The more shined up Philadelphia becomes, the more we've come to appreciate the oddball relics from its grittier days, before the city became a must-see vacation destination. It's as if their presence keeps us connected to the city's true self.
The nonfunctioning neon sign attached to the Boot & Saddle bar on South Broad Street is one of my favorites. Nearly two stories high, the sign was created as an outsize calling card for the country-western music club that opened there around 1950 and catered to Navy Yard workers. When the dive bar was resurrected by Avram Hornick's Four Corners Management in 2013, after sitting empty for 17 years, he cannily adopted the old sign and name for his indie-music venue.
While the building that supports the huge sign is an unremarkable rowhouse, gussied up in a down-home style, the sign is a folk-art masterpiece that mashes up 1950s urban cool and country-western imagery.
Shaped like a cowboy boot, it is attached to the building by a western saddle. The word boot runs vertically, bar is inscribed in the toe, and saddle is spelled out over the saddle. Len Davidson, a Philadelphia sign-maker who has written the definitive history of vintage neon signs, considers it one of the city's best.
Even though it has been years since the last bit of neon tubing flickered out, you can still easily read the sign by its form. If we measure a logo's effectiveness by its ability to communicate a message quickly, then the Boot & Saddle sign is pure genius. It's also probably no accident that its maker, who is unknown, shaped the boot to resemble a map of Italy, since this stretch of Broad was predominantly Italian American when the venue opened.
The sign is such a local icon that the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association made its restoration a condition of Hornick's liquor license and zoning, said president Peter Zutter. But 16 months after the club reopened, the sign remains dark, its flamingo-pink background in tatters. Maybe Hornick doesn't realize that, once you appropriate a piece of Philadelphia's cultural past, you also assume an obligation to care for it.