During my first trip to the Las Vegas strip, I didn't gamble, see a show or eat at a buffet. I wanted to see signs—big neon signs with cowboys and cowgirls, flashy wedding chapel signs and famous signs like those at the Golden Nugget.
Alas, I saw the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and dancing waters. Those are great sights, but where was the Las Vegas of yesterday?
As the city modernized, many of the old signs were discarded, put into the trash like spoiled leftovers. Luckily, I did see some of the neon treasures downtown on Fremont Street. Old-style Vegas, baby. Hurrah, the past had not completely vanished.
Here in Tucson, the city is working on a Historic Landmark Signs Preservation Program that would help restore, reuse and maintain historic signs. The city is finally realizing that saving its past culture is a good thing.
On a grassroots level, Vanishing Tucson—a Yahoo! group with nearly 1,000 members—is working to both save and remember our city's past. Vanishingtucson.com is "a place to share memories and pictures of the Tucson which is rapidly slipping into the past, and the Tucson that is gone forever." The site offers discussion topics plus an extensive collection of old photos and postcards—from the early 1900s to the 1980s—posted by members. A YouTube channel contains slideshows and videos.
Started by Carlos Lozano in 2004, Vanishing Tucson showcases anything that is in decline or has disappeared—including old buildings, landmark signage and former establishments.
"If someone had a question about Tucson, the normal thing would be to go to the library or historical society and get a scholarly answer to your question," explains Lozano. "I wanted a place where regular people could go to ask questions about the recent past and document that. The ... Web was easiest and most accessible to the (greatest) number of people.
"I want to try to document these things before they slip away. I want to collect people's remembrances in one place. They don't have to be eloquent. ... Thousands of little memories are what forms a mosaic image of what Tucson used to be like."
Lozano says there used to be 12 active drive-in movie theaters in Tucson. After the De Anza closure, now we have none—but Lozano is fighting to change that.
"We'll try to get the new owners to consider adaptive reuse. Most likely, that won't happen. Then we will attempt to move the screen and projection equipment to another location so we can have (at least) one screen out of four."
Lozano is also involved in preserving old signs and is the chair of a subcommittee of the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission. "There used to be a lot of spectacular neon signage. ... We are working on an amendment to the Sign Code so the few remaining signs we have will be preserved."
Preservation is more commonplace on the East Coast; Lozano says part of the culture of the West is to grow and expand with little respect for the past. "Tucson has destroyed a lot of its history. In terms of historic preservation, I almost think of Tucson as a historical-preservation disaster zone. We have so few old buildings left."
However, Lozano sees positive signs. "The trend is actually reversing. Most people in city government realize that the few remaining structures and historic landmarks are something that is a draw to people. ... The quirky things that make Tucson unique should not be torn down and paved over."
City-owned property is more likely to be saved, while private property is more at risk. "You can let property owners know that there is a great interest in keeping their property and encouraging them to do adaptive reuse rather than demolishing and rebuilding. ... The most important thing you can do is let people know you appreciate Tucson's past."
At Vanishing Tucson, Lozano says topics are wide-open. It's up to members to decide what they want to discuss—from preservation efforts to remembering that old drive-in burger joint they used to visit.
"I'd like people to know that their memories are important, and other people are interested in the things they remember. There are people doing scholarly oral histories ... that prove these memories are very important."
Lozano says nostalgia and sentimentality are not sappy things. That's good to hear, because I yearn for a little more yesteryear in Tucson. The past doesn't have to be demolished. And here's hoping I'll get to see more old-style neon and quirky signs without traveling to downtown Las Vegas.