It’s a quiet and chilly evening on Picardy Drive, the picturesque street lined with homes that look like miniature castles in East Oakland between 55th Avenue and Seminary Avenue, near Mills College. The homes encircle three islands, and on the middle island is a towering, slightly slanted 100-year old tree that serves as a focal point for the neighborhood.
The history of these storybook homes dates back to 1925, when builder R.C. Hillen bought the 10-acre estate, originally called Normandy Gardens. He then enlisted prominent Bay Area architect Walter Dixon to design the 71 homes with English, French, and Normandy-style architectural details. Each home was made to look like a castle or a “modest mansion,” with some larger homes styled as “manor houses.”
Any other December night, Picardy Drive, or “Christmas Lane,” as longtime Oaklanders refer to the street at this time of year, would be filled with curious visitors strolling the sidewalk in awe, delighting at the holiday displays put together by street’s residents, while a line of cars slowly tours the street to enjoy the lights and sparkle.
Unfortunately, this year, Picardy Drive’s holiday tradition has been somewhat stifled by the pandemic and shelter-in-place restrictions that prohibit public gatherings. Dennis Rowcliffe and his son, William, have lived on this street for over two decades. Both have noticed a drop in the number of visitors this year. Even Picardy Drive residents’ own festivities have been hindered, including the traditional lighting of the enormous tree in the middle of the central island, and gatherings where neighbors would hand out cookies and hot chocolate to passersby as they stopped by to talk to Santa Claus. Dennis played the role of Santa for Picardy Drive for over eight years.
“There is no plan to have Santa come this year,” he said.
Other neighborhood changes are also impacting the tradition. Some homeowners who used to enthusiastically decorate their homes have moved away. Some longtime elderly residents have passed away, and some newer residents are not as invested in the tradition. The number of homes that partake in the yearly celebration has gone down as the years have gone by. “I say that now it’s about 75 percent of homes that get decorated,” Dennis said.
Dennis’ son, 22-year-old William, fondly remembers how popular Christmas Lane was when he was growing up. “I remember many Christmases when the street was filled with cars and people walking around,” he said.
The exact date when the holiday tradition began is hazy. However, longtime residents like Bing Yee, who has lived on Picardy Drive since early December 1969, believes it started around the Great Depression.
“We spent our first Christmas here, and I bought a soldier boy [to decorate the yard],” said Yee.
He now shares the house with Georgia Yee, his second wife, who has lived there for over four decades. “My first Christmas, I brought a single line of lights, and I brought them over here,” Georgia said. “When I saw some of the houses, I thought ‘Oh, that’s not just a single string!’”
Bing Yee fondly recalls that he and Georgia spent their first Christmas together in this house. And Bing’s ex-wife remains part of the tradition; “his ex [Diane] and I are friends,” Georgia said. “She’ll call, and we chit chat. She’s a really nice lady.”
Now in their 80s, the Yees have no plans to move and continue to decorate their home every Christmas.
While each home’s individual decorations are likely to get a lot of attention, the string of holiday lights that link some of the homes to one another, from the eaves of one roof to the next, might go unnoticed. This holiday “friendship chain” was the subject of a 2002 documentary called “Picardy Drive” by filmmaker M.T. Silvia. This year, this gesture between neighbors has taken on a new meaning. The continuous string of lights keeps neighbors together, even when they have to be apart.
Kara Nielsen, who has lived on the street for almost a decade, said the neighborhood’s history is what drew her in. She came to appreciate what she calls a “nice constant” about the neighborhood. “[The tradition] becomes something that grows with you,” she said. “The friendship lights from house to house, different people come and go, and the helping hands.”
A few years ago, when one longtime resident known for her decorating skills passed away, neighbors held on to some of her holiday decorations for their own homes. “We were able to share some of her goodies,” Nielsen proudly says, pointing to the snowman and polar bear that now adorn her front yard. “It’s just another way of how this [tradition] keeps living,” she said.
While this year’s holiday lights and decorations have not drawn as many visitors as in previous years, Nielsen is hopeful. Christmas is still a week away, and the lights typically stay up through the new year.
“I expect that there will be more people,” she said. “People are looking for things to do outside. And the weather is such that people can walk their dogs, bring their families, take a stroll, and soak up the lights.”