During the holidays, leaves aren’t the only things that change on Daisy Avenue.
For the past 60 years, the street in westside Long Beach has turned into a “winter wonderland,” creating the ideal setting for the only known holiday parade— to take place in the center of a residential neighborhood instead of a business district.
For just two weeks in December, a stretch of Daisy Avenue, from Pacific Coast Highway to Hill Street, in the historic Wrigley District, becomes Christmas Tree Lane, dazzling families from far and wide.
A grassy median where railroad tracks once ran are filled with a long line of winter-themed displays, such as the Old Lady and the Shoe, a train, four English village-style houses and a church– some of which were first built in the 1950s. Towering above are two-dozen giant conifers that are lit up at night with hundreds of strings of lights. Nearly every home along the street is also decorated.
But that’s not all. This Saturday, Dec. 14, starting at 5pm, marching bands and floats will take to the street in the annual Daisy Avenue Christmas Tree Lane Parade that starts at Burnett Street and heads to Pacific Coast Highway.
The neighborhood’s transformation goes back six decades, said Maria Norvell, who has been involved in keeping the annual tradition alive for the past 25 years and is the president of the Wrigley Area Neighborhood Alliance (WANA), which in 2007 broke away from a competing neighborhood group called the Wrigley Association and eventually took over ownership of the authentic displays and decorations.
The making of a tradition
It all started when Wrigley resident Gertrude B. Whittle came up with the idea in 1953. With the help of residents, she successfully petitioned the City Council and Council of Churches to take out railroad tracks along Daisy Avenue and replace them with a grass strip, setting the stage for a “Christmas Village,” complete with houses, shops, trees with lights, a church and a nativity scene, according to Norvell.
The City’s Parks and Recreation Commission had suggested putting shrubs on the median, but that decision was overturned with the help of then Councilmember Pat Ahern, Norvell said. That year, 24 tall cedar deodar trees, which Norvell said are considered “the original Christmas tree,” were installed as first proposed.
The City contributed the trees and electrical outlets at a cost of $2,126 while donors, such as the West Side Lions Club, gave $507 to pay for the lights. City and Edison Co. workers installed lights as neighborhood groups shared the cost of decorating the trees.
Today, however, the task of putting up the lights is much more costly, Norvell said. This year, for instance, it took nearly four days to replace 250 strings of LED lights at a cost of about $4,000. “Nothing is cheap anymore,” she said.
Jim Trout, a member of WANA who has been involved with Christmas Tree Lane since 2002, currently helps put up lights as well as set up and maintain the fenced-in displays along with Vernon Rudd, who helped restore the train.
Some of the trees are dedicated in memory of residents who have passed away, including a small tree located at Daisy Avenue and PCH that was planted as a memorial for Trout’s daughter Jaime, who died tragically at age of 21 from choking on a piece of food.
“Every year, my family and friends decorate her tree,” he said.
The original displays on Daisy Avenue today still capture the zeitgeist of the era, when Disneyland was being built not far away along with holiday-theme parks called Santa’s Villages, including the one in Lake Arrowhead that eventually shut down in 1998.
Norvell said the community, however, eventually decided to nix the nativity-scene display from Daisy Avenue to keep it more secular.
“It was totally different than what we have now,” she said. “They could do the nativity scene. We had the camels. We had the cows. We had the sheep. We had everything out there. That was before the separation of church and state.”
The nativity scene wasn’t the only controversy. Money disputes over Christmas Tree Lane are what caused members of the Wrigley Association to form WANA, which was eventually awarded ownership of the displays and decorations by the courts.
Today, a company called Desert Express Trucking provides an in-kind donation to supply two flatbed trucks to move the displays from a warehouse where the City stores them.
“I am so thankful because I don’t know how we could afford to do that,” Norvell said.
A neighborhood parade
A City-sponsored parade along Daisy Avenue was added just a few years after Christmas Tree Lane was first created. Then, in 1977, the parade took a five-year hiatus since City funding was cut after the passage of Prop 13, according to Norvell.
In 1982, however, the parade returned with support from the Downtown Kiwanis Club, the Wrigley Business Association and the City, she said. Sixteen years later, the City and the Wrigley Association pitched in to revamp both the parade and Christmas Tree Lane, building new mini-houses and displays.
The parade has changed over the years, more recently with the elimination of horses because of public-safety concerns, but it has always kept its neighborhood vibe and continues to be free to all entrants, Norvell said. Last year drew the largest crowd ever, she said, with about 12,000 people in attendance.
“We have a good neighborhood parade,” Norvell said. “It’s not commercialized, and it’s not used for campaigning or nothing… It’s strictly for the neighborhood and the kids.”
Seventh District Councilmember James Johnson said in an email that he considers the parade “a holiday tradition that exemplifies the close-knit communities” that continue to make Long Beach unique.
“While there are many holiday parades that occur on commercial corridors, this is the only known parade to occur in the middle of a neighborhood, which imparts its special neighborhood feel,” he said. “For those who have not attended this parade, I recommend you come and bring the whole family for an experience that you can only get in Long Beach.”
Financial support for the parade comes from the Port of Long Beach, Vanco Properties, the Long Beach Airport, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe’s Office, Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal’s Office, the Grand Prix Association, Signal Hill Petroleum and many other local companies and organizations.
In addition to the parade, other events include: a tree-lighting & home-decorating contest today, Dec. 13, at 7:30pm; entertainment nights on Dec. 15, 20 and 21 at 7pm; and Wrigley Snow Day on Dec. 28 at 11am. A 15-minute documentary produced by Pamela K. Johnson on the history of Christmas Tree Lane is currently being broadcast on Long Beach’s public-access television channel PADNET.tv .