Like a lot of things in New York City, the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights started out as a hidden gem before becoming a worldwide phenomenon.
Tony Muia grew up in Bensonhurst, and though he was in his 20s by the time the lights in the next neighborhood over got going (Dyker Heights resident Lucy Spata is credited with kicking off the Christmas tradition in 1986), he still says that seeing the decked-out houses was a big part of growing up in Brooklyn.
“I know adults now who started out with their parents putting them in their cars in their pajamas, driving around looking at the lights,” he says. “Back then you were able to drive. There wasn’t bumper-to-bumper traffic.”
Now, more than 100,000 people see the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights every holiday season, and Muia helps bring them there. He’s the founder and CEO of A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours and he started his Dyker Heights Christmas Lights tour in 2006.
In the 12 years of doing his bus tours, Muia says he’s seen the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights mania grow to epic proportions. When he started out, he says it was an “under the radar” experience, where he’d bring in tours of 15 people at a time.
These days, he shuttles in four buses a night with 55 passengers each. Tickets start selling in January.
By now, A Slice of Brooklyn isn’t the only company offering Dyker Heights Christmas Lights bus tours, though, and plenty of people nearby also drive into the neighborhood.
“You’ve got tons more cars, lots more people coming to the area — people from around the country and around the world — to see these lights,” Muia says. “Whether they take our tours or not, they come from everywhere: Italy, Germany, France, Sweden, you name it.”
Muia says he’s respectful of the fact that Dyker Heights is a residential neighborhood. His buses have bathrooms and trash cans, tour guides park in a designated spot and walk the sightseers through the streets. They take Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off to give the company’s six tour guides their holiday at home, but also out of respect for the residents. He attends Community Board meetings and local police precinct meetings, he says.
Not every tour company is so neighborly, according to Muia says, but the phenomenon has grown beyond Dyker Heights Christmas Lights tours.
According to Community Board 10 meeting minutes, Dyker Heights residents have expressed concerns about unlicensed food vendors popping up along the streets and sanitation issues from all those hot chocolate cups and food wrappers spilling onto the sidewalks.
That’s on top of traffic-clogged streets (from both pedestrians and vehicles) and noise violations. NYPD plans for the crowds, but to some residents, not well enough.
“To me, a great concern was a photo from last year that showed 8 police officers on one corner. As I said to the Captain, who was not here last year, ‘that is not planning,’” reads Community Board 10 Chair Doris Cruz’s comments from the Nov. 19 meeting minutes. “[W]e need a traffic plan. And all assigned officers, even those not from the 68 precinct, need to know the plan, they need direction and they need to know how to recognize the vendor permits to determine if they are valid.”
NYPD did not respond to a request for comment but did confirm that there is a dedicated detail in Dyker Heights to deal with the increased vehicular and pedestrian traffic.
Police have been issuing summonses to the illegal food vendors, Captain Robert Conwell said at a recent meeting, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Muia has family and friends who live on the main Dyker Heights Christmas Lights block, so he’s heard these concerns. To those that say he’s part of the problem, he’d tell you he’s been coming here for years, he does right by the residents, that the attraction has swelled beyond his influence and that at least his tour busses mean a few less cars on the crowded streets.
But he’d also add that it’s worth it, to visitors and Brooklynites alike.
“I’ve seen so many people that left Brooklyn and come back because this is a special tradition, they come back with their families now,” he said. “You see adults become kids again. Like Lucy says, it’s never going away. If anything, it’s growing.”
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights 2018: When, where to go
The Dyker Heights Christmas Lights 2018 displays are up through New Year’s Day, and usually stay up until Jan. 4 or 5. It’s best to go between dusk and 9 p.m. The Community Board has asked residents to turn off their lights by midnight, though some homeowners may go dark earlier.
You can see the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights from 10th Avenue to 13th Avenue and from 82nd Street to 86th Street.