In Old Palo Alto, 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.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jocelyn Dong
editor of the Palo Alto Weekly
on Mar 24, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Jocelyn Dong is a registered user.

The following comments have been moved from a duplicate Town Square thread:


Posted by Bryna, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Mar 23, 2012 at 9:25 am

As a long time friend of Catherine Debs, I've always known her to have boundless energy.It is so great that the community takes away something out of this effort whatever it may be. The kids have fun, the parents all meet each other , people are waving and asking whats is really inspirational and Catherines creativity shines through...she gets back 3x what she put out there....stay tuned!


Posted by Annie, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, 20 hours ago

I love tree decorations and I don't even live in that neighborhood. When my kids bike home from Paly they always ask if I've seen the latest. It's wonderful, it makes people happy. Thank you for brightening our day!

Like this comment
Posted by tivity
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 24, 2012 at 1:18 pm

has been said that all experience or perception is not what you are . you are the undefined infinity that has no ground but still is what you are. any kind of life is just a reflection dancing on the groundless ground of the never beginning never ending undefinable self. there is no god, and god cannot even get what he wants. cause he doesent exist. god cannot even know himself! if he existed ,that is, just wait for the next existence. no need to create empires.everything you do is jumping jacks exercises until next existence. forget your crusades and beliefs. they are all false. infinte self is all. no seperation between anything known or unknown or can never be known.-------manifest destiny goes nowhere.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 24, 2012 at 6:07 pm

This should become viral. If everyone focused on things of this nature the world would be a better place.

1 person likes this
Posted by A mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 24, 2012 at 7:50 pm

We live around the corner and my little kids (2 yrs old and 16 mos) always get so excited when they see the lights. For the longest time in February my 2 yr old would exclaim "Happy Chinese New Year" every time we would pass by. It helped him get over the fact that Christmas was over.

1 person likes this
Posted by Thankful Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 24, 2012 at 8:48 pm

We live just two blocks away. Our kids just love the lights. They always want to ride their scooters, bikes or trikes to that corner to check out what's new. Thank you for your efforts.

1 person likes this
Posted by Thanks
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 24, 2012 at 11:02 pm

It's beautiful & so thoughtful. My daughter loves it. We take a walk around the neighborhood to see the decorations when we get a chance. Thank you very much.

Like this comment
Posted by wonderful
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 25, 2012 at 9:35 am

This is a beautiful way to celebrate Palo Alto's most pedestrian and bicycle friendly street. You can't appreciate this art from a car, but pedestrians and bicyclists really enjoy it.

Like this comment
Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 6:18 am

Is there an online photo collection anywhere?

Like this comment
Posted by Sue Dremann
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Mar 27, 2012 at 9:32 am

Sue Dremann is a registered user.

Bernie said she will send me a link to the online photo collection later this week. I will post it then. Her website is

1 person likes this
Posted by Jane
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 28, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Why not have handmade decorations made by our talented elementary school children? I am local art teacher teaching in 2nd and 3rd grade classes. Students could do a special Earth Day Project celebrating bicycles, or our local birds; Plenty of Original ideas.

I am sorry to see artificial decorations, probably made in China, following cliched Greeting Card merchandizing Themes.
Does anyone else think it's odd that lovely Japanese Maple trees are festooned with fake flowers, while Spring is busting out all over our beautiful neighborhood?

Like this comment
Posted by Sue Dremann
Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
on Mar 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Sue Dremann is a registered user.

Here's the URL for more photos of the Bryant/Lowell decorations:

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by wonderful
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Jane - this is a volunteer project at one location by a local resident. We should appreciate the effort that she has provided. There are plenty of other blocks that your class could take the initiative to adopt.

Like this comment
Posted by Thomas
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Carol ann
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 1, 2016 at 12:13 pm

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Srsly?
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 1, 2016 at 12:19 pm

Srsly? is a registered user.

It isn't at all a waste of time at all! Solo many people get so much enjoyment from the decorations-- especially walkers, joggers, bike riders, and children of all ages!

These decorations are a very uplifting bright spot in the neighborhood, and are much appreciated, as well as looked forward to!

1 person likes this
Posted by Luna
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 4, 2017 at 1:46 pm

My 75 year old husband and I (74) bicycle every day through this beautiful and uplifting site! It puts a smile on one's face. Thank you, volunteers of "Branches on Bryant" for the generous contribution of your time and energy.

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