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Why orange neon lights are glowing again across the U.S.

250 vintage signs fill the outdoor “boneyard” at the Orange Neon Museum Las Vegas. At night, several of the restored advertisements are illuminated; others are bathed in moody spotlights.

In the first half of the 20th century, neon hummed and flickered across the United States, decorating billboards in New York City’s Times Square, on New Mexico motor inns along Route 66, and at casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

Yet, even by the 1950s and 1960s, neon orange aesthetic was considered “grandpa’s technology,” says J. Eric Lynxwiler, president of the board at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles. Soon enough, billboards were scrapped or neglected across the country, and many areas banned neon, calling it trashy or energy hogging (even though such lights are relatively energy efficient).

Now there’s a revival of interest and enthusiasm for the science-driven art, with museums, neon parks, and preservation efforts popping up around the country. Young artists, drawn to neon’s handmade, hard-to-replicate glow, are learning the craft.

Many restorations are underway, with radiant signs reclaiming space in cities that had once outlawed them. 

In downtown Tucson, Arizona, drivers cruise by brightly lit, flashing neon advertising everything from Italian food (a chubby chef flipping yellow glass “spaghetti” at Caruso’s restaurant) to “refrigerated” hotel rooms (La Siesta Motel’s circa-1940 sign with its sombrero-ed men). Dozens of the decades-old blinking, buzzing advertisements line the city’s “Miracle Mile,” a commercial corridor whose mid-century architecture and glitzy billboards landed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.