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Bulb signs are so Harlem

Harlem map street mural

Made of bright neon or hand-painted in bygone lettering, vintage-looking signs have been all the rage for a while now. And maybe the most popular of them all are bulb signs. For the last decade or so any new shop or restaurant looking to imbue its space with some old-fashioned warmth has incorporated big letters illuminated with bulbs into their signage or decor.

Red Rooster's bulb sign

A handful of years ago the terrific blog New York Neon was one to spot the trend, explaining that bulb signs had their heyday in the very early part of the 20th century, only to be pushed aside by cheaper neon. These days, the author writes, they have the "latent ability to conjure up the aura of all things way-before-our-time."

In trendier corners of Harlem, bulb signs can be easily found in storefronts, bar areas, and even street murals of neighborhood maps (like the one on 138th Street, above). But I would argue that uptown they don't just refer to a vague older time and place. Rather, here the signs are an attempt to capture a very particular era: Harlem's most recent, slowly-vanishing past.

Sylvia's bulb sign

A walk down Lenox Avenue from 127th to 125th Streets says it all. Sylvia's, one of the neighborhood's oldest and most iconic soul food restaurants, welcomes all who enter with its familiar vintage flashing bulb sign. Down the block, chef Marcus Samuelsson's eight-year-old Red Rooster, a restaurant that pays homage to the neighborhood through its food and vibe, does the same with a similar (but much newer) sign above its front door.

Hamilton Wine House's bulb sign

More recent arrivals have adopted Harlem's unofficial look as well. Charles Vigilante, the owner of Hamilton Wine House, used large bulb lettering for parts of his 11-month-old shop's name. He explains he was looking for something that people would notice, but chose the sign because "you want something that fits in." On that account, he certainly succeeded.

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