COVER STORY

Good neighbors


RAINTREE Residents of the neighborhood gather for a recreation of their yearly holiday processional, including luminaries and singing Christmas carols in Northwest Gainesville.

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 1:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 1:08 p.m.

When the Raintree neighborhood started its Luminaria Celebration several years ago, Ron Bern wasn't at all sure it would succeed. The neighborhood board wanted to bring the community together at the holidays, but would their neighbors really want to spend a Sunday afternoon setting up more than a thousand white paper bags?

“When you start something like this, you wonder, will anybody do it? The first year, I thought maybe nobody would come out,” Bern recalls. He needn't have worried: On the appointed day, neighbors showed up at Bern's driveway with wheelbarrows and wagons to collect the sand for their streets. As darkness fell, more than 100 carolers met at Raintree's 16th Avenue entrance and made their way through the neighborhood, pausing at each streetlight to sing while Raintree resident Chris Slobogin accompanied them on guitar.

That year and each year after, they ended the evening by gathering at a neighbor's home for cookies, punch and more singing. After the festivities comes one of Bern's favorite moments: “After the carols and the refreshment, we walk back home along the rows of candles. It's a time for reflection and drinking in the scene,” he says. “It's a very peaceful moment.”

Raintree has several neighborhood gatherings each year, from a Halloween parade to an Easter egg hunt. But Cindy Sawyer, president of Raintree's neighborhood association, says the Luminaria Celebration goes a step further in bringing neighbors together.

“People who don't come out for other neighborhood activities come out for this,” she says. “The response has been really positive.”

Sawyer and Bern point at several keys to the success of Raintree's holiday tradition. First, they enlist plenty of help from neighbors on each street, appointing a block captain to gather supplies and coordinate each street's luminaria. They also rely on Raintree's junior board — neighborhood kids who help with community projects — to help out on streets where participation is spotty.

Second, they try to be sensitive to the variety of faiths represented in Raintree.

“We have a lot of diversity in our neighborhood, and we don't want to make it only a Christian thing. We don't call it a Christmas celebration. We don't sing religious songs — we stick to the songs like Frosty, Rudolph and Jingle Bells,” Bern says. “Also, having it early in the month lets everyone feel they can enjoy it in their own way. By mid-December, everyone is in a festive mood regardless of their faith. Everyone can enjoy it.”

Another benefit of a mid-December celebration, Sawyer and Bern say, is that it alleviates concerns about drive-through traffic from those outside the neighborhood. Given Raintree's layout — cross streets branching off of a single main road — it wasn't well suited to drive-by traffic, so the board opted to focus the celebration on those in the neighborhood.

THE BRIGHTEST BLOCK

In Mile Run's Wimbledon subdivision, located just off NW 53rd, the circular street plan allows cars to flow through smoothly, which is fortunate, as this stretch of brightly lit homes attracts Christmas Eve light-watchers by the hundreds.

The Wimbledon community has two holiday traditions: In early December, they gather for a party at the Mile Run clubhouse, where longtime resident Jim Marcum, an avid hunter, cooks up feast of wild game. Neighbors bring their favorite holiday foods, from Denny Kort's Hawaiian fried rice to George Gilbride's baked onions. Then, on Christmas Eve, the neighborhood goes all out for Holiday Lights, its annual bonanza of luminaries and decorations that has earned it the reputation as the brightest block in Gainesville. Between the lights and the luminaria, “it's so bright, we keep waiting for a plane to land,” says Jim's wife, Lynn.

No planes yet, but Wimbledon has seen its share of limousines, and even a few tour buses. While the neighbors welcome anyone to drive through the evening portion of Holiday Lights, the day is spent in fellowship with neighbors. Around 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve, they begin filling bags with sand. Once the work is done, Jim takes the neighborhood kids for a hayride in a wagon pulled by his four-wheeler. The adults follow behind singing holiday songs, then gather for an informal awards ceremony for the best-decorated yards. The winners carry signs back to their homes, ensuring bragging rights to all of the passers-by.

“The competition is friendly; it's not mean or vicious,” says neighbor Jan Reichenbach. “It's so much fun, it's contagious. You just get caught up in it.”

Around 6 p.m., neighbors light the luminaria and share hot cider and cookies while they chat in their driveways. Last-minute additions to the yard decorations are staked out and plugged in.

The Yoon family has a polar-bear-themed yard. (Last year, they sent a copy of Jim's annual Holiday Lights video to their family back in Korea.)

At the Florida-themed Paleschic home, Santa's sleigh is pulled by an alligator.

The Korts' yard reflects their Hawaiian heritage, with palm trees and a custom-made arch over the driveway that reads “Mele Kalikimaka,” Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas.”

Two years ago, a neighbor mentioned the Bing Crosby song of the same name, asking Tanya Kort if she knew how to hula to the holiday standard. Soon the neighbors had a boom box with a recording of the song set up in neighbor Kathy Wernon's driveway. Jim Marcum positioned his truck to create a makeshift spotlight, and Tanya performed a holiday hula.

The next year, the hula was back by popular demand, this time with two neighborhood girls who had learned the choreography. The icy rain that was falling that night couldn't have been any less Hawaiian, but Kort and the girls went on with their performance under the Mele Kalikimaka arch.

“It's nice to represent our culture, but I really do it for the neighborhood,” she says. “It's become a tradition, and tradition means a lot here.”

The Korts moved into Wimbledon during the holiday season five years ago. They thought it was a bit strange that the previous owner hadn't taken down his lights — he couldn't bear to leave the home undecorated.

“That's when we realized it was a big thing,” Tanya says. “On one level, it's for the kids — the lights, the excitement, the hayride. It's also for the community at large beyond Mile Run.”

A doctoral student at the University of Florida, Kort has seen her professors passing through the neighborhood on Christmas Eve. But despite the community's reputation as a mustsee on the night before Christmas, Holiday Lights is for the neighbors themselves, Kort says.

“We enjoy it as a chance to reconnect. Our neighbors are right down the street, but we all have busy lives, and we might not see them all that often. This is a time set aside for us to come together.”

FOCUSING ON UNITY

Ayoka and Nii Sowo-La have celebrated Kwanzaa in their home for many years. Several years ago, however, they decided to take their ceremony to the community. Founders of the nonprofit AyokaGifts International African Cultural Center, the couple aims to educate young people about traditional African values. Kwanzaa, with its seven guiding principles from self-determination to faith to creativity, is one way that they reach out.

“Even though Kwanzaa started in 1966, these principles have been with African culture from time immemorial. Kwanzaa is an opportunity to help re-educate our people about those principles in today's language, in a way young people can understand,”

Ayoka says. Ayoka and Nii have led their community Kwanzaa ceremonies, which are free and open to the public, at various locations over the years, from the Unified Training Center to the Wilhelmina Johnson Center. When Kennedy Homes residents were displaced to a hotel, they celebrated Kwanzaa there. Held on December 26, the first day of Kwanzaa, their annual ceremony touches on all of the principles of Kwanzaa, but focuses on the first principle, Umoja, which means unity.

“The ceremony is inclusive of all people,” Nii says. “People of all shades and creeds come to enjoy Kwanzaa. Our emphasis on the principle of unity serves as a lesson that all cultural groups have to live side by side, together.”

Each year, the celebration includes African dance and drumming as well as traditional African foods. Last year, participants made foofoo, the traditional African staple made of pounded cassava, and enjoyed meat and garlic soup. Eventually, Ayoka says, her goal is to combine Gainesville's many Kwanzaa celebrations into one seven-day event that the entire community can join.

“We're all in our scattered little groups,” she says. “It's a dream of ours to have a seven-day event in one location each year. All seven days, everyone would come together at one local place to observe the principles of Kwanzaa — the values that have sustained the African race throughout time.”

CREATING YOUR OWN NEIGHBORHOOD TRADITIONS

Suggestions for starting a neighborhood tradition from the families of Raintree and Wimbledon at Mile Run

  • Choose a celebration or tradition that will work even without full participation. Don't try to get the whole neighborhood to coordinate the color of the lights on their houses. Don't demand participation from those who aren't interested.

  • Luminaria hints: “Appoint some people to bat cleanup on streets that don't have a lot of participation,” says Raintree's Ron Bern. At Mile Run, participating neighbors buy enough candles for their home and for one other family. Ask neighbors to move their cars off the street on luminaria night. Place luminaria on the curb, not the street, with one on each expansion joint for even spacing.

  • Choose an area with which people can identify. If your neighborhood is too large to easily coordinate, start something on your block or cul de sac.

  • Whatever the celebration, consider a date that doesn't conflict with traditional or religious observances. That way, no one has to spend Christmas morning cleaning up.

  • Go for it. “It's great any time you can get neighbors to work together, especially when involved in something they can identify with the neighborhood,” Bern says. “Don't be reluctant to try. People do respond.”

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