Light Years

"We all do a lot of work to make the decorations and lights look beautiful," says Dot Valentino, of Smedley Street. "It is really a community event."

The 2700 blocks of Colorado and Smedley streets are home to two of the oldest and biggest Christmas displays in the city. They have become a holiday tradition for many generations — Smedley since 1950 and Colorado, possibly the oldest in the area, since 1938.

Both streets have "Christmas committees" that plan their block’s display. Participation is strongly encouraged. In fact, the residents have developed an attitude of "if you don’t attend your street’s meeting, don’t complain." One point residents want to make is that the two streets don’t really compete.

Vincent Maurelli, 83, now retired as Colorado Street’s decoration coordinator, had worked on his block’s display for more than a quarter-century. "I am a community-minded person," says Maurelli, who currently volunteers for AARP. "I am proud of this street’s light display."

Colorado Street’s grand display dates back to the late 1930s, when it was started by residents Howard Myers, John Eders and Robert Packer, and now includes roughly 3,000 white, red, green and yellow bulbs. It usually takes two weekends for a team of neighbors to get the spectacle running.

"One reason why it is not as long as before to set up is because we leave the lights up year-round," says Maurelli, who was featured in both Philadelphia and Inquirer magazines in the late 1980s. "Before we left the lights up, it usually took about 10 to 15 man hours."

Eight strands of white bulbs emanate from the maypole in the middle of the terrace, and nine strings of multicolored lights are strung across the houses. A new feature, added two years ago, are icicle lights that run along the houses. This year, new reindeer, a Santa sleigh and a blow-up snowman are prominent parts of the display on Colorado Street.

Anthony Repice, who replaced Maurelli as decoration coordinator almost a decade ago, explains the longevity of his block’s display: "All the neighbors come out and get things done."

Colorado Street has always been included in the local news’ roundup of notable Christmas displays.

"NBC-10 was out here one year doing the weather at 5 a.m. Some residents actually got up to be a part of it," says Repice.

For the past couple of years, Tom Paglianite, 46, has been the decoration coordinator for Smedley Street, but actually has been helping in the process since he was 10.

Paglianite says his street’s decorations "are done in the easiest way not to cause problems."

Smedley Street sometimes takes a back seat to Colorado in holiday decor fame, but it is just as elaborate. The main distinction between the blocks is that Colorado features a larger light display, while Smedley has a variety of traditional decorations.

Smedley uses 700 white and red bulbs. The lights stream from house to house, going in a circular pattern around the street. It usually takes two or three weekends to put up an 8-foot red sleigh with four reindeer, a manger set and a 6-foot Christmas tree.

"We have more decorations on the grass plot than Colorado Street," says Paglianite.

Men, women and children tirelessly worked this past weekend to get the lights, the decorations and the electricity prepared for an after-Thanksgiving deadline both streets imposed on themselves.

Because of all the lighting, PECO installed an outside electrical switchbox some years ago on both streets just so the power will stay on for the displays through all kinds of weather and unforeseen situations.

Neither Repice nor Paglianite predict there will be another year that the light displays are absent from South Philly’s Christmas landscape. Each street skipped a season once — Colorado for one year in the 1970s and Smedley in 1982.

"Our wives will come after us if we don’t put the lights up," says Paglianite with a laugh.