Holiday tree has deep roots in Valley
By Dennis McCarthy

Los Angeles Daily News, CA
Nov 23 2004

It had been a long time since Sadie Wolpert walked down Rhodes
Avenue to see her neighbors. She's lived in the same home at the
end of the block since 1958, but rarely got up this way anymore --
until Monday morning.

"Here, it's not much, but I wanted to give something," she said,
handing George Herczak an envelope with a few dollars tucked inside.

The money will help pay the bill to light the Christmas tree in this
North Hollywood neighborhood, beginning this weekend.

"Thank you, Sadie," said the keeper of Rhodes Avenue tradition,
taking his neighbor by the arm, and introducing her to the young
Latino family who'd moved into Dorothy Clemens' old house in 1999.

"This is Walter and Judith Rivera, and their sons," he said. "They're
helping us keep our Christmas tradition alive."

Across the street, there's Pogos Zhamkochyan, who moved in with his
family four years ago, George said. Like most of the Armenian families
living in the neighborhood now, Pogos -- everybody calls him Paul --
also was joining in the Rhodes Avenue tradition.

"Nice to meet you," Sadie said warmly, then turned to walk back to
her home at the end of the block.

"You're coming Saturday night, aren't you, Sadie?" Herczak yelled
after her.

"I wouldn't miss it for the world," she said, smiling.

Nobody who's lived on this stretch of Rhodes Avenue will.


How many neighborhoods get a chance to relive Christmas past, Herczak
thought Monday, standing in front of the 70-foot-high evergreen in
front of the Riveras' home.

He was getting his old neighborhood back -- the one where people
talked, and spent some time with each other. The neighborhood where
you knew who lived in every house, and how many kids and dogs the
family had.

Yeah, Rhodes Avenue in 2004 was beginning to feel a lot like Rhodes
Avenue in 1958, when he and his wife, Barbara, moved in, among the
original owners on this block of 30 homes.

His neighborhood was back, and it was all because of this old tree
that had neighbors talking -- and meeting -- again.

In the 1980s, this evergreen was one of the most popular trees in the
city at Christmastime. TV stations sent out camera crews to record
the lighting of the Rhodes Avenue Christmas tree.

Police were brought in for crowd control on the night after
Thanksgiving when a 5-foot star and more than 500 lights decorating
the tree were illuminated, kicking off the holiday season.

One year, police estimated more than 65,000 cars drove slowly down
Rhodes Avenue so the kids could see this beautiful, shining Christmas
tree reaching for the stars.

Then the neighborhood began to change. Original owners moved out
or died, and new owners moved in. Most, though, were too busy or
disinterested to care about a Christmas tradition.

Only a handful of families still lived on the block who remembered
Dorothy Clemens telling the story of how she knelt in the dirt in
her front yard 40 years earlier to plant a seedling that would grow
to become a neighborhood Christmas tradition.

But that tradition basically died when Dorothy moved in the '90s,
and the new owners just didn't care. The electricity bill and cost
of fixing the electrical wiring on the tree was just too much for
only a handful of neighbors to bear.

"How do you knock on new neighbors' doors, neighbors you haven't even
met, and ask them for money for a tree-lighting tradition they don't
even know about?" George asks.

You don't. You let the tree stay dark during the holidays, and just
shake your head.

"Then we got lucky -- the Riveras moved in," George said.

With three young boys -- Alex, Carlos and Walter Jr. -- it didn't
take much convincing for the family to realize that Christmas would
be a lot more meaningful for everyone if that old tree out front was
lit up again.

"We want our sons to respect tradition, and when George told us how
much that tree had meant to the neighborhood, how it brought everyone
together, we said, let's do it again," Judith said.

George took up a collection and, last Christmas, the star on top was
fixed and illuminated for the first time in almost 10 years. This year,
the whole tree has been rewired by volunteers so more than 500 bright
lights will rise up to the star on top.

Only one thing has changed. Instead of turning the lights off after New
Year's Day, the tree will stay lit through Jan. 6, Armenian Christmas.

"They are doing that to honor our Christmas, and we are all very
grateful," Zhamkochyan said.

"George has opened a lot of doors on this street so people can meet
and learn we're not all that different. We're just neighbors who want
the best for our families."

Whether it's 1958 or 2004, George Herczak has his old neighborhood
back.