One bright idea: Restoring his city’s past, one tube at a time

Len Davidson is a sociology professor-turned restaurant owner-turned neon sign designer, collector and preserver.

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And there’s a string — er — tube of lights that’s lit the way for a career as unique as his.

Rewind to the ’70s: Davidson was a sociology professor at the University of Florida. On his path to tenure, Davidson became friendly with a man from Nashville. They swapped stories of big roadside icons in each of their cities — Uncle Sam in Nashville, and Pep Boys’ Manny, Moe and Jack in Davidson’s native Philadelphia.

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Eventually, the newfound friends bought a three-story dress shop in Florida and turned it into a bar and restaurant with a “roadside America” feel. The main focal point of the decor? Glowing neon signs mounted on the ceiling.

Davidson never got his tenure, which he credits to the hours he spent at the restaurant. He and his wife moved back to Philadelphia by the end of the decade.

But that wasn’t before Davidson had time to apprentice and, not before long, “get hooked” on neon.

“Every year, I would do more and more neon, both collecting old neon and making new neon,” he said.

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As his collection, conversations and curiosities grew, he became a bit of a historian, rediscovering the city he had always loved.

“I was roaming through the nooks and crannies of Philadelphia, and that was really sociology much more than when I was in academia,” he said, recalling the days of being led down into people’s basements to discover neon signs of the past.

“Memorializing things from Philadelphia — mom and pop stores, places that I went to — learning the history of Philadelphia, it all merges together. It’s pretty seamless for me.”

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