Amid the pre-election windup and the as-promised fall surge of coronavirus, the last week of October also saw the oversized Enjoy Coca-Cola sign South of Market become swiftly dismantled, disappearing from our skyway after 83 years. Naturally our people had plenty to say about it.
“Another end of an era moment,” noted a family friend and lifelong San Franciscan, in a text. “Devastated,” responded a cultural observer and Los Angeles journalist, followed by a broken heart emoji.
“That’s so sad,” was the tweeted reply to my post from rock ‘n’ roll original Ronnie Spector, the perennial ’50s teenager representing Joe Biden’s generation. There were of course more cynical and pragmatic takes.
“Grieving about a sign? Get over it,” someone snapped in the comments section of a news source.
“Sounds like it’s quite possible the view of it would be obscured by new construction,” said a San Francisco-born friend of mine.
Famously erected in 1937, not long after the opening of the Bay Bridge, the sign was originally rendered in neon bulbs, though more recently an LED version had taken its place, reportedly a greener and cheaper alternative to neon.
“LED is actually worse for the environment because it’s made of plastic,” said Rebel Neon Studios artist and sign maker Amy Palms. But while LED technology may be able to look more and more like neon, it certainly doesn’t shine like it. “They die faster and end up being in landfill,” said Palms, who worked on repairing some of the Coke sign before the bulbs were switched out.
A hallmark of city life, lit signage delivers a special cast — that proverbial neon glow fueling songs, movies, and our imaginations, injecting its magic into the nightlife.
“I love the old pictures of Market Street when all those neon signs were lit. They’re slowly disappearing and it’s so sad,” said Palms. “I don’t have fond feelings for the Coca-Cola Company but I do feel strongly about preserving neon. It’s always exciting to work on an iconic sign.”
The Coca-Cola Company of course had its reasons for retiring the original neon, choosing LED and ultimately taking down the sign at a reported cost of $100,000.
“We made the difficult decision to not renew the lease for this sign,” said Coca-Cola spokesperson Dora Wong in an email. Though previously published accounts reported the sign was headed for the junkyard, Wong clarified that will not be the case. “In fact, we are working to preserve portions of the sign as a future art installation in the city to preserve its story,” she said.
The Coke billboard was one of The City’s oldest commercial signs in operation. In the spirit of tracking the changes, a first alert went out to my mom in a group text. The sign had been here since before she was born; plus Coke for better and worse has functioned like an adjunct member of our family.
“My God people will be in an uproar,” she responded, though on closer inspection I see that was on our group text thread about Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the hair salon. Nevertheless, mom and I come by our connection to Coca-Cola honestly.
My grandparents opened their coffee shop with its fountain/diner ambience in 1937, the same year the Coca-Cola sign went up. A couple of squirts of Coke syrup combined with a splash of carbonated water and a wedge of lemon on the side of the funny-shaped glass is one of the wonders of the world to me; certainly it’s one of my earliest memories.
More extravagantly, a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass was a Coke float. Coca-Cola, in cases, bottles and cans, was a panacea, definitely a comfort “food” and a staple in our house, as if it was part of a healthy diet.
As years wore on and general awareness about sugary beverages increased, my grandfather sold his restaurant and my family significantly curtailed its Coke consumption, reserving it for “special occasions” and “emergencies.” I still keep one on hand, in the event of nausea, food poisoning, and dehydration and swear by its healing properties, even though I know its consumption may contribute to diabetes, heart disease and morbid obesity. But like the way some of you keep cigarettes, ice cream, booze, weed and chocolate stashed, I keep Coca-Cola and sometimes I use it, for its feel-good effect.
The day the sign’s removal was reported, I broke into my reserve, a medio litro bottle, hecho en México, and poured myself a tall one. I found a need to bust into the emergency supply again, the day after the election: I popped a mini (so cute, have you seen them?) to cure an acute case of heartburn. And if you don’t believe that, just know there are folks who use the stuff to unclog drains. Yea, it’s basically poison, and no, it isn’t easy being a soft drinker with a headful of health warnings, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice.
There are of course other complications to surrendering oneself to a global brand, like the time I ran into my aforementioned San Francisco-born texting friend, I’m calling her Aida, at the store. Before she could finish asking if I’d forgive her for buying sugar-free tonic water, I blurted yes, but only if she’d forget she ever saw me buying a Coke.
“It’s always interesting to find out when people who you think are…” Aida started to say, clearly disappointed she’d misread my profile as rigidly right-on, but I stopped her from going further. The irony was not lost on either of us that we were of having our conversation in the aisle at Grocery Outlet instead of Rainbow Grocery (where, for the record, you will not find Coca-Cola, at least not the last time I checked, which I once did when I was young and naive —- it was an emergency). She had caught me out and I was oddly defiant about it. I may as well have been wearing a T-shirt that said BBQ, Coke, Freedom.
Like most Americans, San Franciscans are freaks for individualism, albeit our own quirky brand. And while we’re great at building communities and sending messages like Be Here Now and Power To The People out to the world, injustice still prevails in our streets. Our lives are rife with contradictions, relying as we do on conflict resources to run our smartphones and drive our cars – I’ll stop there.
Sure, we can shop small instead of online and at the big box stores to keep mom and pop in business and eat organics instead of food laden with pesticides, but these are choices that often only the privileged can make. But with time and perspective, the next generation and people of color at the front, we might have a chance to get things right, like we did with the soda tax. Changing the way we interact with big business resulted in a fund now being put to use to feed our people in need during the pandemic.
Maybe Coca-Cola did San Francisco a favor by razing the billboard that welcomed us home and our visitors to this side of the Bay. There’s no reason for The City to serve as Coke’s ambassador. What if in its place, we were greeted on this side by a neon sculpture by a local craftsperson like Palms that said Black Lives Matter or You Are Safe Here? Could we be a different city, maybe a different country 83 years from now?
I’d like to think real change is possible, though for it to happen, we’ll need to confront the conflicts and contradictions of living in America’s wealthiest city, in a country on the verge of collapse, now recognized worldwide for 234,000 and counting deaths from COVID-19. The times demand we all bust out the reserve stash and keep on pushing. And while my concern for the Coke sign might be a sign of my privilege showing, I can also assure you, my tears are the real thing.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.