Former UT student revives the tradition of Christmas lights on 37th Street

Hannah Smothers

One of Austin’s highly regarded Christmas traditions has been suffering a slow and steady death over the past few years.

The Christmas lights displayed by the residents of West 37th Street once caused a festive glow that could be seen for blocks, but in recent years, the shine has seen a serious decline.

Former resident Jamie Lipman initiated what later became a holiday cornerstone for Austinites in the ‘70s when he started putting up extravagant light displays in his 37th Street yard.

Eventually his neighbors caught on and collaboratively created what is perhaps the most exuberant citizen-run light display in the state.

However, Lipman has since respectfully resigned from his duties and moved away from 37th Street, and his absence has left a noticeable decline in Christmas spirit and neighborly morale.

Carolyn Vo, a former UT student, was one Austinite who noticed the decline in holiday cheer on 37th Street. In 2011 she took it upon herself to reignite the once thriving tradition.

“I remember when it was at its peak, and it was really awesome,” Vo said. “People still decorate but it’s not the same.”

Vo hung flyers around the North University and Hyde Park neighborhoods urging people to contact her about revamping the light display. Almost everyone who saw the flyers agreed that the street needed to restore the holiday tradition.

Aside from one neighbor, most residents on the street gathered at a neighborhood home to discuss decorations for the approaching holiday season. Help was not hard to attain. Most people wanted to see the lights return to what they once were, although according to Vo, that is an impossible task.

“There is no way in hell it’s going back to what it was,” Vo said. “It has to be different. I don’t think it’ll get back to its crazy heyday unless people start owning more houses.”

Vo cited one issue as the increasingly high level of rentership on the street. Many of the 37th Street homes are now rented out annually by UT students, versus being owned by middle-aged residents who have more resources to extravagantly decorate a lawn.

A steady stream of new residents who don’t know about the tradition has also played a part in the declining display, but many of them are catching on.

Current resident Tracee Sisoian moved to her 37th Street home earlier this year and will be spending her first holiday season as a part of the Austin custom this December.

“I’m from Austin so I’m very familiar with it,” Sisoian said. “The young men who used to live over here, when they moved out they gave me a lot of their lights.”

Sisoian has already begun decorating her yard, although she said she has been preparing her display since June of this year.

Another new resident, Paul Underwood, has also begun preparations. His yard features two trees, one of which is connected to a motion-activated sensor that triggers a light coordinated performance to the song “Jingle Bells.” He said his decorations are still far from complete.

“So I’ve got 3,000 lights on right now, and I’m hoping to get up to about six or seven thousand when I’m done,” Underwood said.

Underwood is planning on what could be the most politically-correct yard on 37th Street this year.

“I’m thinking about hooking up the other tree to play a Jewish song, like ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,’” Underwood said.

Yards as distinct as Underwood’s non-secular extravaganza are the trademark of the 37th Street display. According to Vo, the spectacle on 37th Street is more than a conglomeration of generic inflatables and store-bought decorations.

“It’s very interactive and fun,” Vo said. “It’s so neat because it’s local. It’s not just, like, stupid inflatable air balloons. It’s some of the craziest, most elaborate creations I’ve ever seen.”

Vo is not alone in her desire to see the street carry on the tradition. Through her efforts and the involvement of her neighbors, the miracle on 37th Street will remain for the time being.

There is no specific start and end date for the display, but many residents are in the process of setting up lights now. The lights on 37th Street can be expected to be in full swing next week.

Printed on Friday, December 7, 2012 as: Relighting 37th Street