Cycle Center

Route 9, Natick MA, 1956

When Viennese émigré Alan Berg open the Cycle Center in 1956, he knew he would need a bold sign to attract the attention of local commuters. This distinctive image of a recreational cyclist was hoisted high on two steel posts and placed close to the edge of busy Route 9. Below the cyclist, the name of the store was illuminated in enormous neon letters across rectangular panel, the world “Cycle” in italics and “Center” in block capital letters. Pulsating incandescent bulbs wrapped around the cyclist, ending in a downwards arrow which indicated the pull-off point for the store’s parking lot. Despite its size -- the original sign was more than twenty feet wide – the Cycle Center’s sign became a much-loved Natick landmark. The neon cyclist, with its flashing wheel spokes, created a cheerful image of muscle-propelled movement in an increasingly automotive landscape.

According to Diana Levinson, the sign became the emblem for a family business which “wasn’t like any other place.” Levinson, who ran the family business after her father Alan Berg retired, remembered “we were part of the anti-slick movement,” a store which deliberately catered to families seeking affordable bicycles, rather the promoting high-end equipment. When Levinson closed the Cycle Center in 1997, she fondly told a reporter “I have a personal relationship with this sign.” Levinson was likely not alone in her affection for the neon cyclist: her family’s store served Natick-area customers for more than 40 years.

Like most of the signs in this exhibition, the Cycle Center’s neon sign was fabricated by a small firm, in this case a Boston company called “Jim Did It Signs.” The backlit signs for various bicycle companies were likely added later. There is no longer any record of the signs’ designer, who may or may not have been inspired by other bicycle signs of the period featuring animated wheel movement. Whether or not the design of the sign was local, there is no question that it immediately became a defining part of the landscape around it.

Natick, which incorporated in 1781, experienced its first major wave of growth when it became an industrial town known for shoe-making in the early nineteenth century. By the mid-1950s, the spread of the suburbs turned Natick into a middle-class suburb of Boston. The cheerful cyclist, who illuminated Natick’s evenings with an image of popular, affordable recreation, was a monument to the town’s broader transformation.

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