The history of Halloween on South Lee Street

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Police estimate that more than 5,000 people fill the closed blocks of Lee Street each year. (Photo Credit: Marty Devine)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

If you ask any Alexandria resident where the best trick-or-treating in the city is, most will have the same answer: South Lee Street.

What began as a small block party-style celebration on Halloween night has bloomed into a regional tradition in the past decade or so, attracting thousands of trick-or-treaters each year.

Unlike the annual city parades through Old Town or frequent festivals in Del Ray, the South Lee Street Halloween tradition is not an official public or private event, and there is no organizer, according to city spokesman Craig Fifer. Therefore, it is up to the residents on those five blocks of South Lee Street to deliver spooky decorations, creative costumes and candy – buckets and buckets of candy.

“I give away probably close to 2,000 pieces of candy each year and run out every year, which is amazing when you talk to someone who’ll say, ‘I don’t get more than 20 kids in my neighborhood,’” Lee Street resident Lee Dunn said.

Police close down South Lee Street from King to Gibbon streets every Halloween night from 5 to 8 p.m. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

“There’s also been a sort of – battleground mentality is the wrong word, but it’s a unifying thing,” Amy Bayer, another Lee Street resident, said. “So if somebody has gone to Costco and gotten a lot and then someone else runs out of candy, we’ll run candy over to our neighbor’s house, so that part is nice.”

Each year, the Alexandria Police Department puts up barriers to close down Lee Street from King to Gibbon streets from 5 to 8 p.m. It’s nearly impossible to track exactly how many people visit South Lee Street in those three hours since it’s an unofficial event, but Daniel Briel, special events coordinator with the Alexandria Police Department, estimated there were well over 5,000 attendees last year.

The event hasn’t always been a city-wide spectacular.

“We bought this house in ’94,” Bayer said. “At the time, Halloween was a real Old Towny neighborhood affair. It was mostly just Old Towners, and it was great because you could walk along with your little kids and chat with people and they’d be having big bowls of chili or they’d pour you a glass of wine while you’re walking, in your solo cup. And it was really warm and community-focused.”

Neighbors have different theories about what caused the event to attract more and more people, but most agree the growth was organic, rather than intentional.

Some say it spread by word of mouth.

“It started sort of as kids telling each other that there was more candy being handed out on Lee Street than the other streets,” Dunn said. “… There were more houses [with] children and families giving out candy, so it became sort of known to start on Lee Street when you were trick-or-treating in Old Town.”

Lee Street residents have been decking out their homes in Halloween decorations for years. (Photo Credit: Sam Kittner for Visit Alexandria)

Others point to the extravagant decorations. Several Lee Street residents deck out their houses, porches and yards with blown-up spiders, life-size skeletons and pumpkins galore. For years, Senator Mark Warner has handed out candy in the spooky haunted garden beside his Lee Street home.

“A lot of people just started coming to see the decorations because it was well before everyone [else] totally dolled up their houses for Halloween,” Bayer said. “And as it became more and more of a big deal, people were checking out the houses, they were driving along the street, slowly just seeing whatever people did, sort of like neighborhoods where people really deck out their house with Christmas lights.”

Most residents agree that local news sources had a major impact on the street’s popularity. After various mentions in the Washington Post and a live, Halloween-night broadcast from a local radio station, people from outside of Alexandria began flocking to South Lee Street for trick-or-treating.

The first documented report indicating the police blocked off the street was 2009, according to Briel. Several residents had requested that the city barricade their blocks for the safety of trick-or-treaters.

“Little kids are running back and forth across the street, racing for the next house to get candy,” Bayer said. “So there are about three of us on our block that petitioned the city to close the street, worried about these little kids. … It was done with really good intent, but it created sort of a Halloween monster.”

Residents and police agree that the event has continued to grow in the past decade. Still an unofficial event, representatives from the five blocks stay in communication with APD and the city to ensure it remains as safe as possible.

Two dinos wander up and down Lee Street for the best trick-or-treating in town. (Courtesy Photo)

“We’ve been really fortunate that the past 10 years we’ve had … police officers there,” Dunn said. “Unfortunately for some people, they’ve tapped down a little bit on the open containers because it did become a little bit of Alexandria’s version of Mardi Gras.”

Each year, the festivities typically start around 4:30 p.m. with the younger trick-or-treaters.

“People usually bring around young kids at first, the babies, toddlers,” Lee Street resident Jeff Bliss said. “That to us is probably the most fun part of the evening, because it’s usually locals and the kids are just, they’re pie-eyed, it’s so much fun. They can’t believe all this stuff is happening.”

As the night goes on, the crowd swells.

“It’s a steady flow [of trick-or-treaters],” Dunn said. “We usually have two or three kids deep at our door but it’s just great costumes, really friendly people, and I would say for me, one of the things that I enjoy the most is welcoming so many people from outside either Old Town or outside Alexandria to our street and showing what a friendly and fun neighborhood we are.”

Adding to that sense of community, several Lee Street residents host parties of their own.

“A lot of people on Lee Street have parties where they welcome other adults to come and help them give out candy,” Dunn said. “If you’re hosting a party, it’s well known to also ask people to bring candy to your house because you’re going to go through a lot.”

A jelly fish trick-or-treats on Lee Street. (Courtesy Photo)

The quantity of candy required is something residents have had to adapt to as the tradition has gained steam. Most said they spend several hundred dollars on candy each year.

“Most people have accepted that it’s an added expense if you’re going to live on the first few blocks of Lee Street,” Dunn said. “You need to factor into your mortgage a candy allotment … to ensure that you have enough.”

When a house runs out of candy – which they almost always do, according to residents – it’s understood that they turn off the lights.

“What we do traditionally is we’ll give out 2,000 pieces of candy and then turn off the lights and have our friends and neighbors over for a little chili party downstairs,” Bliss said.

Despite the chaos of the evening and the perception by some that the event has blown out of proportion, most South Lee Street residents have embraced the spontaneous festival.

“It’s organic,” Bayer said. “It just happened. There was never a city council declaration that suddenly Alexandria’s Halloween celebration would be on Lee Street. … I think it’s sort of like buying a house near an airport – you’re gonna get plane noise. And if you buy a house on Lee Street, you know you’re gonna spend a lot of money at Halloween.”

“To me, the fun part is the spontaneity as people come and go,” Bliss said. “It went from a couple hundred kids to now it’s probably 2,000 to 3,000 kids trick-or-treating. … You have to manage it, and you have to have the right attitude, but we love it.”

(Read more: The mystery of the Female Stranger)

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