Historic Old Northeast neighborhood in St. Pete is the place to be this Halloween

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Calling all parents. Remember all those times your kids have run around the house like a chicken with its head cut off? Well, here’s some good news – now you can take them somewhere to chop off their actual heads … or pretend to anyway.

While you’re at it, why not strap them into an electric chair too?

All that and more is happening on one very festive block in Old Northeast. Every year residents on 17th Avenue NE between Cherry and Poplar shut down their block and invite trick-or-treaters and their families to walk what has become the county’s most popular Halloween hot spot.

One resident, Doug Gates, estimates that as many as 2,000 trick-or-treaters will hit up the ornately decorated homes in the epicenter of Old Northeast’s Halloween extravoganza. His estimation isn’t really even an estimation though. Up until she left, a neighbor would hand out a single pixie stick to kids in addition to whatever “good” candy she was also handing out. At the end of the night she would add up how many pixie sticks she gave out. The number soared to 2,000.

So why all the fuss over Old Northeast on the spookiest night of the year? Drive through it to find out. Homes are decked out with themed displays. Gates has an electric chair and a guillotine. Both of them are interactive dispalys. The guillotine has a place for kids to place their heads and a fake blade actually comes down.

No children were harmed in the demonstration of 18th Century head chopping devices.

The electric chair buzzes and makes lights flicker. Gates, with the help of a neighbor who used to be a military electrician, uses what’s called a light organ to create a chilling electrical effect reminiscent of Old Sparky. Basically, it’s what makes the fountains at the Bellagio in Las Vegas dance to music. It modulates the electric current based on sound. Thus, the lights flicker. Spooky.

Another home on the block offers carnival-quality cotton candy. The line for the sugary treat goes 35-40 deep at any given point in the evening.

There’s a kind of cool story behind the cotton candy. A previous owner used to rent a machine. It was such a hit, he bought his own. Like, the real deal machine not a cheap knock off. It was so popular that when he sold his home, the new buyers had it written into the sales contract that the cotton candy machine would come with the house.

These people take Halloween serious.

Residents on 17th Avenue all sign off on a permit to shut the street down for the evening until 9 p.m. when hired off-duty officers start shooing outsiders back to their cars. Neighbors hire two officers each year. The event has gotten so big and so popular that the Historic Old Northeast Neighborhood Association kicked in this year for an extra four officers. They will be monitoring the crowds from 7:15 until 10:15.

Sometimes there are problems. Gates says as the evening wears on, teenagers start coming out to join the droves of people roaming the streets. There have been fights and plenty of commotion and the troublemakers don’t always skedaddle when they’re supposed to. But that’s not too much of a drawback for residents.

“Before, if you would have told me the general manner of the kids would be as good as it is, I would have been surprised,” Gates said. “The kids and the parents are very appreciative.”

Though he admits there are some kids who come to the neighborhood looking for the best candy and try to nab an extra piece from time to time, that’s not the overall tone.

Gates lets parents snap photos of their kids under the guillotine or sitting in the almost too realistic electric chair.

“One lady came up to us and said, ‘we have, like six of these on our wall with our kids growing up,” Gates said.

And that’s what it’s all about.

Halloween enthusiasts on 17th Avenue go to a lot of trouble getting ready for Halloween and almost as much just executing the big attraction – trick-or-treat time. Gates does most of the prep work himself, but he enlists help from people with particular skills. His mother-in-law helps by painting themes for some displays. And he hired two art students to help dole out candy, chop off heads and fry trick-or-treating ghouls and goblins.

“You can’t do it by yourself,” Gates said. “It’s exhausting.”

The festivities don’t stop at 17th Avenue. Residents on 18th Avenue closely rival their neighbors, but those residents don’t always pull the permits necessary to close the street.

Off0duty officers will roam the entire neighborhood making sure everyone stays in line. While 17 Avenue is ground zero, the crowds spill over into the rest of the neighborhood.

There will be a trunk or treat event tonight at Westminster Presbyterian and winners of a Halloween display contest will be announced.

Fun note: SaintPetersBlog’s own Peter Schorsch is hoping to nab a prize for his Disney-themed, family-friendly display featuring a bajillion pumpkins, spectacular yard lighting and flying witch hats. It’s pretty awesome.

Residents warn anyone coming into the neighborhood on Halloween night parking will be a nightmare.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email [email protected]