Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Baltimore's Own 'Miracle on 34th Street' Light Display

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Baltimore's Own 'Miracle on 34th Street' Light Display

Article excerpt

Here in Baltimore they call it the "Miracle on 34th Street," but it's really a Christmas-time Cinderella story, where a plain, even homely, block in this old mill neighborhood transforms itself into a flamboyant Christmas fantasyland. In its annual metamorphosis from drab to luminous, the 700 block of 34th Street in the Hampden section of the city turns into "the Christmas Street," an over-the- top communal expression of holiday cheer and neighborly spirit, that has grown into a major tourist attraction.

The Christmas Street is a homespun affair: no stylists to make it look prettily perfect, no business sponsorships, no city involvement beyond providing extra traffic police. The Miracle on 34th is simply a group of neighbors smitten by sugar-plum dreams and equipped with lots of extension cords. "This is our way to give back to Hampden," says Sharon Burke, the unofficial "mayor" of the block and one of the founders and gentle enforcers of the decorating tradition, now in its 19th year. "Most of us have lived here all our lives."

Every house is done up differently. There are Santas, Snoopys, and inflatable snowmen, nativity scenes and teddy bears, model trains and flashing rooftop sleighs. Local touches have included trees adorned with ornamental Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and tins of Old Bay spice mix. "I'm just a guy who decorates his house. I can't help it if the whole world shows up to see it," says Bob Hosier, another stalwart of the block's Christmas tradition, who added a Ferris wheel to his decorative arsenal this year. "If I lived on a dead-end street in the desert, I'd still decorate my house like this."

The only limiting factor is the postage-stamp size of his front lawn and the load capacity of his porch - he's had to rebuild it twice because of all the spectators admiring his animated dolls.

The Christmas Street is not just a passive viewing experience. It's "interactive" in the old-fashioned sense: Visitors are welcomed onto the blinking porches, and even into the living rooms, of the houses. On weekend nights, lines snake down the steep steps leading to the most popular porch displays. "It's amazing to open up your home to the public," says Jim Pollack, a metal sculptor famous for his hubcap Christmas tree. "Last year I had 30,344 people come into my home in 28 days. I counted them."

* * *

About 50,000 wide-eyed children and adults usually come to view the holiday spectacle in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. But it might be wise to pause before deciding to live here on the block. "When I see somebody new moving in," Ms. Burke says, putting on her unofficial mayoral hat, "I go over and talk to them, and say: 'I just want you to be advised, this is the Christmas Street.' "

More likely than not, they already know. "We say to prospective buyers: 'You understand that this is a special street,' " says Jeannie Schwind, a local real estate agent. "You must be aware, you must buy into it."

Though there's no obligation for anyone on the block to decorate their house, it is tacitly expected, says Ms. Schwind, and realtors will include this piece of etiquette in house sales materials. "If you're squeamish about people walking onto your porch and into your yard, you won't be happy there," she says.

"We knew what we were getting into, absolutely," says Jeannette Cosper, who moved to the block six years ago. She and her husband were eager to live on the Christmas Street, and when a house came on the market "we knew we had to buy it," she says. Just days after moving in, they received a friendly visit from Burke - to welcome them, but also to remind them of their responsibilities. …

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