I lived on 37th Street during the Christmases of 92, 93, 94, and 95, and was an enthusiastic (if not always artistic) participant in the whole lights display. I have always thought the lights were wonderful, and that they helped create a sense of community on that street that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I’ve stayed closer to the folks I knew from 37th Street than any other neighborhood I’ve lived in.
In recent years, the light show has shrunk. I believe the Christmas just past will be the last.
The Chronicle just ran an article on the diminishing lights, fingering absentee landlords in California as the ultimate culprit. This is nonsense. Mike Dahmus used this as a jumping-off point to complain about low-density student housing.
The reason that 37th Street is going dark has to do with people and personalities. It has something to do with landlords as well, but a homegrown one.
Jamie and Bob were the original instigators of the whole show. Robert later joined in and, with his volcano and motorcycle, put up one of the three showcase displays on the street. Robert and Bob have both left; Jamie is leaving. Ray was also noteworthy for his car-hedge of lights. He’s gone. There’s just not that much holding the street together anymore.
The real-estate market
There are a lot of rent-houses on that block, but there were a lot when I lived there too—I was in one of them. Eight of those rent-houses are owned by a local guy, whose name seldom passes from my lips without being preceded by the word “slumlord.” In fact, he owns 308, which Jamie once occupied, and which under this guy’s stewardship has been home to a meth dealer; I believe it was more recent occupants of that house that Jamie got into a fight with (as mentioned in the article). When I was living on the street, I believe the same guy owned the same number of houses on the street. 308 was unoccupied—it was owned by this guy, who was undertaking an extremely desultory and dubious expansion and renovation of it. All of his houses are messes, only rentable to less-discriminating students.
Note the way this article changes gears in such a way that you’re not supposed to notice:
Neighbors partly blame changes in the neighborhood on irresponsible and absentee landlords. “We didn’t demand all we could get from the houses,” Pine said. Now, eager to reap the highest rents possible from the maximum number of tenants, greedy landlords are letting “kids get away with murder and won’t do anything about it,” he complained. [Emphasis mine]
The irony is that Ray himself once owned most of the houses in question, and sold them to people like this guy.
Barnes – who counted five homes that have changed hands this year on 37th Street, compared to what he said is usually one
If you want to place the blame somewhere, you could also blame the outrageously high property taxes in this state (and rates of increase in those taxes) that force people out of their own homes once their neighborhood becomes sufficiently desirable. This increasing churn rate is not unique to to 37th Street–it can be seen throughout the surrounding neighborhood.
When I lived there, there was, shall we say, an institutional memory for the lights. There were enough people on the street to enforce certain social norms. Jeannie would lecture visitors who left trash behind, and there was a strong anti-commercial sentiment on the street. So there may have been a broken window effect in action: by dealing with minor infractions, major infractions never happened.
As this institutional memory left with the old-timers, street hawkers moved in and the scene became rowdier. Another less public aspect of this is Jamie himself. While Jamie has never openly appealed for money, he has always been the recipient of spontaneous largesse from visitors to his backyard. The amounts of money involved are considerable, and this created animosity between Jamie and some of the other old-timers, who felt that he should donate the money, share it out, or simply not make it so obviously easy for visitors to give money to him (he kept up clotheslines with clothespins where people can hang money). I have to believe that this friction within the street’s micro-community must have caused some old-timers to lose interest in maintaining the street’s Christmas zeitgeist.
. . .
It pains me to write all this, rather, it pains me that all this is so. Living on 37th Street was a great experience, and it is sad that the community that made the lights possible no longer exists.