NORTH LAWNDALE — As King Drive sparkles on the South Side and the Mag Mile lights up Downtown, West Siders can once again visit the most festive block in the neighborhood: the 3300 block of West Flournoy Street.
The spectacular Christmas lights of North Lawndale are a generations-old tradition that people on the block and in the surrounding neighborhood used to look forward to as a sign the holidays had finally arrived.
But the tradition started to lose steam several years ago, with fewer neighbors finding the time to coordinate the spectacular displays.
In its heyday, the residents of Flournoy pulled out all the stops to transform their street into an over-the-top light show the whole neighborhood would anticipate. Homes were illuminated with strings of lights, glowing white snowmen, bedazzled nativity scenes, candy cane lights hanging from the fences, green pine garlands wrapped around the porches and dozens of reindeer grazing on the lawns.
Homeowners used to collaborate with their neighbors by stringing icicle lights from each century-old greystone to another across the street, creating arches over the road that reflected the kinship and connectedness between neighbors.
The area’s block club leader, Gloria Hardey, said in the spirit of friendly competition, they would try to outdo each other by crafting the brightest, most unique decorations on the block. At the same time, they would share tips and tricks and teach each other how to replicate the block’s most successful Christmas stunts.
“To me it was a meeting of the mind, a spirit of cooperation, a little bit of competitiveness all wrapped into one. It was good because everybody was eager to see what the next person was going to do,” Hardey said.
Hardey described how, on the day when everybody did their decorations and then lit the lights after sundown, Flournoy Street would be crowded with families celebrating the holidays in an informal block party.
Young children took advantage of the day to play games out on the sidewalks long after dark. Some folks would fire up their grills to make hot dogs and Polishes for everybody, and others would cook up a pot of chili or offer mugs of hot cocoa and apple cider.
“Everybody would participate,” Hardey said.
“We used to walk down the street singing Christmas carols,” said Lolita Junious, who lives a couple doors down from Hardey. “We were the sound of the city, holding candles and walking down the street.”
The Junious family has deep roots in Lawndale, and many members of the family live nearby on Flournoy Street. Neighbor Demetrius Junious has 16 brothers and sisters, with most of them living on the block. The lights have been a part of his life for all of his 47 years.
He said it was older generations of his own family that helped to start the tradition years ago.
“This is special to us,” Demetrius Junious said.
It took a tremendous amount of coordination and labor to make the lights happen, and as members of the generation that started the tradition grew older and passed away, things got a bit more dim around the holidays.
But this year, neighbors nostalgic for the lights coordinated to bring them back.
Princess Shaw is a Lawndale resident who never lived on Flournoy Street but was brought by her family to the lighting ceremony every year when she was younger.
“Everyone from far around would come over and look at the lights,” she said.
Remembering how much she enjoyed the lights, she decided to talk to some of the residents in the block club to see if she could help them revive the splendid decorations so her children and others in the neighborhood could have a taste of the joy she savored in her youth.
“It was such a lovely sight to see. And that’s why I’m trying to get it back that way,” Shaw said.
Flournoy residents were open to bringing the lights back, Shaw said. So with the help of the block club led by Hardey and with the participation of the Junious family, the neighbors planned to all get out and dress up their houses for a lighting ceremony Dec. 13. Shaw helped to coordinate between neighbors, and sent out fliers around the area to spread the word the beloved Christmas tradition would be returning in earnest.
On the night of the lighting ceremony, many of the homeowners noted the decorations weren’t as extravagant as they used to be. Still, the street was vibrant well into the night, and neighbors like Hardey and the Junious family served food and hot drinks for the community members who had gathered to celebrate their Christmas tradition and to honor those who created the tradition but have since passed on.
But Hardey and Shaw said this is just the beginning: In the coming years, they plan to make the street even brighter than it once was. Shaw said she hopes Flournoy Street can inspire other West Siders to connect with their neighbors.
“Let’s show that Lawndale has some good things. … How do we overcome things, and how do we change things? It may take this one block to show other blocks what can be done,” Shaw said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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