A neon pink and white marquee spelling GRAND vertically is lit against a black sky.
The Grand Theater neon sign lit up. Photo courtesy of Gray Area. Taken Feb. 2, 2023.

Hey, readers! Hope to brighten your day and leave you enlightened with this iteration of Mission Moves, my newsy development segment (now cut into bite-sized bits). If you’re interested, read the latest piece on 18th St. garages that turned into granny flats. Let us begin.

A sign of the times

The unlit Grand Theater marquee on Sept. 9, 2020, known as the “Orange Day.” Photo by Annika Hom.

Felt a little brighter strolling down Mission Street lately? That’s because the historic Grand Theater’s neon sign is lit up for the first time in more than 30 years. 

That’s the doing of Gray Area, the digital arts nonprofit that occupies the historic Grand Theater, originally established in 1940 at 2665 Mission St. near 22nd Street. On the organization’s 15th anniversary in February, Gray Area executive director Barry Threw directed his organization to fix the sign and flip the on switch, casting a block of Mission Street in a pink and white neon glow. But, as often the case with art, the sign, and its sudden revival, is a symbol. 

“The re-ignition of this sign, we hope, is a small moment to be proud of San Francisco in a time when the city needs to get back on its feet,” Threw told me. 

When Gray Area finally decided to reinvigorate the marquee, it required a little TLC, funds from the organization’s $52,000 end-of-the-year campaign, and a fresh supply of neon gas. It looks similar to how it did in 1975, when the sign still shone proudly on the block. 

In a time when some artists have folded up and fled this creative town, Threw said, it’s important to uplift the organizations that are still pushing. 

“There is still a vibrant life happening in San Francisco,” Threw said, who moved here from southern Illinois in 2004 to chase his artistic dreams. “It should be a city people are proud to live in.” 

Although the nonprofit has for years offered digital art showcases and some free courses to community members and youth, Threw wants its work to be noticed locally even more. A giant pink and white neon sign might just do the trick. Maybe. 

Why has the sign been off for so long? It’s unclear. Before Gray Area took over in 2014, the historic Grand Theater was used as a dollar store, and the store did not use the sign. Still, even when it’s off, the theater’s white and blue sign hanging over Mission Street is noticeable to many.

The Grand Theater’s lights come back online just as the 10-year run of the “The Bay Lights” on the Bay Bridge is (eventually) set to go dark. We have collectively witnessed the rollercoaster of emotions that have ensued.

I get it. I was among the Bay Bridge’s melodramatic mourners. Heck, what I’d give to see the $100,000 red Coca-Cola sign that stood watch over 101 lit up once more. It’s not until these seemingly permanent adornments to the cityscape disappear that you realize you’ll miss them. Only then, when it’s too late, do you suddenly recall the countless times when you were stuck in traffic in a foul mood, and that some piece of art — whether it be a glittering light or a sculpture or a mural — offered you a moment of joyous reprieve. The pause that refreshes, as it were. 

So, conversely, I think Threw’s plan to add to Mission Street’s shine might just work to uplift the neighborhood spirits, if marginally so. When the green glow of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema New Mission sign, a block away from Grand, lit up last summer, how many of you felt better? 

Months ago, an artist I interviewed told me that someone always tries to declare San Francisco and its art scene dead. It’s never dead. It’s just changed. Heck, a Louisianan moved to the basement of the Artists’ Television Access, chasing dreams that drew Threw here before. That film buff, Ivy Woods, can walk down two streets and bask in Grand’s glow. 

Get ready, Mission. As Threw said: “It’s a new era of positive energy and pride.”


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REPORTER. Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. The Hamms Beer sign (continually filling up a glass) off the Central Freeway was my favorite for traffic jams. . . . then came Punk Rock rehearsals in the vats!!!

    1. Both before my time. What a shame. Now you can’t even really find Hamm’s Beer, let alone the sign.