HUMBOLDT PARK — Twenty years ago, when Richard Karwowski would put up lights at his place on the corner of Kedzie Avenue and Division Street, vandals would destroy them.
He didn't actually move into the building until 2001, but for 10 years Karwowski would still decorate for his tenants in an effort to bring a little cheer to the neighborhood.
"Humboldt Park seemed kind of dull during Christmas and decided I wanted to do something about it," said Karwowski, a 51-year-old Chicago police officer who retired in January.
The neighborhood was a different place in the '90s. Gang violence was much worse there than today, and few bothered to put up any holiday decorations for fear they would just be destroyed by hoodlums and gang-bangers.
And that's exactly what happened to Karwowski.
"I don't know why, but they would vandalize the lights," he said. "They would rip them apart, destroy them."
But throughout each season, Karwowski would pick up the lights, replace as many bulbs as needed, and did whatever it took to keep them sparkling. He now even decorates a tree across the street in the park using a battery-powered light set.
Each year, he and his wife, Susan, have added new decorations to their display, including last year's addition — a 16-foot-tall inflatable Santa Claus that overlooks Division Street from the empty lot next to Karwowski's house.
The Santa Claus, Karwowski noted, has been left alone.
"No one's bothered Santa, so I'm real happy," he said.
There are still many corners of the neighborhood where someone's more likely to see the flashing blue light of a police camera than flashing strings of Christmas lights, but Karwowski says things are improving.
"It was really bad in the beginning, then every year it gets better and better," he said. "Now I see a lot of [holiday decorating], so that's an indication that the neighborhood's coming back to life."
Neighbor and 17-year Humboldt Park resident Glenn Brettner said the Karwowskis don't stop at Christmas when it comes to sprucing up the neighborhood.
"As long as I've known him and his wife and family, in the summer they have put out a ton of flowers," said Brettner, who is also executive co-director of the local neighborhood association, United Blocks of West Humboldt Park. "Christmas is just a continuation of trying to make his block and his house look beautiful.
"People get to see [Karwowski's Christmas decorations]," he continued, "and say, 'There's someone that really cares about the neighborhood, and really cares about their home and Humboldt Park.'"
For Karwowski — who's spent his whole life watching Chicago neighborhoods become overcome by drugs and violence ultimately to rise up and triumph over it all again — doing things like hanging Christmas lights and planting flowers is a no-brainer.
"It's the little things that bring the neighborhood back," he said.