“I’ve had these candy cane lights for more than a decade,” Russell Locombo tells me. “You can’t find them anywhere anymore — I have to rewire the lights myself. You can find smaller ones, on a string, but these really look like candy canes.”
It’s a cool and humid Saturday evening in mid-November, and Locombo is packing up after spending the entire day festooning the front of his house — one of the more modest on his block, 84th Street between Eleventh and Twelfth avenues in Dyker Heights — with Christmas decorations. A veteran who proudly flies his Star-Spangled Banner even when it’s flanked by garlands, wreaths, and ribbons, he and his wife Angela are very serious about Christmas lights. Russell talks about his light arrangements with a formal sophistication and detail-oriented precision that evokes the way a painter would describe a composition or a photographer might discuss framing a shot.
“I started last weekend and I’ve been working on it every night,” he says. “Those two trees still need lights, the hedges, these plants, the railings, and around the windows.” He points out the few sections of his house’s façade and front yard that aren’t yet equipped with lit-up miniature figures, garlands, wreaths, or giant red ribbons. The final effect is dazzling but not delirious, with bows, candy canes, and light garlands all around, a glowing reindeer swiveling its head halfway up the front steps, a pair of luminous, trumpet-toting angels straddling the railing, and Santa and snowman cut-outs on the front gate. But Russell says this is a pared-down display compared to past years.
“I used to have two Christmas trees, live ones in pots, and I would put lights on those and have them on either side of the window, and then we had a display in the window, too,” he explains. “And I had a Santa wearing gold with a big white beard standing in the top window, holding a candle. It looked really good with those two trees, but they both died, and the new ones haven’t been growing.” Sure enough, up on the balcony over the garage, two stubby, potted pines are barely visible despite their strings of multi-colored lights.
In any other neighborhood the Locombos would be those strange folks who always go way, way over the top with their Christmas lights, but in Dyker Heights they are just one of hundreds of households participating in the neighborhood tradition known as the Dyker Lights. Every year from the week after Thanksgiving to the first weekend in January, an eight-block section on the neighborhood’s south side becomes a glowing winter wonderland, and the Locombos’ block is ground zero.
Despite Russell’s concern about his stumpy trees, by the weekend before Thanksgiving the Locombos’ decorations are among the most elaborate in the area.
“If you can’t take the kids to Disneyworld or Disneyland, you bring them here,” Angela Locombo boasts. And indeed, in a month’s time, local news crews, parents with cars full of children, and huge buses bearing tourists from Europe and Asia will be clogging the narrow, sloped streets. Angela adds: “I tell Russell: ‘Nobody’s heard of you here, but in Japan you’re a star.’”
Russell, who is short and handsome, with kind eyes, combed-back silver hair, and a stud in his left ear, brushes off his wife’s flattery and points up the street: “Just wait until you see her display.” He’s referring to Florence Polizzotto, of 1145 84th Street, an enormous, white, Palladian mansion with a front yard full of statues and a portico held up by four two-story-tall columns (these are not all that uncommon in the neighborhood). By the first week in December, visitors to Polizzoto’s house will be greeted by a giant animatronic Santa, a platoon of 30-foot-tall nutcrackers with articulated arms, and miniature amusement park rides packed with Christmas-y figures. “She has them brought in on flatbed trucks,” Russell explains.
His display, however, is one of the few in the neighborhood without a single nutcracker. “I don’t do the soldiers,” he says, “because some of the kids are scared of them.”
Named after the Van Dykes, one of the families in the original Dutch town of New Utrecht, the neighborhood of Dyker Heights forms a (roughly) two and a quarter square mile rectangle, which extends from Bay Ridge Avenue and the Belt Parkway to the north and south, and the Gowanus Expressway and Fourteenth Avenue to the west and east. Aside from a commercial strip along Thirteenth Avenue — where every third store seems to be a nail salon — and the Dyker Beach Golf Course on its south side, the neighborhood is mostly residential.
Dyker, which has population of about 40,000, has long been a middle-class, Italian-American neighborhood. In recent years, Chinese-Americans have settled in the neighborhood, and they now comprise roughly 20 percent of the area’s population.
The section where the Christmas lights are concentrated remains an Italian stronghold. That said, the Chinese-American family at 1270 84th Street has one of this year’s most elaborate displays, with glowing, blinking bands of lights all around the house’s exterior and a scintillating miniature Eiffel Tower next to their driveway. There is also a pair of inflatable Santas carrying gigantic candy canes and another piloting a helicopter on their front lawn.
Few in number but highly visible this time of year are Dyker’s residents of Greek descent. They are ardent participants in the tradition: at least three of the most elaborately decorated homes this year either belong to Greek-Americans, or are flying a Greek flag. The Italians, however, are credited with launching the light festival.
Except nobody seems to agree about how the Dyker Heights Christmas lights began. The Locombos told me their neighbor two doors up, Lucy Spata — whose balcony, driveway and front yard have been occupied by an army of Santas, elves, angels, reindeer, and nutcrackers since mid-November — has been creating increasingly elaborate displays for nearly 30 years. But they also said she started a couple years after the Polizzotos across the way, who have also been creating similarly grandiose Christmas spectacles for three decades. Another local told me a man on the next block of 84th Street, between Twelfth and Thirteenth avenues, started it all sometime in the mid-1980s, though he also said that for the first few years the phenomenon was more pronounced along Fifteenth Avenue. Over the decades, the theory goes, the tradition crept up to its current confines, between Eleventh and Thirteenth avenues, and 82nd and 85th streets.
A survey of the local press only yields greater uncertainty about the lights’ early years, although the Spatas are often cited as the pioneers. According to a 2007 Brooklyn Paper article, Lucy Spata and her parents started it all more than 45 years ago; the same article also cites “local historians” who claim the tradition goes back to the 1940s. A 2002 New York Post story dates the tradition’s origins to 1984, crediting Spata and her husband Angelo as the trailblazers. In 2011, Spata told the Wall Street Journal: “I'm the troublemaker that started all this.” A 1987 article in the New York Times singles out the neighborhood as having the city’s best Christmas lights displays, but says little about their beginnings. In 2001 PBS aired the documentary “Dyker Lights,” profiling the residents behind the biggest displays. And in a 2000 segment for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” O’Brien visited the neighborhood, crowning the Polizzoto household and its animatronic Santa the winner, before berating residents of a non-participating neighboring household for not having any Christmas lights. While the tradition may have been around for the better part of a half-century, most accounts seem to agree that it achieved critical mass sometime in the early to mid-1980s.
Today, if you ask a seasoned south Brooklynite about Dyker Heights, Christmas lights are probably the first thing she’ll mention. Inquire more, and you will, of course, hear about the houses. Dyker Heights long had a reputation for having some of the city’s most elaborate residences. Its homes, from the most ornate and ostentatious — many of which are modeled after Tuscan villas or Greek temples — to the smaller, semidetached houses and single-story bungalows, have carefully manicured yards redolent with replicas of classical Greco-Roman sculptures, multi-tiered waterfall fountains, whimsical topiary, and statues of deer, greyhounds and other assorted animals. Many of these are conscripted into holiday service come November, adorned with lights and sometimes given Christmas-appropriate makeovers. Although manger scenes are a popular motif in the neighborhood this time of year, the area’s innumerable front-yard statues of Mary, Jesus, and various disciples and saints are on display all year round.
Putting the Christ in Christmas
Walking the neighborhood’s normally quiet, mansion-lined blocks amid throngs of light-gazers, you’ll mostly come across a secular cast of characters ranging from inflatable Snoopys and Mickeys to statues of Santa and Frosty. But some locals go Biblical with elaborate nativity dioramas. Certain displays, like the Spatas’, include miniature figures portraying Jesus’s birth tucked into a corner of a larger arrangement. Others, like that of Maria Hronopoulos, make Jesus’s birth the focus of their displays.
A small and shy older Greek woman, Hronopoulos has been adding to her huge array of decorations for about ten years. On a sunny but very chilly Saturday in late November, she was surveying her nearly completed display, at the corner of Twelfth Avenue and 85th Street. “I can only do it for an hour at a time in this cold, but I do it myself,” Hronopoulos says, pausing in front of the manger scene halfway up her front steps. “It’s my promise to God for Jesus’s birthday … I used to decorate inside for my children. Now I decorate outside for Jesus.”
Most residents of Dyker Heights are less zealous and have humble, crowd-pleasing aspirations. “We like to keep it simple and tasteful,” says a man named Berk, who was winding a string of lights around his front yard railing on 84th Street between Twelfth and Thirteenth avenues with his wife Oya on a weekend afternoon in November. “We’ve got a garland, and we hang up a wreath. We’ll put out a Garfield, too — for the kids.”
For Tony Stucchio, at 1148 85th Street between Eleventh and Twelfth avenues, his manger diorama — which is surrounded by animatronic carolers — is an essential part of his display. “I like it because I can see some people reflecting,” he says, “you can see it in their faces.” He maintains his display’s calmer, more contemplative mood by sticking to a consistent aesthetic that he tweaks slightly year in and year out — for 2013 he has added an angel to his second-floor window.
“My thing is to try to keep it simple and tasteful,” he says. “My wife always has to remind me: ‘Sometimes more is too much.’”
While tastefulness is a quality that few of the people I’ve spoken with mentioned striving for, many boasted about assembling their light displays themselves.
The DIYker Lights
On most nights and weekends in November, residents of Dyker Heights are in their yards and on their front steps, wrapping strings of lights around railings, positioning nativity scene figures, and running wires up staircases, through flower beds, and behind hedges. These committed souls boast of being able to do their own displays rather than resorting to hiring a decoration company. After all, the tradition started out as an amateur event, and has only become professionalized as the stakes and means have escalated.
“A lot of people in the neighborhood are business owners and they just don’t have the time to do it themselves,” a man named Jack, who has been decorating his house and front yard on 82nd Street between Twelfth and Thirteenth avenues for the past twelve years, tells me in mid-November. “A lot of people hire companies to do it. I’m one of the few who still put up their own lights; my neighbor across the street does too, so does the guy next to him.”
And it’s not hard to see why so few locals still do it themselves: The displays are logistically daunting and technically complex. Handyman dads working in their front yards can be heard bragging about blown fuses and having to bring in electricians to test their circuitry. Thinking about the sheer volume families’ assorted ornaments represent in terms of storage space can be dizzying — although it partly explains why so many of the newer, gaudier mansions have two-car garages.
Returning to the neighborhood every week leading up to the Dyker lights’ unofficial launch in early December, I keep seeing the same people hard at work in their front yards: the Locombos on 84th Street, Hronopoulos and her family at Twelfth Avenue and 85th Street, and just up the block Tony Stucchio, who remembers being courted by B&R Christmas Decorators, the neighborhood’s dominant professional decoration company.
“The guy from B&R says to me, ‘I’ve been watching you put up your display over the years, when are you gonna give me a call?,’” Stucchio says. The display outside his narrow, two-story home features garlands, candy canes, a manger, and statues of Christmas carolers similar to those offered by B&R. “I told him the year I can’t do my own I’ll stop doing it … Everybody displays their inner self. It’s the individual coming out.”
Those who persist in putting up their homemade displays do retain an intangible personal touch that evades the decoration companies. Whether it’s the handwritten sign Russell put up to dissuade would-be thieves from pulling up his candy canes, the incredible pileup of cartoon characters on Stephen Brimigion’s façade and front lawn at 8312 Twelfth Avenue, the potentially seizure-inducing bands of blinking lights at 1270 84th Street, or the legions of Christmas figures — including the trademark pair of 15-foot-tall nutcrackers — filling every inch of available space outside Lucy Spata’s home, the best DIY displays are easy to pick out from the professional jobs. Like a handmade gift among store-bought presents, the amateur decorations have a rough-hewn charm. DIY arrangements are easy to pick out, too. They’re asymmetrical, or feature a maximalist mashup of incongruous characters. Wiring is visible, ornaments are often vintage or at least sui generis.
But with the increased attention from the press and tour organizers who bring international tourists by the busload, many of the neighborhood’s biggest displays are simply too complex for someone who is gainfully employed to put up in their spare time. The Dyker lights are such an institution that they’ve spawned an industry.
The Christmas Light Pros
Walking from block to block, signs touting custom lighting jobs by B&R Christmas Decorators and Di Meglio Decorators — the two firms that seem to enjoy a decoration duopoly in the neighborhood — are almost as prevalent as the ubiquitous front yard security system signs. The decoration companies are thriving; B&R’s James Bonavito has even turned down new clients to better serve his longtime Dyker Heights customers.
For all of November and early December, before the droves of tourists descend, the neighborhood’s blocks are dotted with decoration company vans and trucks, and many of its front yards teem with Christmas helpers of a different stripe. Dressed in blue or red hoodies depending on whether they work for Di Meglio or B&R, respectively, the predominantly Latino crews of professional decorators drape garlands over hedges and balustrades, sheath leafless trees in meshes of tiny lights, and erect all manner of glowing statuary. Professional decorators did the articulated snowmen with creepy, Terminator-like eyes at the corner of 84th Street and Twelfth Avenue; they did the ensemble of dancing elves lining the front steps of a house on 84th between Tenth and Eleventh avenues; and they wrapped the pride of concrete lion sculptures at the corner of 84th Street and Eleventh Avenue in garlands and lights. (Those displays all happen to be by B&R, who have the upper hand in the Dyker lights market.)
Bonavito, of B&R, says he got into the lights business by chance. “My father’s friend was looking for someone to do his lights in the area,” he tells me. “And I went over there and did the lights, and a couple other people asked me to do their lights, and then it took off. I had a couple clients, and then three, and then ten. Now it’s over 100.”
A Bensonhurst resident who works as an art teacher in addition to designing and deploying decorations around the holidays — his company also does some Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Easter displays, though Christmas is their specialty — Bonavito has seen the Dyker lights tradition expand from a local custom into a global attraction.
“It has grown tremendously,” he says. “When I first started it was very little, hardly anybody was going to see the neighborhood, now people from around the world are coming by the busload — you pay $40 and get a free hot chocolate. I should get a piece of that.”
For Bonavito, the distinction between amateur and professional displays often comes down to a matter of aesthetics.
“My tastes are more simple,” says Bonavito, “but there are people who do it themselves who do more gaudy displays. You won’t see that with me; I mean, I do a lot, a lot of lights, but I’ll never do gaudy.”
The lights put up by B&R and DiMeglio, while often enormous and technically impressive, frequently feature many of the same decorations. The laser-eyed snowmen at in the yard of the house at 84th Street and Twelfth Avenue, for instance, are the same as the one at 83rd Street and Tenth Avenue, while the musical elves outside 1221 82nd Street are close cousins of those on the front steps of a house on 84th Street between Tenth and Eleventh avenues. The repetition and homogeny is a little like seeing your local coffee shop replaced by a Starbucks.
Decorating one’s own home guarantees a unique light show with more character than a company display, but it can also be a handicap. In spite of the benevolent spirit that many claim reigns over the neighborhood, the professionalization of the Dyker Heights lights may be a direct result of the inexhaustible energy fueling the phenomenon: The desire to keep up with the Joneses, or, in this case, the Garzones.
“A lot of the people, especially Italian people, are very competitive — they know each other, they think ‘I could do better,’” Bonavito tells me, by way of explaining how the displays have steadily become more elaborate and ambitious. “Whenever someone does something nice, someone does something even better next door. That’s how that neighborhood is. It’s a typical Italian and Greek area.” Walking down the brightest blocks, the clustering of decorations on certain corners and blocks supports Bonavito’s claim.
The neighborhood’s brightest and loudest displays — several incorporate looped soundtracks of familiar Christmas jingles — often seem to be directly opposite one another, or on adjacent corners of the same intersections. At 83rd Street and Twelfth Avenue, for instance, the house on the northwest corner has a huge, lit-up pack of reindeer pulling a glowing sled full of presents in front of a gazebo covered in lights, while the house on the southwest corner boasts a troupe of robotic carolers along its balustrade and a 10-foot-tall snowman. One block over, at Twelfth Avenue and 84th Street, the house on the northwest corner boasts a beautiful and dazzling tree covered in flickering lights; the house on the southwest corner has nutcrackers, a nativity scene, animatronic snowmen, and a glowing blue penguin pond; and the house on the southeast side has a display that spills onto the sidewalk and has taken over the street sign, wrapping it in red lights. The two homes most frequently cited for having the neighborhood’s must-see displays, Lucy Spata’s and Florence Polizzotto’s, are almost directly across the street from one another. The competition to have the most impressive display may not be formalized, but it’s quite apparent in the distribution of show-stopping decorations.
Some residents go out of their way to deny that a competitive spirit feeds the neighborhood’s increasingly ambitious displays. “No, it’s not really a competition,” Russell Locombo says. “We just want to do something to make people happy.” Of course, with Lucy Spata two houses away and the Polizzotto manse just up the block, the Locombos don’t really stand a chance.
“Oh yeah, it’s competitive,” says Berk on 84th Street. And for many, in fact, the contest to have the biggest, brightest, or most distinctive display is an essential part of the tradition.
“For me, the houses on 84th Street have given me the impetus to take it up a notch,” Tony Stucchio says, before boasting of his customized carolers and intricate nativity scene. “It’s always big on 84th Street so I thought, why not bring it to 85th Street?” That block-against-block mentality seems to be paying off — in addition to helping his next-door neighbor with a slightly less unique but perfectly respectable display, the occupants of the three-story mansion down the way at 1170 85th Street have also gone all out this year — their decorations include a glowing reindeer and polar bear, an assortment of Christmas trees and wreaths, an ensemble of snowmen stationed along the terrace railing, and two ten-foot-tall nutcrackers stationed on either side of the front door. While Con Edison gets much of the credit for powering the Dyker Heights decorations — in 1998 the New York Times dubbed the neighborhood “Con Ed’s warmest heartthrob” — the spirit of competition between neighbors and neighboring blocks is just as important.
The ornate displays aren’t just about friendly rivalries, though. For more than a few locals I’ve spoken to, the tradition has also served a very powerful cathartic function following the death of a family member.
According to one account of the Dyker lights origin story, Lucy Spata started doing it after her mother died. Across the street, Florence Polizzotto is said to have pulled the plug on her sprawling display in December 2001 when her husband Al, the household’s Christmas lights expert, died. Her continued participation in the tradition serves as a tribute of sorts to him.
Tony Stucchio’s distinctive display gained its current form as a tribute to his father. “I used to have a smaller nativity scene,” he says, “but I made this one in 1998 when my father died.”
Such celebrations of life and death in light are an annual occurrence in the neighborhood. Certain residents mark their loss by mounting especially elaborate displays, while others tone theirs down as an act of mourning.
Bonavito recalls: “A man from a bus company stopped me while I was working with my guys and said, ‘are you doing this house now?’ and I said, ‘No, we’re not actually doing this particular house,’ a huge, huge house on 83rd Street. they had a death in the family and decided not to do it all; we just did wreaths with lights on them. So we told the guy who owns the bus company we’re not doing it, and he was very disappointed because they’d already put it on their list for the tour.”
For other families in mourning, doing a light display can almost become an act of healing, a way of signaling to the outside world that life goes on.
“I had a couple of clients who had deaths in the family, and they were talking about not doing it; they didn’t know, but they felt they had to do it for the neighborhood,” Bonavito adds. “They didn’t want to disappoint people, which I thought was very, very nice of them.”
Perhaps in part because of this annual tradition’s occasional function as a mourning ritual, but also simply as a result of the benevolent holiday atmosphere it fosters, some locals are tapping the gawking crowds for charity fundraising.
Spreading the Light
On the block of 84th Street where the Spata and Polizzotto homes face one another, helpers in Christmas-appropriate costumes can often be seen collecting donations for charities including the American Cancer Society — Al Polizzotto died of cancer just before the holidays in 2001. Meanwhile, at 8312 Twelfth Avenue, Stephen Brimigion uses his populous display of inflated cartoon characters to raise money for Community Mayors, a non-profit that works to better the lives of children with disabilities.
“I’ve been a member of Community Mayors for fifteen years and fundraising for five,” Brimigion, who is 83, tells while his friends set up the last of the many, many figures he has accumulated over more than a decade of doing Christmas displays. Figures from pop culture abound in his front yard and on the façade of his house, including Spider-Man, Darth Vader and Captain America on the second story balcony, SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, and Cookie Monster on the lawn, and this year’s addition: a fifteen-foot-high Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer presiding over the whole horde. Community Mayors signs are prominently arrayed, but there’s not a nativity scene in sight.
“I have in mind that the kids will know the characters’ names even when I don’t,” Brimigion says. “The whole point is to let them enjoy secular, everyday life … and I worked in the church most of my life — that’s not why it is secular.”
On a chilly weeknight in early December, despite the relatively small numbers of sightseeing visitors to the neighborhood (including just one small bus of Japanese tourists), two of Brimigion’s friends are out taking donations — one of them dressed in a reindeer costume.
Less than two weeks later, on a cold but clear Sunday evening, the neighborhood is absolutely bustling. The streets are packed with cars and pedestrians; 83rd Street and 84th Street are both bumper-to-bumper with traffic, buses are stationed on Twelfth and Eleventh avenues waiting for foreign tourists to make the rounds. Packs of visitors speaking French, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, and in thick Brooklyn accents pass me, cameras in hand. The narrow sidewalks are clogged with people on foot and in wheelchairs, and countless kids in strollers. Drivers progress at a crawl, windows rolled down with smartphones protruding, capturing the whole crazy scene.
Outside Lucy Spata’s house, a man in an Elmo suit is collecting donations from motorists and pedestrians while families pose with the animatronic Santa at the front of Spata’s display. Parents and their children are trying to enumerate the inflatable figures on Stephen Brimigion’s house and front yard; “I see a SpongeBob!” an excited dad shouts. The front steps leading up to Florence Polizzotto’s front gate are clogged with people posing for photos with the humongous Santa and nutcrackers. “They’re all taking selfies,” quips a passing driver with a car full of light-gazers.
Traffic is moving at a crawl on Twelfth Avenue, too. In addition to the crowds gawking at Brimigion and Hronopoulos’s overwhelming decorations, a film shoot at 8404 Twelfth Avenue — the house with the penguin pond and the laser-eyed snowmen — has blocked the entire sidewalk. They’re shooting a Star Wars-themed holiday commercial, for the bro-courting cable channel Spike TV, in which a troupe of yuletide Stormtroopers dances down the house’s front steps in time to a tweaked version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” “You better not pout, you better not cry, you better not shout. I’m telling you why,” goes the playback. “The Empire is coming to town!”
On nights like these it seems like everybody — from those who live in the next neighborhood over, to people from other continents, and even visitors from galaxies far, far away — is making their annual pilgrimage to see the Dyker Heights Christmas lights. As Spata told me: “They can’t start their holidays until they come see the lights.”