Light Brigade

Written by Douglas Towne Category: Valley News Issue: August 2011

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Fortunately for connoisseurs of Phoenix’s fading heritage of mom-and-pop roadside businesses and their eye-popping neon displays, Michael Levine has equipment few people possess. “A lot of people want old signs, but not many have the machinery and space to salvage and house them,” Levine says. The energetic Brooklyn native has rescued some of the city’s last remaining historic neon signs – one-of-a-kind pieces of promotional art that were installed when cars sported tail fins and Van Buren Street was the main drag for cross-country motorists.

Among the signs salvaged by Levine is one from the Sun Villa Motel, formerly located at 2529 E. Van Buren. “Its scale is incredible,” Levine says. The sign is so tall that only the top 15 feet can be displayed in his Levine Machine Complex building, located in the Warehouse District. Levine was lucky that its neon tubes were intact. “All we had to do was fire it up!”

Levine wasn’t so fortunate with the lower portion of the sign. “I power-washed out 40 years of pigeon poop and bird skeletons,” he says. “It was unbelievably putrid; I couldn’t get the smell out of my head for a week.” So why does Levine do such dirty work? Of his passion to preserve the Valley’s architectural elements, Levine says, “It’s really simple. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and they won’t be coming back.”