On CITGO, Neon, and Boston’s Favorite Sign

It’s just a coincidence that one of Beacon Street’s major intersections lies beneath the glow of the CITGO sign. There was no grand design for Commonwealth Avenue to meet Beacon Street where the sign broadcasts to the city. It wasn’t planned, but it is fitting.

Boston wouldn’t be Boston without the CITGO sign. Over time, the sign has gone from being another glowing advertisement among billboards to a beacon of fond memories and the comfort of familiarity.

However, it wasn’t always that way. It started out a symbol purchased to represent a corporation, but it has slowly become a part of the city of Boston.

The sign first appeared in Kenmore Square in 1940 as a Cities Service sign above the company’s regional headquarters. It was replaced with the CITGO sign in 1965 when they company created the brand. Since then, every time people have proposed shutting it off or tearing it down, they’ve been met with fervent opposition.

Boston's North Star | Photo by Ashley Hansberry
Boston’s North Star | Photo by Ashley Hansberry

In 1979, Governor Edward J. King ordered that the sign be turned off as a symbol of energy conservation amid the oil crisis tied to the Iranian Revolution. For four years, the sign was dark. Robert Campbell wrote an article in the Boston Globe entitled “The Return of the Crown Jewel,” in which he called the sign “an accidental masterpiece” and made the case for why it should be turned back on.

At the end of those four years, CITGO attempted to dismantle it, but the company was met with significant protest from Bostonians. There was a push for the city to declare it a historical landmark, and although the sign never officially earned the title, people started to treat it as if it were one. CITGO abandoned its plans to take the sign down, choosing instead to refurbish it and turn it back on.

When President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez insulted President George W. Bush and United States foreign policy in 2006, Boston City Council member Jerry P. McDermott called for the removal of the Venezuelan company’s sign. After it became clear his plan wouldn’t be accepted, he suggested covering it with an American or Red Sox flag, but the sign stayed put, just the way it was.

Recently, CITGO spent $1 million restoring the sign in 2005 and replacing its neon lights with LEDs. The company replaced the lights again in 2010 with more technologically advanced and environmentally friendly alternatives.

Looking back at the history of the sign, no single event explains how the sign became the beacon it is today. Instead, that transformation was slow and very personal.

Ask Boston marathon runners why the sign is special, and they might tell you about the first time they ran the race. They’ll say the sign marks the 20-mile mark and that when they see it, they know the finish line isn’t far away.

Ask Red Sox fans why the CITGO sign is special, and they’ll talk about how it pokes out over the wall of left field. The tour guides at Fenway Park still tell the story of when Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays supposedly told a reporter he read the sign “C-It-G0.”

Ask anyone in Boston and they’ll probably have a reason why the CITGO sign is dear to them.

Josh Millman, a bartender at Game On!, said the sign served as a colorful beacon in his childhood in the ’80s when Boston didn’t have much color.

“Being a kid growing up in the south shore, that was always the distinguishing thing about coming into the city,” he said. He remembered driving past a dilapidated TD Garden and run-down subway system before his family got onto Storrow Drive, which was when he could first see the sign. “That was our Times Square.”

Most of all, ask students at Boston University about the CITGO sign, and they’ll tell you it points home.

“It’s like the North Star of Boston,” said BU freshman Brooke Kwasny (COM ’16, CAS ’16). “I’m from Milwaukee and I had been to Boston twice before I came to school here…so I really have no idea where I’m going when I go places. It’s like ‘Oh hey, there’s the CITGO sign. That must mean I’m near BU.’”

Apparently there’s a saying in Boston: “London has Big Ben. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. Boston has the CITGO sign.” It isn’t attributed to anyone in particular, but I don’t think it does the sign justice. Big Ben is a symbol of the monarchy and the Eiffel Tower was manufactured as a cultural icon.

But the CITGO sign broke away from its original purpose to become the icon it is now. It was made to be a symbol of an oil company, a flashy sign of capitalist power, but it’s the opposite. People love the CITGO sign because they have a personal reason to, not because of anything attached to its name or why it was made.

If it once stood as a symbol of wealth, it has now become a beacon of community.

About Jake Lucas

Hi there I'm Jake. I'm a journalism major/environmental policy and analysis minor originally from the suburbs of Chicago. I'm interested in all kinds of science, politics and economics. I also like bears, singing and podcasts. If you have any questions, tips or just want to shoot the breeze, email me at jlucas@buquad.com. Or, find me on Twitter @JakeDLucas.

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