crop of restaurants and cafes.

400 Tavern old neon sign

Of course, Harlem had many iconic neon signs in the old days, but most are either falling apart (like this 400 Tavern sign on W 148th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue) or gone. The now-demolished Lenox Lounge had one that was closely associated with Harlem's jazz heyday, though it sadly came down after the building was sold to developers.

M&G Soul Food Diner neon sign at Streetbird Rotisserie

Chef and Harlem dweller Marcus Samuelsson managed to get ahold of a vintage marquee that once hung outside M&G Soul Food Diner on 125th Street. He cleverly used it to decorate the interior of his roast-chicken-meets-global-street-food joint Streetbird Rotisserie (let's see what kind of signs turn up in the Streetbird Express coming to Madison Square Garden).

Harlem YMCA neon sign

Photo: Beyond My Ken

Luckily a few original neon signs of yore are still aglow on the streets of Harlem. The Harlem Y on 135th Street, built in 1932 and one of the tallest buildings in the area, has a signature red sign that's easy to spot. We have the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to thank for that.

Apollo Theater neon sign

Maybe the most famous neon sign in all of Harlem, the one in front of The Apollo Theater, is still standing, too. Like the Y, this famous music hall is also a New York City landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places–meaning its sign is here to stay.

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