Las Vegas: Neon Boneyard

By Richard White, 

I often wonder when developers and urban planners will wake up and see the light (pun intended), recognizing the importance of “lighting” in creating urban vitality - and I am not just talking about street lights.

When will they realize the bleakness of today’s city centers and urban streets is due in part to the absence of the colour, charm, playfulness and character that neon lights provided (day and night) to downtown hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs, theatres, cinemas and retailers.

Show me a street full of neon and I will show you a street full of life.  Human beings are attracted to neon like moths to a light bulb.  

Downtown Decline

The heyday for most of North American cities’ downtown was in the early to mid 20th century.  It was a time when downtown streets were full of bright, flashing neon lights. 

Perhaps the best articulation of the importance of neon light to creating great street life was in the 1964 hit song “Downtown” in which Petula Clark belted, “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty. How can you lose? The lights are much brighter there. You can forget all your troubles; forget all your cares.” 

 In retrospect, the mid ‘60s was also the beginning of the rise of minimalism urban design that shunned “ornamentation and decoration,” including neon signage.

Neon signs are works of art and function much like public art in creating a more visually engaging public realm that invites people to stop, look around and linger.  Cities around the world spending millions of dollars on public art each year that rarely captures the public’s imagination and is soon forgotten or ignored in the new minimalistic urban landscape.

Perhaps we should be encouraging developers to create signature neon signage that are “works of art” while at the same time help brand the building and add to are part of an engaging downtown wayfinding system.        


In my mind, the Boneyard Park is a must see Las Vegas attraction, way more interesting than The Strip.  It is much more authentic and offers an up close and personal look at one of the iconic artifacts of urban design - the neon sign. 

The link between folk art and neon art becomes more obvious the more you explore the Boneyard Park.

I am not sure which came first Disneyland or Vegas but there is a strong link between the two i.e. the sense of play, fun and fantasy. 

A perfect example of how neon signage was critical to the branding of hotels in Vegas. The sign immediately said "Fun" even without the lights on. 

Another example of branding and signage.  Love that the signage is large and easy to read. Too many downtown and suburban buildings today have small signage that is hidden away making it very difficult to find them.

The Boneyard is like a grave yard or junk yard; this just adds to the fun of exploring.  The juxtaposition of the different signs is wonderful. You also get the sense of how sculptural the signage is.  These truly are works of art. 

The Boneyard entrance is a wonderful mid-century modern building that is very inviting and memorable.

Freemont street recalls the main streets of many cities from the mid 20th century when the streets were indeed brighter and more fun visually than they are today.  

The Silver Slipper is fun day and night, male or female, young or old.  

Love the link between cartoons and neon characters.  

A good example of how neon signage can be used to add fun and colour to an otherwise ordinary streetscape. 

Lighting can also used to create a fun facade in the evening, which is even more important in winter cities like Calgary. 

Las Vegas’ Boneyard Park

Being in the Neon Boneyard Park (a two-acre oasis with over 150 historic neon signs) is like being in a museum’s storage room, with the “museum” being outdoors in the middle of the city. See artifacts in their raw state, not polished, lit up or presented in isolation on a pedestal. Here you see them randomly mixed together in junk-yard like fashion, yet they are still  wonderful works of art.

Las Vegas Signs Project has been restoring signs from the Boneyard Park and installing them along Las Vegas Boulevard in downtown Vegas since 1996. Several restored neon signs including the Horse and Rider from the Hacienda Hotel and the Silver Slipper can be enjoyed day and night by both pedestrians and those in vehicles. 

Access to the Boneyard is by guided tour only.  Our tour guide was very informed and informal, providing lots of information but allowing lots of freedom to explore on our own, take pictures and ask lots of questions. 

Guided tours are 7 days a week and reservations are recommended.  (Note: As tours can be cancelled due to inclement weather - especially wind storms - don’t wait until the last day of your Vegas vacation to visit).

The Neon Museum’s Visitor Center is the lobby of the old La Concha Motel Lobby designed by acclaimed architect Paul Revere Williams. It is like something right out of the Jetsons.  Built in 1961, it is an excellent example of the mid-century modern Atomic and Space Age design with its curvilinear arches.

See Appendix for history of neon.

The crowd gathers waiting for the Freemont Experience to begin.  

Age of LED

Today the most popular form of decorative lighting is LED light.  There are several reasons for this. While the initial price is almost the same as neon, once you have a neon sign there is no changing it, whereas LED lights can be updated as often as you like. 

Secondly and the biggest advantage of LED displays is that they use 5 to 10 times less power. Thirdly, neon tubes need their gases refilled periodically and the glass can break, while LED is maintenance-free. In addition, LED lights are brighter and can be seen from further away and even in daylight. 

Arguably, the best use of LED lighting is also in Vegas – The Freemont Experience, which began in 1995. Today, a 1,500 foot-long canopy (three football fields) covers Freemont Street in old downtown Vegas. It acts as a movie screen.  The canopy has 12.5 million LED lights, which when combined with 180 strobe lights and 8 robotic mirrors on each block plus a sophisticated computer system, can generate 16.7 million colour combinations. 

Combine this with the 555,000 watt sound system and you get an amazing light and sound show that attracts, on average, 25,000 people per night for the Freemont Experience.

While I realize not every downtown can afford this kind of nightly entertainment, more downtowns should seriously look at how sound and light shows can be part of their quest for 18/7 vitality. 

Another good example of use of LED lighting to enhance downtown vitality is “Crown Fountain” at Chicago’s Millennium Park.  Learn more: Putting the public in public art.


The Freemont Street canopy is washed with colour as thousands of people mill about waiting for the show to begin.  

Let the show begin...the canopy becomes a huge video screen for spectacular light and sound show.

Even at night the Crown Fountain attracts hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds to play and interact with the LED faces and the wading pool. 

Take away idea

Downtowns need to focus more, or as much on becoming entertainment districts as business districts.

They need to become a place where people, “Linger on the sidewalk. Where the neon signs and LED lights are pretty. The lights must be much brighter there, so you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares.”   

If you like this blog, you might like:

Downtowns need to be fun

Putting the public back into public art

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The curse of minimalism






Neon History (excerpts from

Over the last 150 years, the luminous tube industry has evolved from the simple laboratory experiments in the second half of the 19th century to an industry of world-wide proportions.

In the late 1800s, scientists developed reliable and somewhat safe high voltage supplies and began running high voltages through many things to observe what would happen. Often, they tested to see how wide of an air gap the spark could jump. It was discovered the spark gap was inversely proportional to the pressure of the air and that an evacuated glass tube was the ideal method for viewing light from gas discharges.

After British researcher William Ramsey discovered the five rare gases between 1894-1898 (receiving the Nobel Prize in 1904), it then became possible for French scientist, Georges Claude, to figure out that these gases could be made to produce light discharges when electrical discharges were passed through them. Finally, the long desired method that scientists had been looking for - a form of practical lighting by glowworm or phosphorescent light which emitted “light without heat.”

By World War l, Claude had acquired many patents, but he had more on his mind than strictly scientific knowledge. He envisioned a lucrative market for his tubes in lighting and signage. Because neon gas produced the brightest light, it was used almost exclusively and soon the generic “Neon Sign” was born. By 1924, “Claude Neon” franchises appeared in 14 major cities across the United States. And by 1927, 611 out of a total of 750 neon signs in New York City had been made by Claude Neon Lights, Inc.

A great period of creativity for neon took place in the years that followed, a period when many design and animation techniques were developed. Unfortunately, the economic conditions caused by the Depression slowed neon’s growth. However, one place neon continued to work its magic during this period was on the exteriors of movie palaces, providing a colorfully glowing invitation to the fantasy world within.

Then following World War ll and the advent of plastics, manufacturers began promoting Plexiglas shadow boxes with fluorescent lighting, neon’s cousin, behind lettering and graphics. Neon, by then considered old fashioned, was relegated to use as a hidden light source. Still today, 75% of neon is used in this way.

During the last decade, neon has seen a rebirth, as artists, architects and interior designers have begun to rediscover its exciting possibilities. Neon tube construction hasn’t changed much since the days of Claude Neon. It’s still a handcrafted medium where a glassbender heats and forms each letter, one bend at a time. However, state-of-the art components and much-improved equipment make the neon tube of today superior to its predecessor.


Who needs Bermuda, Barbados or Bahamas when you have Bowview?

By Richard White, September 4, 2013

When walking to yoga recently, I passed by the Bowview Pool in West Hillhurst. People of all ages were enjoying the water and sunning themselves along the grassy edges.   I was immediately struck by how this scene resembled that of a pool at a swanky hotel in some Caribbean or Mediterranean hotel (ok, so I have a good imagination).

As I continued walking, I began to think of other fun things nearby that would be touristy.  Milkshakes and ice cream are something that I associate with vacations.  Dairy Lane, located just a few blocks away on 19th street has been serving up old fashion milkshakes for over 60 years.  Or I could wander a bit further to Amato Gelato on Kensington Road where I’d have a choice of over 72 different gelato flavours. 


Bowview Pool is a hangout for babes of all ages.  It is a great family spot.  

Dairy Lane has been an institution in the Bowview Pool area for over 60 years.  It is a very popular breakfast spot. 

Amato Gelato is a little bit of Italy in Calgary.  Yum Yum!

Sure, I couldn’t walk a white sand beach in the morning or evening, but I could walk the nearby Bow River with its crystal clear, every changing turquoise water.  In the evening, I could walk along the Bow River Bluff, which offers spectacular views of the river valley and a Downtown skyline that glitters like gold at sunset.  It doesn’t get more romantic than that.  Looking for a hike instead of a walk, the Douglas Fir Trail is an authentic forest trek in the middle of the city.  Yes there are no banana boats or skidoos, but I could go rafting, canoeing or kayaking on the river – there is a rental shop no far away.  I could easily have a river adventure everyday for a week.

And maybe there isn’t a hotel spa nearby, but there is the lovely Bodhi Tree yoga studio that certainly is spa-like. Tennis, a typical tropical vacation activity, is available at the West Hillhurst Recreation Centre.  Deep-sea fishing, common another hotspot vacation activity can be replaced by fly-fishing in the Bow River (one of the best fly-fishing rivers in the world).


Rafting along the Bow River has become a very popular summer activity for Calgarians and tourists.  On a hot summer day hundreds maybe thousands of rafters enjoy one of the world's great urban rivers. 

While parts of the Bow River north-side bluff walk are open offering spectacular views, other places are more forested and offering a more intimate and contemplative space. 

Downtown skyline from the Bow River bluff with the iconic Calgary blue sky. 

People of all ages love to walk and cycle along the Bow River from one end of the City Centre to the other. 

Want to sit and relax with an espresso or latte? Central Blends not only serves up some of the best coffee in the city, but their morning muffins are to die for.  Try the cranberry oatmeal, my favourite.

If seeking some shopping and a little bartering with the locals, the Sunday morning flea market at the Hillhurst community centre is just the ticket. 


Central  Blends has a wonderful tropical feel. It is not hard to imagine this being next to a beach in Mexico.  

So who needs Bermuda, Barbados or Bahamas when you have so many vacation-like things to see and do in and around the Bowview Pool.  If only our summers came earlier and lasted longer. 

If you like this blog you might like: 

 Beautiful Downtown Bowness 

 Killarney is Hot

Montgomery: Calgary's Newest Urban Village 


Off The Beaten Path in Spokane

Every province and state in North America has a primary city as well as one or more secondary cities that live in the shadow of its big brother.  For example, in Washington State, Seattle is the primary city with 3.5 million people, while Spokane is the “second city” with just 500,000 people. We love visiting “second cities” as they often have fun, funky and quirky, off-the-beaten-path (OTBP) things to see and do.   That’s likely due to the fact “second cities” are often left to evolve naturally over time without massive urban renewal mega projects that often gentrify and make “big” cities all look the same.

Here are our top seven “OTBP” things to see and do in Spokane. You will note that in some cases the places are not OTBP, but the things to “see and do” there are.

Frank’s Diner

No trip to Spokane is complete without breakfast at Frank’s Diner.  Housed in a 1906 railway dining car, sit at the authentic diner-style counter or grab a booth and enjoy a hearty breakfast.  With Frank’s serving up over 30,000 eggs and 2.5 tones of fresh hash browns a year - no wonder its been voted “best breakfast” place in town 14 years in a row.  While Frank’s is well known by the locals, it is on the western edge of downtown beyond the scope of most tourist treks.

Located at 1516 West 2nd Ave.

Everyone loves a walk back in time at Frank's Diner located in an early 20th century dining car.

Parkade Tour

Tour the streets of Spokane’s downtown and you will encounter some of the most interesting mid-century modern parkade structures anywhere.  In fact, the city’s skyline is dominated by a large “Parkade” sign (175 feet from the ground) that proudly sits on top of a massive parkade.

Simply called the “Parkade,” this 10-level 1,000 stall, above-ground parkade was built in 1967 as part of a massive downtown urban renewal project.  In 1968, it won an award of excellence for its use of concrete.  Local architect Warren C. Heylman wanted to create a parking structure that was pedestrian-friendly, had skywalks circling the structure offering protection from the elements and separated pedestrian traffic from automobile traffic.  It is an excellent example of mid-century modern parkade architecture.

It is interesting that the term “parkade” is used mostly in Canada and South Africa.  In the US, a multi-story car park may be called a parking garage, parking deck, parking ramp, parking podium or parking building depending on the design of the structure and where you are in the country.  In Spokane you can find parking structures with several of these names. Some of the best views of the city are from the top of the parkade, or is that garage or ramp? 

More information:

In what other city does the parkade dominate the city's skyline. 

At street level the Parade has a wonderful sense of pattern and rhythm.  The yellow awnings create a patio like visual.  

Spokane has several vintage parkades with great neon signs at the entrance.  One has to wonder how this parking garage got the name "Evergreen." You would never associate a parkade today with the term evergreen. 

As you can see Spokane's parking structure terminology ranges from parkade to parking garage to ramp.  

The Parkade ramp and tower are very sculptural when viewed from this angle. Also not the skybridges that connect the Parkade to neighbouring buildings without having to go to street level.  

The parkade attached to River Front Square while newer, has none of the charm and character of The Parkade.   

Nordstrom’s Fitting Rooms

We don’t usually hang out at major downtown shopping malls (not OTBP enough), but one rainy day we decided to explore Spokane’s River Park Square.  Since we didn’t have a Nordstrom in Canada (though we will have soon), I thought I’d explore it.  To my surprise, I found a good deal on golf pants.  I was as surprised – and impressed – also to find amazing art on the wall of the men’s fitting room. I don’t know for sure, but I expect it is the same in women’s change area.  I love finding interesting art in strange places.  

One of the artworks in the men's change area at Nordstroms.  I loved the whimsical drawing, the Magritte like floating hat and the newspaper background.  

The briefcase was the companion piece to the hat.   

Browne’s Addition

Browne’s Addition is named after John J. Browne who came to Spokane from Portland in 1878 and bought 102 acres of land above Spokane Falls.  By the end of the 19th century, when Spokane’s rich and famous were discovering the charms of the area, Browne applied for and received a homestead grant for additional land in the area.  Browne’s Addition became home to numerous large mansions (most of them built by local architect Kirtland Cutter) that have a wonderful history.  In the mid 20th century, it became known as Browne’s “Addiction” as many of the homes became low-income lodging houses.  However, today most of the homes have been restored to their original glory and make for a wonderful morning or afternoon walking tour.

Grab a coffee at Cannon Coffee & Cone (corner of Cannon St. and 4th Avenue) or lunch at Café Marron (144 S Cannon St) and take a history-rich stroll on your own…or with the help of a the self-guided walking tour booklet available for $6 at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture…or print off the Kirtland Cutter “Age of Elegance” information on the web
Browne’s Addition is west of downtown with Coeur D’Alene Park at its centre.

The W.JC. Wakefield House was probably the first Mission Revival house in the northwest. LIke most of the homes in Browne's Addition it was designed by local architect Kitland Cutter.  

John Finch House was built by Kitland Cutter in 1897.  The tall Ionic columns convey the aristocratic aspirations of many of Spokane's wealthy businessmen at the turn of the 20th century.  

Albert Held was the architect for the  Reid House built in 1900. It is one of the few houses that wasn't designed by Kirtland Cutter and one of the few Craftsman style homes on the block.  2315 West First Avenue.     

Riverfront Park

Riverfront Park, a 100-acre park just upstream from the famous Upper Spokane Falls, is not exactly OTBP given it was the home of Spokane’s Expo ’74 and now has many of the city’s popular tourist attractions.  The Park’s Skyride over the falls, as well as a ride on the 1909 Looff Carousel are on everyone’s list of things to see and do.  However, the “Garbage Goat” created by Sister Paula Turnbull, is a fun, interactive piece of public art tucked away in a grotto-like space.  With a vacuum digestive system that allows it to eat small items when you feed it, it has widespread appeal to young and old alike.

Also worth seeking out is the children’s playground, where a huge (12 feet high, 12 feet wide, 27 feet long) 26-ton Red Wagon with its handle that doubles as a slide. The wagon will hold as many as 300 people and can be enjoyed by people of all ages.  You have to give it a try! It makes a great photo op!

Brenda feeding the "Garbage Goat" while young friend watches. 

The world's largest red wagon becomes a playground slide.  

Garland District

Just a few minutes from downtown lies the Garland District, developed in the early 20th century in conjunction with the building of the street railway line in 1910.  Today, it is home to three buildings on the National Registry – The Romanesque Revival Masonic Temple (1922); the mimetic architecture where buildings are designed to copy their function Milk Bottle (1935) and the Art Deco Garland Theatre (1945). 

This arts community is a great place to explore vintage clothing and thrift stores, check out improv theatre or see a movie.  It is also home to many fun diners and cafes, as well as Bon Bon Lounge at the Garland Theatre with its hand-muddled cocktails (made by pressing herbs and/or fruit against the side of a glass with a muddler which releases flavors and binds with the alcohol).  Who knew?

Garland District is 3.2 km north of downtown along N. Post St and Garland Avenue.

More information at:

The art deco Garland Theatre is the anchor for this charming arts district. 

The  1935 Benewah Milk Bottle is the other iconic building in the Garland District. 

Loo with a view!

The Red Lion Hotel at the Park is definitely not off the beaten path as it is has a prime location on the edge of Riverfront Park and the banks of the Spokane River.  However, the men’s washroom in the Skyline Ballroom has perhaps one of the best views of any washroom in the Pacific Northwest…maybe North America.  Men can enjoy the vista out the picture window above the urinals that looks out over the Gonzaga University district with Mt. Spokane in the background.  It is definitely a bathroom with a view!

The hotel’s pool is also a hidden gem with its 28-foot waterslide and 6-foot rainbow LED light waterfall cascading from a lush native Northwest landscape scene. The pool has a fun history.  When it was first opened in 1983, the hotel manager, losing a bet with the contractor that the pool wouldn’t be ready for the grand opening, he had to go down the waterslide in his business suit.  The manager, Don Barbieri, is now Chairman of the Board of Directors for Red Lions Hotels Corporation. 

In keeping with tradition, current General Manager Patrick Shimon also was the first to go down the waterslide – and in his business suit - after the 2012 renovations. 

When visiting Spokane, Red Lion at the Park is our recommendation. It is located at 303W North River Dr.   More information at

This is the view from the picture window above the urinals at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park. 

The pool at the Red Lion at the Park in Spokane.  

Love to hear your stories about "off-the-beaten-path" places you have visited in Spokane or elsewhere.   

Everyday Tourist Transit Tales

One of the first things we recommend - and do - when visiting a new city is purchase a multi-day public transit pass (not the one day “hop-on hop-off” sight-seeing bus passes) so we can hop on transit anytime and anywhere we want. We have been known to see an interesting café, thrift store, mural or gallery and quickly pull the cord, get off at the next stop and check it out. While on the bus, we sometimes sit apart so we can each take one side of the street to keep our eyes peeled for something of interest. We rarely rent a car because you miss too many great “street surprises.” 

The one exception was Anchorage, Alaska.  After much research and checking with friends whose house we were looking after it was determined city exploring by transit just wasn’t viable. And we were correct.

Perhaps our biggest public transit challenge was exploring Las Vegas.  We were told we couldn’t/shouldn’t do it.  But, we were bound and determined to use the RTC (Region Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada) even though we were staying on the “tourist trap” strip.  We researched the transit system and found they had a four-day transit pass for $15 – perfect!  However, upon arriving, we found out that it was for locals only. A bit of a disappointment, but not giving up, we took a short walk off the strip to a local convenience store where we scored two, 4-day passes.  While the service wasn’t very frequent, we were able to get to our off-the-beaten path destinations like the Neon Boneyard and various thrift stores.

We even found a nice collage artwork propped up against the garbage can at one bus stop in Vegas after visiting a nearby thrift store (looked like somebody only wanted the frame). We would have never have found it if not talking transit. FYI…we have an excellent collection of “unknown” artists’ artworks from thrift stores, church bazaars, flea markets and garage sales, proudly displayed in our “wall of thrift.”  

Lesson Leaned: Souvenirs sometimes come from unexpected places.

Las Vegas' Boneyard Museum is where all the  mid-century neon signs are stored.  Gradually they are being restored and place along major roads in the city.  It is a wonderful place to explore, a photographers paradise. 

Tattoo Parlour in San Diego. We often find that tattoo parlours have some of the funkiest store fronts.  

One of the great things about using transit is the opportunity to interact with the locals.  Probably our most memorable “transit tale” was what happened in San Diego.  Again, we had four-day passes (a bit harder to get than we expected), but while waiting in line, we stuck up a conversation which resulted valuable information from locals, including catching the bus just outside the transit shop door, and go to a great night market in 30 minutes.

Even luckier for us, the bus we needed was out front when we stepped out of the transit shop. Two locals, on the bus not only told us what stop to get off at, but what specific vendors and shops we should check out, which proved to be very accurate.

Lesson learned: Don’t be afraid to ask locals for tips on what to see and do. You will often learn things that aren’t in the tourist propaganda – a new café, where the good muffins for breakfast are or where the best happy hour is.

One of our funniest transit tales happened on the way home from the San Diego night market. At about 9 pm, we got on an empty bus which soon filled up with a cast of characters including four, lively teenage girls who were bouncing from seat to seat.  I asked them if they were playing “musical chairs.” They smiled and said nothing. At the next stop, I moved to another seat and they quickly did too. For about 10 stops, we did this, much to the amusement of the other transit riders.  At their final stop, they waved goodbye and we wished them a good evening.  Who knew riding the bus could be so entertaining!

On another transit trip, again in San Diego, we were sitting at the back of the bus when a young tattooed woman got on and sat across from us.  It was hard to keep our eyes off her, as not only was her face half tattooed, but the way she was dressed and her many piercings made her look as “tough as nails.”  As we got closer to our where I thought we needed to get off, I pulled out our map to check street names before our stop. After a few minutes, we heard a soft, shy voice say, “Can I help you?” To our amazement, it was the tattooed girl.  She was most helpful and as we got off the bus and said thanks, she smiled and wished us a “good evening.” 

Lesson learned: Don’t judge a person by their tattoos. 

But perhaps our most fun-filled transit tourist day ever was in San Francisco. We signed up for the Real San Francisco Tour by Chris Courtney (technically this was an organized tour which we rarely do, but this tour is so personal and “insider,” it is in a league of its own). This all-day trek takes you through 11 of the city’s coolest neighborhoods via cable cars, city buses, light-rail and subway transit. It includes stops at secret spots - fortune cookie-making bakery, OJ Simpson’s high school, back alley gardens and unique views of Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf, painted ladies and the Golden Gate Bridge. The tour includes over five miles of walking, four separate uphill sections as well as six uphill and fifteen downhill flights of stairs. But it was totally worth it to get the “inside scoop” on SF’s past and the present.  We would never have found some of the places on our own, despite priding ourselves on “digging deep” with our online research.

Lesson Learned: If you do one thing in SF, take the “Real San Francisco Tour.” More info at: The Real SF Tour 

The Real SF Tour offers many unique and quirky experiences including this behind-the-scene tour of a fortune cookie bakery. There is no way we could have found this on our own.  

Hopping on the street car to start the real SF tour.  Who knew transit could be so much fun...every city should have a street car/trolley route. 

One of the many interesting vistas along the Real SF tour - that is Alcatraz in the distance. 

Then there was the “early morning massage on the crowded Vancouver bus” story. Minding our own business, with me sitting directly Brenda, I jokingly started to give her a shoulder neck rub. Just then a very tiny older Asian woman told me I was doing it wrong and proceeded to give me a hands-on lesson right then and there.  You just never know what is going to happen when you get on transit.

Lesson learned: Enjoy the journey as much as the destination. 

You never know what you might see when riding the bus in Vancouver.  I captured this image while the bus was waiting at the traffic lights along Commercial Drive.  At first was taken aback but then realized they were filming a movie. These are the kind of impromptu "street surprises" that we enjoy as transit tourists.  

As for one of our most epic bus trips, it was when in Guadalajara, Mexico when we got on the wrong bus and found out we were heading to Ajijic and Lake Chapala (can’t remember the town we were planning to visit). Once we realized we were on the wrong bus, we decided to just “go with it.” Turned out to be one of the best “treasure hunting” days of our lives.  Arriving in Ajijic, we found a wonderful resort town on the shore of the largest lake in Mexico at the same latitude as Hawaii.  It was full of expats from Canada and US who have wintered here since the mid-‘50s.  It is also famous for being the home of D.H. Lawrence   After wandering the downtown for a bit with its charming town square, we found a spot to have lunch and quickly started up a conversation with two snowbird couples at an adjacent table who drive down from southern Ontario every winter.  After lunch, we wandered further afield and stumbled upon Bazar Barbara’s a flea market/used-furniture emporium.  Brenda the scavenger she is, unearthed behind a pile of old frames a framed Mariam Shapiro 1961 drawing with a Andre Emmerich Gallery, New York City sticker on the back for $25. We knew we had a great find – and so began our “Wall of Thrift.” We also found an authentic Asian gong for 10 bucks, which we hauled home and now holds pride of place in our garden. It was a perfect day!

Lesson Learned: Don’t be afraid of getting on the wrong bus. It might just end up being the best decision you make that day.     

Bazar Barbara in Ajijic Mexico was a great place to explore and was probably the catalyst for us to begin our 'found" artwork collection. 

"Yesterday" by Miriam Shapiro a 13.5 by 15 inches pencil drawing was our big find at Bazar Barbara's.  It is a bit wrinkled but otherwise in great shape. 

The gong acquired at Bazar Barbara's in our garden.

Some of the artworks collected over the years have been collaged into a "wall of thrift."  

Advantages of taking public transit:

  • It is cheaper.
  • It is more fun.
  • You get to interact with locals who are often only too happy to give you insider information
  • You see more when someone else does the driving.
  • We enjoy the bus more than subway as you get to see things along the way.
  • It allows you rest a bit and most buses today are air conditioned so you can cool off a bit too.
  • You don’t have to search for a parking spot.

We’d love to hear your “transit tales.” We will add them to this blog.    

Live like a local in Chicago's Hotel Lincoln next to the park....

After this blog was published in the Calgary Herald, August 3, 2013.  Melissa McCarville, Regional Public Relations Manager, emailed "this is a fantastic piece about Lincoln Park! Love you detail and the places you mention are just perfect. Great, great, great story.  You captured the essence of living there - and I can say that because I did for 4 years!"

By Richard White

How small could you go?

How small a space could you really live in and be happy?  And not just for a weekend getaway – but on an ongoing basis. The current craze in the condo development community seems to be who can create the smallest condo!  In Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, 400 square foot condos i.e. the size of two parking spots, is becoming quite common.  And Vancouver’s new development called Balance boasts the smallest condo in Canada - a 297 sq. ft. micro condo. 

I didn’t think I could live in anything under 1,500 sq. ft. – that’s, until I spent a week in a well-designed 475 sq. ft. suite at the Hotel Lincoln in Chicago.  Now I am really rethinking how much space I need after spending a week in their chic, contemporary junior suite.  It had two bathrooms at opposite ends of the suite, which works well for couples getting ready to go out at the at the same time.  The suite was open concept - a full king size bed at one end and a sitting area at the other (comfortable sofa, chair seating and coffee table) at the other.  Tucked along the wall was a desk, small coffee area and wall mounted swivel TV so it could be viewed from the bed or the sofa.  It all worked very well.  

In order to live small you need to have a coffee spot close by that you feel comfortable hanging out at.  It becomes an extension of your home.  Elaine"s  Coffee Call in the lobby of the Hotel Lincoln is just such a place. 

The Neighbourhood

Downstairs was Elaine’s Coffee Call, a great place for a morning coffee and toast (I think I could live on their PBJ toast, with its pecan butter) and people watching – it was a happening place.  Who needs a big kitchen when there are cafes, pubs and restaurants just outside your door?  The key to living small is to have lots of amenities nearby.

If we lived at the Hotel Lincoln, I think we would have soon considered Nookies as an extension of our home.  Located just a block from Hotel Lincoln (in funky Old Town) – we loved the home style cooking and ambience. In fact, you can bring your own wine and they don’t charge any corkage and if you don’t finish your bottle, you can just take it home.  How good it that? We learned that is not uncommon in Chicago.

Who needs a big screen TV and media room when it’s so easy to wander over to the local sports bar, cheer as loud as you want without your spouse shouting “don’t make me come down there.” Bonus there are no empties or mess to clean up either.

On our first night in Chicago we headed to The Old Town Pour for dinner and to watch the Chicago Blackhawks in a Stanley Cup playoff game. We have never been in a bar that was so loud and so full of energy – who would want to stay home when, instead,  you could be part of that! 

Who needs a media room when you have a sports bar just a block or two away. 

Downtown Fun

Not a sports fan?  More into comedy?  No problem. Second City is located just a few short blocks away, with performances nightly, with many nights offering multiple performances.  Forget reruns of Friends, Big Bang Theory or Seinfeld; enjoy live comedy instead with a room full of kindred spirits. Living small is about living in your community.

The Hotel Lincoln was perfectly located for living without a car.  Bus stops are just steps outside the door, as is the huge Lincoln Park with its free (yes free) zoo – yes free!  Imagine… walk out your door down the street and in five minutes you are wandering in a hundred year old (1868), 35-acre zoo… beats having a cat or a dog in my mind. 

Or, head to the beach in the summer. It too is only a few minutes walk away.  It is almost like having a pool in your own backyard.  The closest that you might get to this in Calgary would be those living in the condos near Hotel Arts! (Did you know that you don’t have to be a hotel guest to enjoy the Hotel Arts pool? I just found out!)

Imagine having Second City in your backyard, beats watching sitcom reruns....

Lincoln Park Zoo is a wonderful walk in the park with the bonus of being able to get up close and personal with the animals. 

Aerial view of Chicago's beaches from the Hancock Building with Lincoln Park at the top.  Beach, park, zoo, farm and farmer's market makes living small easy in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast communities in Chicago. 

Rooftop Patios

Who even needs their own little balcony or patio when you can hang out on you own roof top patio?  We were able to experience what this would be like at the Hotel Lincoln as they had one of the coolest and most popular rooftop restaurants in Chicago. It doesn’t get much better than to come home, sit back and have someone serve you your favourite adult beverage.

Calgary doesn’t make enough use of its  rooftops (office or condos) for restaurants. An exception will be Qualex-Landmark’s new condo Mark on 10th, which will have a rooftop patio that I suspect with become the residents’ second living room.  You don’t need a large space if you have the right amenties both on site and on the street.

What about laundry you say? Chicagoans have that figured out too; a local dry cleaners on every block.   Well maybe not every block but just about.  On our way to Nookies for example we passed a dry cleaners/tailors that would have made it easy to just drop off our cleaning at our convenience (or I expect they would pick up too).

And to top it off, every Wednesday and Saturday in the summer a Farmers’ Market in Lincoln Park is literally right across the street. No need for your own garden when you have all the fresh fruits and vegetables you can imagine, as well as breads, jams, honey and flowers across the street.  

Brenda looking over the options at the Lincoln Park Farmers' Market across the street from the Hotel Lincoln in Old Town. 

Last Word:

Living small in Chicago I think would be easy.  I’d recommend that if you are contemplating buying a small condo, that you rent a hotel room in the area for a month so you can see if there are sufficient amenities to make small living realistic. I am thinking condo developers would be wise to have a couple of furnished room that they rent out for a month to prospective buyers – consider it a test drive. 

Condos in Calgary are definitely getting smaller, many in on the 500 sq. ft. range.  A well-designed 500 sq. ft. space might just be the ticket for a single first time buyer, or someone who travels a lot, or a true urbanite who really lives and embraces their local community.

P.S. Don’t forget the big benefit of small living is that it takes no time to clean up, leaving you more time to play!


JT writes: "I would easily live in 500 sf in the middle of any city if it was just me.  It would be even better if it was central Chicago and with a healthy budget.  I'd add this wrinkle - add a person and you add 500 sf of space need.  A family of four gets you to 2000 sf.  Try living with that size of family in 1000 sf like we did as kids- it is not fun, especially when you have the option of living in bigger.

The small solution is a great one to populate urban spaces but the band of potential residents is narrowed to the singles with enough disposable income to live a lifestyle of spending in the public realm. 


Nookies is a family restaurant in Old Town that serves up home-cooking meals for locals. Bring your own wine is encourage and no corkage is charged. Just like being at home, except you don' t have to cook or clean up.  

Hotel Lincoln on Lincoln Park in Old Town is the perfect place if you want to live like a local when visiting Chicago. 

Who needs a backyard or a patio when you have a park next door - horse shoes anyone? 

Most backyards aren't big enough for a pick up game of baseball...Lincoln Park is perfect... 

Architecture River Cruise In Chicago

Normally, we are all about “taking the path least travelled” yet when it comes to the very popular Chicago architectural river cruises, we were all over getting in line to join the masses to take the 75-minute cruise up and down the Chicago River to see and learn more about the city’s amazing history and architecture.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation cruise is one of the most engaging, enlightening and entertaining experiences we have enjoyed in a long time.  Our guide, a retired architect, was a fascinating storyteller who made architecture both interesting and understandable, no small feat given the need to use architectural lingo like curtain wall, footprint, setbacks, art deco, post-modern, bundled tube and skeleton frame.   

A view down the Chicago River which provides a dramatic perspective to view the skyline and visual history of Chicago, which is so linked to its buildings.  

Examples of the early 20th century skyscrapers with their ornamental roof and strong vertical lines.  The early skyscrapers were church-like in their vertical thrust into the sky i.e. heaven. 

A modern skyscaper that mirrors some of the verticalness of the early skyscraper but with new materials that are much more reflective and much less ornamentation.  The age of architectural minimalism started in the mid-20th century and is still popular today. 

Did you know that “Chicago” is an Indian world for stinkweed, a plant prevalent in the swamp that is now the city?  We learned about how the “Great Chicago Fire” of October 8, 1871 that took the lives of 250 people, left 100,000 people homeless and destroyed over 17,000 homes and buildings, was the catalyst for the city to become the Skycraper City.  Chicago is home to the first skyscraper the Home Insurance Building built in 1885. It was the first building not made of bricks and mortar, but instead had a metal frame. This reduced the weight of the building and allowed taller buildings.  Subsequently, the Chicago School of Architecture was created with many high-rise buildings built form the mid 1880s to 1910.  The design of the buildings often consisted of a three parts: a wide base, a narrower tower on top of the base and a decorative top.

We also learned about the “reversal of the river.”  In the late 19th century, the Chicago River which runs through downtown, was used as an open sewer. However, since it flowed into Lake Michigan. it polluted Chicago’s drinking water. After thousands died from water-related diseases, it was determined the river needed to be reversed.  So, a 26-mile canal was dug 15 feet deeper than the river so when the sanitary and ship canal opened in 1900, the river began to flow backwards naturally as a result of gravity.  Today, the river is much cleaner and while it is still a working river, it is becoming more and more an urban playground with residential development and pathways for recreational uses along its banks.   

Th black Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower)  was  the tallest building in the world when built in 1973.  The neighbouring South Wacker Drive tower reflects many of the same massing (shape) elements but incorporates more decorative elements similar to the early 20th century towers and therefore is called post-modern architecture.  It is the tallest building in the world known only by its street name. Built in 1990, it has a larger circular crown at top that is illuminated at night to make it the most visible building in Chicago's impressive skyline. 

An example of the many parks that are being created along the Chicago river as it becomes more and more an urban playground than a working river.  

A view of the recreational pathway that meanders along the river, making downtown a more attractive place to live.  

For photographers, the river cruise simply “eye candy.”  It seems like every minute there is a new perspective, a different juxtaposition of architectural styles.  We were fortunate to take the cruise on a warm, blue-sky day – the light was spectacular.

Our tour guide was full of fun little factoids and memorable comments including:

“Architecture is the art in which you live in.”

“In Chicago, things are always changing. Nothing stays the same.”  A quote from Mark Twain

“Chicago is sometimes called Paris on the prairies as the river and its bridges are the heart of the city.”

“Tall, dark and handsome” is what some people call Chicago because its signature skyscrapers of the 20th century are tall, dark and handsome buildings – Sears Tower and John Hancock Tower. 

The contrast between the early and late 20th century architecture is very obvious in Chicago.  Note how the earlier skyscrapers were all about the vertical lines which give them an uplifting sense of place.  The late 20th century buildings often have more are horizontal lines that negate the visual verticalness of the structure making it less sky oriented.   

Another example of late 20th century minimalist office architecture.  The building's shape is dramatic with its razor-like edge and flat reflective glass facade.     It has immediate WOW factor, unfortunately there is not much to look at once the WOW is gone.  Some call this "look-at-me" architecture as it grabs your attention but doesn't hold it. 

Along the river you go under many bridges or all different styles.  This old bridge which is permanently elevate is very sculptural and provides a context for how cities have evolved.  There are 18 bridges along a 2 mile stretch of downtown. 

The lattice work as you pass under many of the bridges is incredibly beautiful and detailed. Urban beauty is often in the intricate details of the buildings, structures and public space.  It is often missing in modern urban design, which is often why people refer to the modern downtown as the concrete jungle.  

An example of the bridgehouse where the bridge operator would have a panoramic view of the river and be responsible for elevating the bridge as needed to allow shipping up and down the river. 

Our recommendations:

1.     Book the river cruise tour before you leave home so you aren’t disappointed

2.     Go on your first day as it will provide you with a perfect orientation to the city and its illustrious history

3.     Sit at or near the back of the boat. You’ll have no problem hearing well and this will prevent lots of “turning around” to see or take pictures after the tour guide finishes their banter about the buildings.  

An example of new residential/hotel architecture. Note it still has the basic elements of the Chicago School of Architecture i.e. wide base with a tower on top of the base and then a decorative element on top.  Today this is called podium point design and is very popular for condo developments  around the world. 

Marina City was completed in 1964.  Its corncob-like facade is a unique design that stands out immediately in the skyline.  At 65 floors the twin towers were the tallest residential buildings in the world when they were built. Note the bottom floors is actually a parking garage if you look closely you can see the cars.  

The CBD apartment building is another of Chicago's distinctive architectural gems.  In this case the pattern of different sized balconies creates a facade that is visually playful and exciting. 

 If you like this blog you might like:

The Curse of Minimalism  

Calgary: North America's newest design city!

 more information on Architecture River Cruises 

More information on Chicago Tourism at ChooseChicago



Hamilton's James Street North: A Hidden Gem

As a former Hamiltonian, I have watched with interest Hamilton struggle to cling on to its status as one of the top 10 cities in Canada.  Like Pittsburg, Buffalo and other cities in the North American Rust Belt, Hamilton has had to reinvent itself.  It is no longer the “ambitious city” (a former moniker)! Similarly its status as a “steeltown” has long disappeared with its now more diversified employment base.

James Street, one of the oldest streets in Canada, has a history, which dates back to the early 1800s.  It was home to Hamilton’s first department store (Right House, 1893) and first skyscraper (Piggott Building, 1929, 18 floors).  Lister Block, the first indoor mall in Canada, was built in 1886, burned down in 1923, was rebuilt in 1924 and in 2011, was restored to its early 20th century charm.

James Street is also home to Lloyd D Jackson Square, a mega downtown indoor mall built in 1972. It includes a public square on top that never really worked.  The mall was part of a major downtown renewal project that includes a theatre, civic art gallery, convention center, arena, central library and farmers’ market – basically   everything an urban planners and developers at the time thought was needed to revitalize the Downtown.  The thought was downtowns needed an downtown indoor shopping mall to compete with the suburban malls - Calgary built TD Square in 1977, Edmonton built, its City Centre Place in 1974 and Winnipeg built Portage Place in 1987. 

Forty years later, Hamilton’s downtown, not unlike Winnipeg’s and Edmonton’s still struggles to become the vibrant live, work and play places they were in the ‘50s. Lesson – Urban vitality is an art not a science! 

Morgenstern's is not truly a department store. Just one floor, mostly clothing.  There is an entire section of first holly communion dresses and lots of party/graduation dresses that are right out of the '60s maybe '50s.  We are always surprised it is still there when we visit. 

Hamilton City Centre/Jackson Square  shopping mall looking south from James Street north.  Once downtown was home to several department stores, today there are none.  

The barren bleak public plaza that was created on top of the Jackson Square shopping mall above street level.  Public plazas must be at street level or at least visible from the street to be welcoming.  Plazas need animated shops and restaurants opening up onto it with patios. The buildings here turn their back on the plaza and have no interaction.  What were they thinking? 

James Street North: A Hidden Gem

However, an area just north of the “super blocks,” once called “Little Portugal” now branded as James Street North (JSN) that is becoming very attractive to indie artists in many different disciplines from across southern Ontario.  JSN, a seven block district, extending from Wilson to Murray Street, consists of early 20th century, low-rise brick buildings that are ideal for low rent street level retail, restaurants and cafes with studios and apartments above.  The street retains its historical authenticity architecturally and culturally with several Portugal-based restaurants, pubs and shops in operation. 

JSN is a Jane Jacobs urban village with a diversity of buildings, activities and people and its mixture of local pubs, clubs, cafes, bistros and shops. There is no Tim Horton’s, Starbucks or Lululemon.  What there is is a new energy with the opening of the Art Gallery of Hamilton Shop and Annex, as well as CBC Hamilton studios.  C

The CBC and Art Gallery of Calgary building is the gateway to the James Street North Arts District.  This is the only contemporary urban design element in the entire district. 

James Street North streetscape is one of narrow sidewalks with lots of small shops. Doesn't take many people to generate a vibrant ambience. 

This could be in Portugal, but it is downtown Hamilton's James Street North.  This is just blocks away from Hamilton's downtown Farmers' Market one of the largest and oldest in Canada. 

New independent restaurants are starting to populate the streets. These are small intimate spaces that encourage human interactions. 

Ola Cafe is just one of the many Portuguese shops that adds an authenticity to JSN's sense of place.  You can't create this with urban redevelopment it takes decades to create character like this. 

An art exhibition in one of the many bohemian art galleries, mostly artists' cooperatives vs commercial galleries. Meet the artist not the owner!

There is a playfulness and spontaneity in the galleries. This mask/head was taken off the wall and an impromptu performance happened. 

Mom and pop cafe, no Tim's, Starbucks or Second Cup in sight.  


Initiated in 2009, Supercrawl built on the popularity of JSN second Friday art crawls.  It has quickly grown from a one-day street festival into a major two-day arts festival attracting 80,000 people in 2012. The 2013 event September 13 and 14th will expand yet again to include waterfront concerts at Pier 8 at the end of James Street on the waterfront.   

Supercrawl organizers have announced that this year's free musical acts will include Said The Whale, Chelsea Light Moving (with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth), Young Rival, Joel Plaskett Emergency, Steve Strongman, Yo La Tengo, Sandro Perri, the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and 2009 Polaris Prize winners F***ed UP.

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North. 

Artists and patrons enjoying themselves at one of the monthly Art Crawls along James Street North. 


If you are in the Hamilton area and are interested in art and architecture, don’t just drive by. Drive into the Downtown and check out James Street North. Take a walk back in time.  JSN should be on the radar of anyone who is into urban exploring, art, architecture and flaneuring. 

Below are just a few teasers.  If you like this article you might like the blog:  "Cities of Opportunities" 

Downtown Hamilton has several elegant early 20th century churches. 

Hamilton's Farmers' Market is a foodies mecca. The old clock I believe is from the old Hamilton Birk's Building 

Downtown is full of exquisite buildings in various states of aging. There is a wonderful urban patina that creates a unique sense of place.  This is not your pretty restored historic district. 

James Street North architecture collage

Hidden amongst the architecture and urban patina are some wonderful ornamental elements from the past which enrich the streetscape.  Decorative and ornamental elements have been lost in the age of minimalism. 

The Lister Building and people wandering James Street during one of the monthly art crawls. 

Fountain in Gore Park is a throw back to age of urban ornamentation and decoration. 

Hamilton's Central Library and Farmers' Market are a key component of the city's 40 year struggle with downtown urban renewal experiments. 

If you liked this blog you might like:

Cities of Opportunities  

Curse of Minimalism  

Migraines and travel make strange bedfellows....

By Laura Lushington, guest blogger 

Nothing stops a vacation short like a migraine. Having to close the curtains in your hotel room shut and pray that your neighbours don’t listen to the T.V. too loud, is a travelling nightmare for all migraine sufferers. Not mention the time you’ll lose laying in bed inside of absorbing your destination’s sights and sounds.

Adding to this is the fact that travelling usually means sleep deprivation, stress and irregular eating patterns and these can all trigger a migraine i.e. across ocean flights can equal a disaster. So, what can you do?

Last year, on a field school to India with Mount Royal University, I quickly had to figure this out. As a migraine sufferer for the past five years, it was daunting to face 35 days away from the creature comforts of home. I had to have a plan in place to help me prevent them from occurring in the first place.

My first strategy was to break up my trip into segments so I wouldn’t have to deal with a 12-hour time difference right off the bat. Since there are no direct flights from Calgary to New Delhi, I had to connect in Frankfurt. Instead of treating Frankfurt as just a place to wait out a few-hour long layover, I decided to take a few days and see what the city had to offer. This decision ended up being one the best ones I’ve ever made. It was easy for me to sleep in a bit, tour the city until the early evening, then catch a quick nap before going out again for dinner. This dramatically lessened my sleep deprivation and gave me stores of energy for when I arrived in India.

Using a sleep schedule like that also helped combat the chance of incurring an irregular eating pattern. It gave me windows of time where I should eat and helped my body adjust. I made sure to have a water bottle with me at all times as dehydration will only make a migraine worse and included a stash of protein and granola bars in my backpack in case I ever got stuck in a place where there wasn’t any food available or, in the case of India, not suitable unless I wanted to risk getting sick. I made sure that these snacks were as natural as possible, had a relatively low amount of sugar, and were high in protein and fibre. You don’t want to pack overly sugary snacks and then face the possibly of a crash after a sugar high — another migraine trigger.

The most difficult migraine trigger to prevent is stress, as you simply cannot predict the future. But, what you can do is prepare yourself for different situations and have a strategy to keep your breathing calm and shoulders relaxed. Since I was going to India, I knew that culture shock was a distinct possibility. Somehow, someway I managed not to become completely overwhelmed. After we landed in New Delhi and walked out the airport doors to the throngs of people and taxis, I simply took a moment, looked around and said, “I’m here”. That millisecond of self-realization paid off. I didn’t panic when our taxi driver tied our luggage to the car’s roof with a thin piece of twine. I didn’t get anxious when we could tell that he didn’t exactly know where he was going. I was there and along for the ride.

I did get migraines when I was in India but they were quite manageable (probably due to the consistent weather). I let my travel partners know my situation and they were very accommodating when I had to go to bed early or take a mid-day break. What I learned most from that trip was to have strategies ready to fight a migraine before it appears and to use them. Your plan to prevent migraines must be put in action so you can enjoy the most of a vacation you most definitely deserve.

Photo credit: makelessnoise