Tag Archives: Dyker Heights

Festively bonkers: Welcome to the Dyker Heights Christmas light show

Holiday traditions in Manhattan are of course known the world over, from the glowing light displays of Park Avenue to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But they lack a certain human touch, spun from wealthy corporations and honored tradition.

Which is what makes Dyker Height’s annual lighting spectacular (festival? competition? freak show?) so fascinating. It’s Brooklyn’s biggest holiday event, run entirely by the community.

In the past two decades, the extravaganza has energized a normally quiet neighborhood few in New York know much about. For most of its history, Dyker Heights was virtually uninhabited, either by humans or two-story illuminated snowmen.

Below is a history of the  Dyker Heights neighborhood, interspersed with pictures I took of this year’s Christmas lights celebration:

Dyker Heights is named for an uninteruppted, sloping meadow which rolled down to the waters edge (today interuppted by the rushing traffic of Shore Parkway). Nobody’s certain where Dyker Meadow got its name, only that it originated from the days of Dutch occupation, either from a Van Dyke family which settled here, or, more generally, from actual dykes the family built to drain the meadow.

Tumuluous history springs up on either side of Dyker meadow and its small forests, as the British who land at nearby Denyce Wharf begin their invasion of Brooklyn in 1776, taking up battle with the Continental Army to the north and east. As part of the township of New Utrecht, the meadow was unsuitable for farming, but its forests were plenty suitable for firewood and materials for building homes.

For awhile, there was only a single dwelling here, atop a hill known as the Lookout, built by civil engineer René Edward De Russy.

Below: Not the home of René Edward De Russy

Development finally came to the area shortly before Brooklyn consolidated with New York. During the 1890s, the nearby area of Bath Beach was quickly becoming a resort getaway similar to Coney Island. Called Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea, the resort adhered to strict moral entertainments (i.e. no booze) and thus was destined to fail.

Luckily, by then, an elevated West End train line (the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island line) was attracting speculators eager to draw New Yorkers with residences built on old farmlands. By the late 19th century, the New York Times excitedly noted the saavy practices of land developers in this region of South Brooklyn.

The father of Dyker Heights is developer Walter L. Johnson, who in the 1890s scooped up the land, brought roads and utilities to this fairly remote part of Brooklyn, and quickly created a small community. He even named the area, the ‘Heights’ assumably tacked on to embue it was a cache similar to Brooklyn Heights. Johnson’s gamble paid off; in 1899, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “nowhere else in the consolidated city is there anything to compare it with. From here can be seen a marine panorama hard to beat.”

 

From the beginning, Dyker Heights was designed for home ownership — no tenements and few apartment complexes — and it’s a tradition which mostly lives on today. From an 1899 article: “Dyker Heights is carefully restricted, the restrictions running till 1915 and no building can be erected here on a plot of less than 60 by 100. Each building must cost at least $4.000 and stand well back from the street line.”

Below: A sampling of the dozens of electric manger scenes awaiting you in Dyker Heights.

 

Today Dyker Heights is a predominantly middle- to upper-middle class Italian neighborhood, anchored by the Dyker Heights golf course and sandwiched between Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, with old Fort Hamilton to the southwest and what remains of the old Bath Beach resort area just southeast of here.

What Mr. Johnson could not have predicted — heck, what Thomas Edison, inventor of electric light bulb, could not have foreseen — is the annual holiday expression that occurs on the lawns of many Dyker Heights residences through December.

The neighborhood is already known for its unique, ornamented homes, front lawns festooned with fountains, animal statuary, ornate shrubbery, perfectly manicured grass and home waterfalls.

For the holidays, the busy lawns are then burdened with an abundance of lighted sculptures, animatronic dioramas, and every manner of festive lawn display imaginable. Dozens of trees of all varieties — from willows to even palm trees — are garbed in multi-colored lights.

Befitting an organic neighborhood celebration, the origins of this annual tradition are a bit hazy. Families began hosting displays as far back as the post-war years of the 1940s. An article from the New York Times  suggests that the neighborhood’s Italian leanings may have something to do with it.

The show is concentrated between 81st and 84th Street and between 10th and 13th Avenues, but in recent years, it easily spills over to other blocks and even into the borders of adjoining neighborhoods.

This is a curious tradition, as the best way to enjoy the show — on foot — is obviously the most uncomfortable, especially on brisk December evenings.  There are fine tour companies which present bus tours of the Christmas light show, and if you’re averse to chilly temperatures, they’re the best way to go. (Free Tours By Foot and A Slice of Brooklyn are two reliable tour operators which offer holiday bus tours well into the new year.)

But I prefer seeing the electric light madness on foot, soaking in the Christmas music that seems to emanate from every home. Just grab a giant coffee or cocoa and go! Most of the homes will be festively lit until at least New Year’s Eve.

Better yet, before or after your stroll, head up to this amazing place on 13th Avenue and 83rd Street and fill your pockets with cannoli.

 

By the way, much of the history of Dyker Heights was unearthed several years ago in a thesis paper by then student Christian Zaino.

A model example of a budding New York historian, his research was so exhaustive that one of Dyker Heights’ more glamorous homes — the Saitta House — entered the National Register of Historic Places on the strength of his research. In fact, this is probably one of the few instances that you can use Wikipedia for a resource, as Zaino wrote the page. (In 2014, he also made an hour long documentary film about the history of Dyker Heights. You can watch it here.)

 

 

Portions of this article were taken from another Bowery Boys article Blinded By The Lights of Dyker Heights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blinded by the lights of Dyker Heights

Holiday traditions in Manhattan are of course known the world over, from the lights of Park Avenue to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. But they lack that human touch, spun from wealthy corporations and honored tradition. Which is what makes Dyker Height’s annual lighting spectacular (festival? competition? freakshow?) so fascinating. It’s Brooklyn’s biggest holiday event, run entirely by the community.

The extravaganza has energized a neighborhood few in New York know much about. For most of its history, Dyker Heights was virtually uninhabited, either by humans or two-story illuminated snowmen.

Dyker Heights is named for an uninteruppted, sloping meadow which rolled down to the waters edge (today interuppted by the rushing traffic of Shore Parkway). Nobody’s certain where Dyker Meadow got its name, only that it originated from the days of Dutch occupation, either from a Van Dyke family which settled here, or, more generally, from actual dykes the family built to drain the meadow.

Tumuluous history springs up on either side of Dyker meadow and its small forests, as the British who land at nearby Denyce Wharf begin their invasion of Brooklyn in 1776, taking up battle with the Continental Army to the north and east. As part of the township of New Utrecht, the meadow was unsuitable for farming, but its forests were plenty suitable for firewood and materials for building homes.

Development finally came to the area shortly before Brooklyn consolidated with New York. During the 1890s, the nearby area of Bath Beach was quickly becoming a resort getaway similar to Coney Island. Called Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea, the resort adhered to strict moral entertainments (i.e. no booze) and thus was destined to fail. Luckily, by then, an elevated West End train line (the Brooklyn, Bath and Coney Island line, back in the day) was attracting speculators eager to draw New Yorkers with residences built on old farmlands. By 1911, the New York Times excitedly noted the saavy practices of land developers in this region of South Brooklyn.

The father of Dyker Heights is developer Walter L. Johnson, who in the 1890s scooped up the land, brought roads and utilities to this fairly remote part of Brooklyn, and quickly created a small community. He even named the area, the ‘Heights’ assumably tacked on to embue it was a cache similar to Brooklyn Heights. Johnson’s gamble paid off; in 1899, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “nowhere else in the consolidated city is there anything to compare it with. From here can be seen a marine panorama hard to beat.”

Below: the Dyker Heights Club House, built in 1898

Today Dyker Heights is a predominantly middle- to upper-middle class Italian neighborhood, anchored by the Dyker Heights golf course and sandwiched between Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, with old Fort Hamilton to the southwest and what remains of the old Bath Beach resort area just southeast of here.

What Johnson could not have predicted — heck, what Thomas Edison, inventor of electric light bulb, could not have foreseen — is the annual holiday expression that occurs on the lawns of many Dyker Heights residences through December.

Below: 13th Avenue in Dyker Heights, 1934 (Pic courtesy Dyker Heights community website)

The neighborhood is already known for its unique, ornamented homes, front lawns festooned with fountains, animal statuary, ornate shrubbery, perfectly manicured grass and home waterfalls. For the holidays, the busy lawns are then burdened with an abundance of lighted sculptures, animatronic dioramas, illuminated trees, and every manner of festive lawn display imaginable. (You’re more likely to see a holiday-themed Mickey Mouse than a Santa Claus.) Imagine an eight-year-old child given a million dollars and a mandate for holiday landscaping.

Befitting an organic neighborhood celebration, the origins of this annual tradition are a bit hazy. Families began hosting displays as far back as the post-war years of the 1940s. An article from the New York Times last year suggests that the neighborhood’s Italian leanings may have something to do with it.

The show is concentrated on 84th Street between 10th and 13th Avenues but it easily spills over to other blocks and even into the borders of adjoining neighborhoods. I used to prefer seeing it from the luxury of an automobile, given the cold, but this year I went a bit early (some displays go on as soon as the sun sets) and hoofed it. It’s only a few blocks from a subway, and you get to interact with the various Santas and Elmos. With a good stroll, you can also soak in the Christmas music that seems to emanate from every home.

By the way, much of the history of Dyker Heights was unearthed a few years ago in a thesis paper by then student Christian Zaino. A model example of a budding New York historian, his research was so exhaustive that one of Dyker Heights’ more glamorous homes — the Saitta House — entered the National Register of Historic Places on the strength of his research. In fact, this is probably one of the few instances that you can use Wikipedia for a resource, as Zaino wrote the page.

Dyker Heights outdoes the Griswolds

For eleven months out of the year, Dyker Heights is a quiet, unassuming section of Brooklyn, far from the blazing electicity of Manhattan. But every December, it threatens to create its own Times Square in lights.

The “Dyker Lights” has become the unofficial center of Brooklyn holiday festivites, showing up the nation’s suburbias with elaborate, intricately designed Christmas light shows. The main light display in on 84th Street between 10th and 13th Avenues, although several streets on either side have plugged into the festivities. Although you can walk and enjoy them, its best — given the weather and sheer number — to take a car.

Nobody’s quite sure of the beginnings of the Dyker Lights festivities, though most families have been doing it for generations and real consolidated efforts — corresponding to improvements in electronic Christmas decoration — probably happened in the mid- to late 1940s. Families there have been participating in this ‘friendly’ competition since then, spending the entire year in preparation. The New York Times even features the Marcolinis, who also decorate for Halloween and Easter and this year include a massive mechanical Santa.

Dyker Heights sits on the location of the old Dutch settlement of New Utrecht, founded some 355 years ago, whose most prominent citizens the Van Dykes lend the neighborhood their name. As for the ‘Heights’ part, this is the highest natural point in southern Brooklyn, which attracted developers in the late 19th century. The cluster of Christmas adorned light shows now are mostly attached to turn-of-the-century abodes built by residents lured by developer and salesman Walter L. Johnson.

Today those homes are owned mostly by Italian-American families. According to the Brooklyn Paper, the top four most decorated homes are those of the Spatas, Polizzottos, Rizzutos and the Lambrones!

One of the houses you’ll be passing is of particular historical interest, the Saitta House (below), an exquisite home in the Tudor style that’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was a cover model in a 1901 edition of Scientific American’s architecture edition.

Also of note: Dyker Heights is the home of Scott Baio.

Gothamist has some info on visiting the Dyker Lights. Prepare for some traffic and stop-and-start gawking.