Memories and Musings

Memories and Musings – On Bright Ideas

Golden Lights on Cameron Street, 1994 (Photo: Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography)

Alexandria, VA – Mary Wadland commented in the December Zebra’s Publisher’s Notes, “Alexandria Is a Magical Place Indeed.” She was reacting to a friend’s comment about visiting Alexandria and finding the tree lights magical. Mary agreed, and so do I.

The comments made me wonder when the tree lighting tradition started and whose bright idea it was. I’ve learned some things but still don’t have the whole story.

According to Bing, my first source, “The tradition of lighting up the trees on King Street in Alexandria, Virginia, seems to have started around November 2016….”

Warning: You can’t trust everything you read on Bing.

I was reminded of that when I posted Bing’s answer on FaceBook. My post also said,

“…David Martin, Goldworks, working with KSMET* (the King Street Metro Enterprise Team) and OTBA (Old Town Business Association), led the effort to decorate King Street from the waterfront to the Metro and keep the trees lit throughout the year. Martin also championed the installation of banners in Old Town, the first of which was installed in July 2004. For those efforts and more, David Martin was recognized as a Living Legend of Alexandria in 2013.

Snow Walk, King Street, 2010 (Photo: Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography)

*KSMET was formed to promote the newly emerging businesses from Rt. 1 to the Metro. It has since merged with Old Town Business.”

The good news is that people read my FB posts and take the time to comment.

In a blink, Kelly MacConomy, Zebra’s Arts Editor, commented, “I’m certain that the lighting of the trees on King Street predates 2016. That has to be a typo?!?….

It was 2016 when David M. Martin spearheaded the lobbying to extend the King Street Lights from five months to eight….

“Actually, before the lights in the trees were the main attraction, there was a flipping of the switch to turn on light decorations along twelve blocks of King back in the fifties. I wasn’t around. Or alive. But I hear tell!!!”

And a blink or two later I heard from Betty Livingston: “I thought that the former City Council member Del Pepper was also instrumental in extending the lights.”

They were both right! I was wrong to rely on and quote Bing.

I donned my Sherlock Holmes hat and emailed the Office of Historic Alexandria (OHA) and Visit Alexandria. OHA director Gretchen Bulova suggested that John Noelle, who served as Alexandria’s arborist for 30 years, would be the best source of information.

Noelle recalled that the lighting of the trees began in the early nineties. Although, he said, it was just a few trees on the first three blocks of King Street at that time.

My search then led me from Janet Barnett, retired deputy director of Alexandria’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, to Jack Broward, department director, and former City Manager Mark Jinks. Between them, I confirmed that the lights started around 1990-1991 (Vola Lawson was City Manager then) just around City Hall, and they eventually spread to the waterfront and then headed west towards the Metro.

Initially, the lights were illuminated from a week before Thanksgiving to the end of January. They stayed lighted, consistent with the holiday tree on Market Square. After 9/11 (Phil Sunderland was City Manager then), the lights were extended through March. Then, the date would move back and forth between March and June due to budgetary concerns (Mark Jinks was City Manager then.)

Per Jinks, Del Pepper wanted them on for the entire year. After Jinks’ retirement, Pepper talked with current City Manager Jim Parajon, and they have been on year-round for the last two years.

But whose bright idea was it? No one I consulted knew. If you, dear readers, can shed any light (pun intended) on that question, write to me at [email protected].

Lights on King Street, Orange Sky, 1998 (Photo: Steven Halperson/Tisara Photography)

The research is kind of/sort of fun for me, but it underscores the value of keeping accessible written records. Especially now when we document our days mostly with ephemeral digital files. As I so often preach – write it down, tell the whole story – the who, what, when, and where (and who took the photos), and keep records where others can find them. In a blink or two, the people who know the stories won’t be around, and if they are, they likely won’t remember.

May your year be filled with bright ideas and a touch of magic.

Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.

Note: Cards with the images here and others may be ordered through Tisara Photography, [email protected].

ICYMI: Alexandria Student Chosen for National Civics Fellowship

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