Who Started Austin's 37th Street Lights Tradition?

Dec 20, 2019

The Christmas light displays on a small strip of 37th Street just off Guadalupe are anything but normal. If you’re heading out this year, you’ll likely find a volcano exploding with electric light in one front yard. You’ll also run into Baby Yoda, a pole-dancing Santa and at least a few aliens.

It’s a weird collection of items that aren’t synonymous with Christmas; yet, they are all adorned with glowing bulbs of colorful light. That got Liz Arteaga wondering: Who started this odd tradition of the 37th Street lights?

“I have no idea what it’s like now, but as I recall it was like what made Austin weird,” she said. “One of those things like, “Oh yeah, that’s why we call Austin weird, because we have things like this around town around Christmas."

Liz grew up in North Austin and visited the lights with her family back in the early '90s. She said the thing that stood out most to her was the fact that a lot of the decorations didn’t seem entirely Christmas-related.

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At one house, Liz said, visitors could walk around back and see the electricity meter.

"It was constantly spinning and people were attaching dollar bills to the lights to help pay with costs," she said.

One of the people who started hanging lights on 37th Street is Jamie Lipman. That backyard Liz walked into belonged to him.

“I noticed the meter spinning. How often do you see a meter spinning?” Jamie said. “Usually it just moves along. So I put a string of yellow lights around the glass part, and I actually got to 60 RPMs.”

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Jamie, who moved to the neighborhood in the late '70s, says he didn’t mean to start a phenomenon when he hung his first string of lights. For him, it started when one of his neighbors recommended hanging the lights straight down rather than across the house.

“I said, ‘Oh that’s different!’ And so I went with it, in a sorta tic-tac-toe cross piece that I attached the lights to and then pulled it up with a rope,” he said. “I had about 10 strings hanging on it and people could get in the middle of the strings and spin around.”

The lights along 37th Street didn't shine for many years after the initial neighbors who started the tradition moved away.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

Soon, Jamie and another neighbor decided to connect their house. With each year, the light displays on 37th Street grew bigger and bigger. Jamie says the lights reached their heyday in the late '80s and early '90s. But as the light displays grew, so did concern that the whole thing might be a safety hazard.

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Then one day in 1993, Jamie came out of his house and discovered a city worker on a cherry picker removing the lights from the poles. The residents on 37th Street banded together and shut down the lights in protest. They told upset visitors they’d have to take it up with then-Mayor Bruce Todd.

“Two days later, they came back and put all the lights up! Mayor Todd walked out on the street and said, 'We messed with Christmas. We made a mistake,'” Jamie said.

In the mid-2000s, Jamie and a few of his neighbors who had put so much effort into making the lights what they were, left 37th Street. The lights didn’t shine bright for some years.  In 2015, new residents decided to re-ignite the tradition.

Robert Foster was one of them.

Robert Foster helped bring back the 37th Street lights in 2015, after a hiatus.
Credit Michael Minasi / KUT

“As an Austin local, the 37th Street Lights were absolutely infamous. I remember coming here with my family, both as a young kid but also a lot as a teenager,” he said. “It was one of my favorite spots to go to with many of my friends who lived around this neighborhood.”

He says re-kindling the lights on 37th Street has been a great opportunity to get to know his neighbors. And without their help, he says, there’s no way they could make this celebration happen. He says the displays embody the city's weird spirit.

“We come together, and we don’t just wanna see Santa Claus and a Christmas tree," Robert said. "We want to be creative, unique; we want to revel in the diversity the city has.”

Got a tip? Email Jerry at jerry@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.

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