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Bird Rock street revives ‘magical’ tree lighting tradition

These are among the trees on Waverly Avenue in Bird Rock decorated for a communal tree lighting ceremony.
These are among the trees on Waverly Avenue in Bird Rock decorated for a communal tree lighting ceremony that will take place next week.
(Shawn Rodger)

A neighborhood ceremony first held in 2009 in the 5500 block of Waverly Avenue will return just in time for Thanksgiving.

A Bird Rock block is reviving a tradition of decorating its trees with lights in a collaborative community event and plans to flip the switch the day before Thanksgiving.

The tradition started in the 5500 block of Waverly Avenue in 2009 to honor one of the block’s earliest residents, Rita O’Neil, who was 97 at the time.

“She was passionate about the eucalyptus trees on the block and had them treated when they were sick,” said resident Erin Wyer. “Rita was getting on in life and we wanted to do this for her. All of our children were young, so we had the time and ability to get involved.”

Residents strung lights on their trees and turned them on at the same time. That first year was “magical,” Wyer said.

O’Neil died soon after, and Wyer didn’t know how impactful the event would be for the rest of the neighborhood.

In 2011, after some of the lights had fallen off or broken, the residents decided to repeat the communal lighting. Though they had to replace some of the lights, “we were more organized that time,” Wyer said with a laugh.

But as the neighborhood children got older and more involved in school and sports, the lighting custom fell to the wayside.

Some of those children are now away at college, and residents wanted a proper homecoming for them. So neighbors revisited the lighting idea.

“Even the newer neighbors got involved, and one has a 2-year-old, so the tradition is starting again with a new generation.”

— Resident Erin Wyer

Residents pooled their money to buy new LED lights and pay for a cherry picker to lift volunteers to the tops of the trees to string them.

“It’s a lot of work. We took down the old lights and strung new lights,” said resident Kana Lavinsky. “We try not to staple the lights into the tree as much because we don’t want to damage the tree, so we have to be thoughtful. The work goes on all day and everyone hangs out and talks. ... Many of us moved here at the same time, so many of our kids were the same age and would run around in the street together. So it meant a lot to get to do it again.”

Omar Bukbowa, Ivan Lavinsky, Chris Dommers and Keith Wyer help hang lights on neighborhood trees.
Omar Bukbowa, Ivan Lavinsky, Chris Dommers and Keith Wyer help hang lights on neighborhood trees for the Waverly Avenue communal tree lighting ceremony.
(Shawn Rodger)

Eucalyptus trees on the street as well as trees on private property are decorated, Lavinsky said. While some residents were wrapping the trees in lights, others were on the ground sweeping up leaves and other debris that fell.

“After COVID and not seeing a lot of people on our block, everyone got involved,” Wyer said. “Even the newer neighbors got involved, and one has a 2-year-old, so the tradition is starting again with a new generation.”

The biggest goal, she said, is that “everyone come out on the same day and actually see each other and just play in their yards. It’s so special because you don’t see that as much.”

Lavinsky added that “the enjoyment is all of us getting together, and when the lights come on, people like to walk our streets. Families take this way when they walk their dogs or take their kids to Bird Rock Elementary [School], so it’s nice.

Local resident and real estate agent Shawn Rodger said she grew up in Point Loma with “beautiful views” but she longed for the community feel that her Waverly Avenue home now provides.

“I loved all the houses where kids would play in the streets,” she said. “That’s what I wanted, and now I get that with my kids. ... This neighborhood has been there for each other in times of need. It’s really special. Our block is unique.”

Rodger said the tree lighting “brings everyone together” and “brings back the holiday spirit.”

“When it was all lit up that first time, I felt joy despite any other hardships,” she said. “The happiness it brings to others is amazing.”

The lights will be turned on Wednesday, Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving, when the neighborhood children are home for the holiday. ◆