We (don’t) need a sign

Everyone who’s read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (or seen the 2013 film) will remember the scene where the title character stares out longingly across the water at a distant green light shimmering in the darkness.

Jay Gatsby has it all — money, real estate, a fan club — but what he doesn’t have is the heart of his love interest, the pretty, but entirely vapid, Daisy. So he piles his hopes and his fortunes on chasing that one green light, believing that it will lead him to Daisy so he can win her over.

We Torontonians could stand to learn from Gatsby’s mistake, because we too are chasing an empty dream. But in our case, the green light at the end of the pier is a giant red sign with two spinning records that leak mercury.

Since August, all sorts of concerned citizens, politicians and celebrities have come out of the woodwork to speak out against the continued non-appearance of the Sam The Record Man sign. In a veritable who’s who of Canadiana, everyone from Josh Matlow to Gordon Lightfoot to Rush vocalist Geddy Lee has come forward to demand that we “Save Our Sign!” and undo our affront to Toronto’s cultural heritage.

One wonders where all these sign advocates were when Sam the Record Man had to shut down in 2007 after years of struggling to sell records. In all likelihood, they were right there with the rest of us: too busy listening to their iPods to notice. In any event, they’re a little too late to “save” anything but a piece of token memorabilia from an era that they themselves helped usher into extinction.

The school proposed putting up a commemorative plaque and a smaller replica sign where the original once stood.

To be fair, our school hasn’t lived up to its word. When Ryerson purchased the Sam property from the Sniderman family in 2008, it agreed to refurbish and rehouse the iconic sign at its own expense. Since then, president Sheldon Levy has gone back and forth on that commitment. For now, the sign is still holed up in a warehouse somewhere in Vaughan.

No one knows what kind of legal advice inspired Levy to make promises he couldn’t keep. But in the scheme of civic blunders, Levy’s was a minor one. Once it was clear that the sign wouldn’t be going back up (at least in its original location) Ryerson was more than happy to offer alternatives.

The school proposed putting up a commemorative plaque and a smaller replica sign where the original once stood. It would have been an appropriate tribute to Sam Sniderman, and a far more environmentally and architecturally friendly option than restoring the oversized neon sign to its place (it was designed in the 1970s — nothing like it would ever be built today). But that wasn’t good enough to appease the detractors, who seem only willing to settle for the real thing.

Nostalgia may be cheap, but putting the past on life support is an expensive indulgence. If Ryerson is forced to go ahead and pay for the Sam sign’s re-installation and maintenance, it will be the students who end up footing the bill — few among whom have ever set foot in a record store.

But the worst thing about the Sam outcry is what it says about our city’s self-image. If our cultural identity is so sparse that it’s threatened by the disappearance of a single storefront, no matter how historic, then we have far greater problems than a tacky sign.

The tragedy of The Great Gatsby isn’t that Gatsby tried and failed to win the love of Daisy — it’s that she wasn’t worth his time to begin with. Like Daisy, our sign is flashy and glamorous. But let’s be honest: we’ll be better off without it.

Correction (Oct. 2): we wrote that the proposed replica sign would be LED-powered. But according to the commemoration plan the memorial would not be lit.

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