Something to talk about
Catherine Debs connects neighbors through celebratory lightscapes and ever-evolving decorations
On a quiet section of Bryant Street in Palo Alto last November, a yellow road sign gave bicyclists a gentle, humorous warning: "Slow Turkeys," it read, depicting a gobbler on a bicycle.
But the sign — and accompanying amber lights on trees planted in the traffic island at Lowell Avenue — weren't meant only as an admonition to speeders. These Thanksgiving decorations were also meant to bring together residents in Catherine Debs' Old Palo Alto neighborhood.
Since Halloween, she has turned her attention to creating eye-catching street displays: trees draped in hearts proclaiming romantic sayings for Valentine's Day, shimmering blue lights with white stars for Presidents Day, hundreds of Girl Scout badges for the organization's recent 100th anniversary and a Chinese New Year festival of swirling red lights, fiery dragons, bright parasols and giant decorative firecrackers.
Debs, the former assistant chief of protocol for former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, is well acquainted with planning, decorating and bringing people together. She has traveled the world setting up events, organizing delegations and preparing special gifts for foreign dignitaries.
Debs and her husband, John, have lived in their Lowell home for 13 years. Colorful, outgoing, amicable and energetic, she often hosts barbecues in their front yard. She is a cable-television reporter for "Everyday Angels," a program highlighting the stories of everyday people who have accomplished extraordinary things, and is vice president of the philanthropic Bodri Foundation, which she and John founded.
But for all of her social contacts, she said she had relatively few neighborhood connections. Debs decided to join the neighborhood-preparedness group after hearing of burglaries on her street — including her housekeeper's car.
"I was thinking, 'Let's watch out for crime,'" she recalled.
Her approach: Bring people together. To get neighbors talking, she started by giving them something to talk about. Debs and the neighbor's children planted flowers and two trees in the traffic islands to detract from unsightly signage.
Then a chance encounter with Bernie Wooster, a Redwood City-based lightscape designer and co-owner of Firefly Landscapes, led to the holiday decorations, she said. Wooster was designing decorative lighting for a neighbor, and Debs decided to employ her for the traffic-barrier project. One idea led to another: Christmas and the New Year, Chinese New Year, Valentine's Day, Presidents Day and the Girl Scouts anniversary. Each provided reasons to decorate. And people started gathering and talking, she said.
"I can't tell you how many people I've met. It's getting people to talk to each other. ... It has gotten to the point where people expect this," she said.
She unfolded the numerous letters and cards she has received from gratified residents.
"On Sunday someone brought over a big box of cupcakes, so we know it's working," she said.
Wooster said she has also seen a change in the neighborhood. Driving by with her son one day in February, a man and woman approached the Valentine-covered trees. The man reached up and read one of the inspiring love quotes, whose authors ranged from Helen Keller to Shakespeare.
"As they walked away, they held hands," Wooster said. "It's a different vision now. It's about giving back to the community."
Debs said city code enforcement officers checked on the displays and found them in compliance. Only two people have complained so far — one who took offense at the "X-mas Crossing" signs she put up for Christmas, she said.
Wooster and Debs said many neighborhood kids have responded positively; the displays are something they feel is being done for their benefit.
The decorations reminded one passing cyclist of the 41 "developmental assets" adopted by Palo Alto's Project Safety Net, which help young people grow up in a caring, supportive environment, Wooster said.
"It's a perfect example. They know their neighborhood cares about them," she said. The decorations have built trust between Debs and at least one of her young neighbors. A teenager approached her about funding special-effects lighting for a Palo Alto High School production of "Much Ado About Nothing." Debs helped out, and the lighting design is now up for a statewide award, she said.
Debs hopes a neighborhood bulletin board can also become a permanent fixture, where residents can share news and information.
Meanwhile, to make her new passion pay for itself, she and Wooster are embarking on a joint business venture that involves decorative lighting — in particular, installing special trees composed of flower-petal lights. Debs has two of the red-blossomed trees glittering in her front yard and one in back.
The women aren't saying what's up next for the traffic barriers. But it will be something surprising and wonderful, Debs promised. Her eyes twinkled at the prospect.
"Perhaps we'll be moving on into the cherry-blossom theme," she said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.