Jack-o’-lanterns hadn’t yet been removed from every stoop in Dyker Heights when the angels started popping up. And the colossal toy soldiers. And the mechanical Santas, frozen and grinning, waiting to wave.
The unseasonably warm first Saturday of November provided the perfect weather to start stringing garlands and staking candy canes into the ground in this southern Brooklyn neighborhood, where opulent Christmas decorations have marked the season for decades.
“You always had to drive through Dyker Heights to get in the Christmas spirit,” said Vinny Privitelli, thirty, weaving a strand of lights through a hedge in his front yard. An insurance broker during the week, he’s decked out his home for “Dyker Lights” every year since his family moved to the neighborhood when he was eight.
But as the official viewing season gets underway, many residents are irate about what they see as a once-local tradition now spinning out of control. After the community board spent ten months trying to obtain a city permit that would bring in more police and establish stricter traffic enforcement, the NYPD denied the board’s application last month. Between this past weekend, when homeowners officially flipped on their lights, and New Year’s Day, 100,000 visitors will descend upon just a few square blocks for nearly six weeks of largely unregulated merrymaking.
Resentment exploded publicly on October 30, when more than 100 people packed into the neighborhood’s St. Philip’s Episcopal Church to express anger and alarm about the noise and crowds that the annual spectacle brings. Residents — some who decorate for the season, some who just live nearby — described getting stuck behind idling tour buses on their way home from work, feeling their homes shake from loud music, and waking up to see garbage strewn down their sidewalks.
“Cars park in my driveway, which is a lot of nerve,” one man said. A woman said that drunken revelers sometimes urinate in her yard.
“It’s a nuisance,” said Joseph Tannaro, 52, who has lived in the area for 25 years. He has learned to park a block away from the epicenter of the festivities, and has set up security cameras outside his home.
For Josephine Beckmann, district manager of Community Board 10, which encompasses Dyker Heights, it’s a safety issue. Cars and pedestrians get too close, she said, and police coverage is limited. The local Precinct 68 sends officers out every night of the viewing season, but without a permit, local law enforcement is on its own.
“Last year, the resources were woefully inadequate,” said Beckmann. “Is it going to take someone to get hit by a car to take action here?”
Local lore credits the genesis of Dyker Lights to Lucy Spata, a longtime resident who began building elaborate displays outside her stately home on 84th Street more than thirty years ago. Spata’s ostentatious Christmas spirit sparked a friendly neighborhood rivalry, and the pageantry now extends throughout the neighborhood, though it remains concentrated from 83rd to 86th streets, between Eleventh and Thirteenth avenues.
The lights beckon from blocks away: tens of thousands on some homes, white and multicolored, flickering through hedges, wrapped around columns, blinking out from the eaves. They serve to frame herds of reindeer, spinning snowmen, and angelic choirs, while carols blare from hidden speakers.
“It does become a bit of a competition,” said Privitelli, whose final display at the corner of 83rd Street and Twelfth Avenue was set to include multicolored lights inside and outside his home, a flock of dancing elves, and a nativity scene. He takes great pride in adorning his home, dismissing some discord (and soaring electric bills) as a sacrifice to the spirit of the season.
“I do it for the children. It’s nice to see them smiling,” he said. “You stand out here, listening to people of every ethnicity, from all over the world.”
That massive influx of visitors is relatively recent, said Fran Vella-Marrone, president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, a result of guided tours that charge up to $50 a pop.
“Probably ten years ago, it started to really pick up…when the tour buses started to really come in and do their thing,” she said. “And then five years ago, it really picked up,” thanks to social media. Now, she said, groups come in from Long Island, New Jersey, and Massachusetts; she’s also fielded media requests from as far away as Alaska, France, and Japan.
“Even though it’s a beautiful thing, sometimes the people living [here] become hostage to this whole situation,” said Vella-Marrone. That’s why she and the community board began work in January to secure an event permit from the city, which would allow the board to regulate timing of the lights, and to request additional resources from outside the local precinct for crowd control and traffic enforcement.
On October 12, NYPD’s legal office informed the community board that its application had been denied. This means that Beckmann can ask residents to voluntarily turn their lights off after midnight, but compliance can’t be mandated. (Beckmann said she plans to forward all complaints to the NYPD.)
Beckmann said she received no explanation for the petition’s rejection. An NYPD spokesperson replied to the Voice’s queries with a one-sentence response: “The reason for which the permit was not approved is because it did not meet the criteria for which a street activity permit is issued.” In an email, a City Hall spokesperson told the Voice that “while a permit was discussed for this year, NYPD determined it would not be feasible because the event occurs on private property.”
With no help on the way from the rest of the city, officers from the local precinct will be on the ground every evening, with a stronger presence beginning in early December, according to Sergeant Peter Jessnik of the 68th Precinct. Auxiliary officers — trained volunteers — will also be out in force, said Theus Davis, the precinct’s auxiliary coordinator.
Many at the community meeting were not reassured by these promises.
“It’s a circus,” a woman shouted. “I don’t like it in my neighborhood.”
At this, Sandy Rossano, seventy, who lives at an intersection that becomes notoriously jolly in December (“ground zero,” another meeting attendee called it), rolled her eyes.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and we’ve always decorated,” she said.
Rossano’s grown children live in Park Slope, but come home every year to see the lights, now bringing children of their own. It’s a joyous tradition, Rossano said — she just wishes it were easier to drive onto her street on the busiest nights.
In early November, the front door to Lucy Spata’s home — the ur-home — was already guarded by goliath Nutcrackers. A succession of inflated snowmen marched out from a basement alcove, as glittering snowflakes crawled up the house’s brick facade.
Eddie Laracuente has been in charge of Spata’s display for the last twenty-one years. He comes in from Staten Island every day, beginning right after Halloween, to decorate a dozen houses in the neighborhood.
Indeed, many residents commission professionals to bedeck their homes. Along 83rd Street, James Bonavita, owner of B&R Christmas Decorators (tagline: “Lighting Up Brooklyn”), had planted his yard signs in front of a handful of households. His workers walked carefully down one roof, lowering a human-sized wreath against somebody’s front door.
Labor, electricity, and the lights and ornaments themselves can cost homeowners tens of thousands of dollars each year — although many are reluctant to discuss money.
“My electric bill does get high,” conceded Privitelli, the insurance broker, who decorates his house himself, with the help of a friend. The project is his creative outlet, he said, and a tribute to his grandmother, who loved Christmas. Throughout December, as evening falls and the visitors begin to arrive, he sits on his stoop dressed as Santa Claus.
He said he was bothered by the “negativity and animosity” he’s heard from his neighbors, but not surprised.
“Those people complain eleven months of the year,” he said, “Now this is just the twelfth month.”
“At the end of the day, we’re fighting over Christmas lights,” he added. “There’s much more out there to worry about.”