Granville and the Great White Way: Neon & Civic Identity

Image of Granville Street and the Great White Way


This Visible City activity focuses on how neon relates to impressions of civic identity. Through original interviews, students will learn about Vancouver’s enthusiastic welcome of neon in the 1920s, and how it came to be restricted, as a way of understanding how architecture contributes to a variety of assumptions about civic identity. After analyzing a primary document and a news article, students will form their own opinion of neon’s relationship to identity and be asked to write a creative piece describing this opinion from the point of view of a character walking down the Great White Way.  

Learning Objectives

  • Introduce students to civic architectural planning
  • Draw links between architecture and civic identity
  • Demonstrate knowledge of historical and contemporary factors that help define Canadian civic identity, including culture, community, environment and geography
  • Analyze and evaluate information from a secondary source a like news article
  • Evaluate a selected civic decision according to its impact
  • Demonstrate effective research skills, including accessing and assessing visual and auditory information and primary documents in order to form a critical opinion
  • Write an imaginative text that thoughtfully represents the city from different social positions and points of view


1. Discussion Questions:

  • Why did people love neon signs and structures, like the Vancouver Block, to begin with? What did neon in the city signify?
  • Why did businesses want to be represented by a neon sign?
  • Why did some people say, after the influx of neon into Vancouver, that it should be restricted? What were they afraid of?
  • Based on the information provided, specifically the 1960 photo of Granville, do you agree or disagree with the opinion of Tom Ardies, the author of an incendiary editorial that read:
    “We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs. They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous. They’re desecrating our buildings, cluttering our streets, and – this is the final indignity – blocking our view of some of the greatest scenery in the world.” – Tom Ardies, “Let’s Wake up from Our Neon Nightmare,” Vancouver Sun, 1966
  • How is neon related to urban decay and the advent of sprawling suburbs?
  • What happened when neon was restricted in 1974?
  • Why are architects trying to revitalize the neon scene on Granville street? What do they think will be accomplished with the Great White Way? Do you think they have succeeded? How can you tell?

2. Writing Exercise:

From the point of view of one of the characters described in the script (a low-income person, a teenager, a business person) or a character of your own making, describe your impression of Vancouver’s neon strip. Use photo “GWW-(1-of-1)” as your setting. What do you see? How does it feel? What is happening on the street? Who is there? What do you think of it?

Learning Objects

Download all Learning Objects:
ZIP 68.2 MB:

Download Lesson Plan (PDF):
PDF 561 KB: 1_plans_de_lecon-lesson_plans-Eng.pdf

Download Adobe Acrobat:

1_TheatreRow_Night1951_VPL81525A.tif (Photo name included for reference)

1_TheatreRow_Night1960_VancouverSunPhotoByKenOakes.tif (Photo name included for reference)

1_VancouverBlock_UnderConstruction1912_2_CityArchivesBuP502_1.tif (Photo name included for reference)

GWW (1 of 1).tif (Photo name included for reference)

Vancouver Block INT and EXT
Vancouver Block INT and EXT (2 of 11).tif (Photo name included for reference)

Bill Pechet
Bill Pechet said…
"One of the most important things about Granville Street was that it was the epicentre—and still really is the epicentre—of the city..."
Kevin Dale McKeowen
Kevin Dale McKeowen said…
"It has that, that feeling of being you know, the main drag, the heart of the city that we lost for so many years and it’s back again…"

More Lesson Plans

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