The lights of New York
Dyker Heights celebrates the season in all its splendor
The popular CBS program The Great Christmas Light Fight was first aired in 2013, but the history of over-the-top Christmas decorating is much older. One bucolic, sleepy, mostly residential, neighborhood tucked away in Brooklyn, N.Y., seems to lead the pack in this arena: Dyker Heights. In fact, when you search the internet for things to do in New York during the Christmas season, it ranks as a top destination.
Dyker Heights was developed by Walter Loveridge Johnson on land that his father, Frederick, had purchased with the purpose of creating a suburban community. Frederick died before his vision could be realized, but his son was able to actualize that dream, creating homes on 200 parcels of what once was undeveloped woodlands; each splendidly appropriated with a verdant meadow and beach nearby.
Today, the boundaries of Dyker Heights exceed far beyond its original footprint. You can distinguish the homes that were part of that original community from their size and age, most built around 1900. You will, however, see many changes to most homes, as they have been stuccoed and have often exchanged their green front yards for garages.
I have been told anecdotally that the Johnsons were of Norwegian descent but have not been able to confirm this—yet I like to believe it is so. I do know with absolute certainty that Dyker Heights is located next to the historically Norwegian neighborhood of Bay Ridge. Both neighborhoods began as pieces of the Town of New Utrecht, under the Dutch. They did not become part of Brooklyn until 1894 and shortly after (1898) part of New York City with the consolidation of the five boroughs.
When did the tradition of embellishing this neighborhood begin? Lucy Spata is credited with starting the tradition when she moved to Dyker Heights in the 1980s. She was continuing a tradition her mother had fostered. To remember her mother, to this day, she integrates many angels in her own displays.
Some of my favorite homes of Christmases past include a beautiful white columned clapboard that has a huge side yard lot. Here they would have animated dolls in traditional costumes from all over the world, enjoying a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel ride; a la Disney’s “It’s a Small World.” But it was not all just fun and games, as the family raised money for children with cancer through visitor donations.
At one time, there was a Dickens-themed front yard with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Directly across the street, a hovering friendly 10-foot dragon flew overhead.
My favorite experience today extends onto the sidewalk, a canopy comprised of thousands of tiny green lights enveloping you, like a cacophony of bioluminescence fireflies. Also, there is a corner mansion, an enormous white colonial, whose linear lights accentuate its elegant form. Even its lovely gazebo is illuminated.
As inflatables have gained popularity, especially with kids, you will not be disappointed. Some homes will have a scattered few. Others will inundate their property with well-known whimsical characters from cartoons, as well as Disney shows, especially Frozen, sprouting from lawns, porches, and roofs.
Last year, many of the stalwart owners who had been decorating their homes for decades went dark, but that did not put a dent in the joy experienced by visitors, for there were plenty of abodes ablaze to delight kids of all ages.
There has been blowback from the community, as hordes of people visit and sometimes cross the boundaries of what is considered neighborly. For a while, food vendors were taking over residential blocks. Traffic is always an issue, and the local community board has been brokering compromises and working to find ways to mitigate each problem.
So, it is best to come through Dyker Heights on foot and just be respectful; private homeowners are opening up their gardens, their private sphere to you. These massive homes on massive lots (for New York standards) require a lot of labor—and electricity—so every effort these owners make to share with all is a Christmas blessing.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.