Baltimore's own 'Miracle on 34th Street' light display

The annual event draws thousands of tourists from across the city and beyond – but also spawns traffic jams and parking problems.

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. Forget unpacking; the Cospers had to prove their good citizenship by immediately decorating their new house in time for the official street lighting ceremony, which takes place on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Now their basement is filled with 30 bins of Christmas stuff.

"We enjoy the spirit. We love the crowds a lot," Ms. Cosper says. "My husband sits here on our porch and gives out candy canes to the kids."

Eric and Lisa McDade also made the decision to live on the street, but with an escape clause. "We're only in Baltimore temporarily," says Lisa. (Eric is a medical resident at the University of Maryland hospital.) "So knowing that it was only temporary, we could embrace living on the Christmas Street with fervor."

The McDades are renting their house, but before they signed the lease they learned the rules. They have opted for a simple motif of twinkly lights and gold balls. "We tried to think of a theme, so it's not too hodge-podge, which I think maybe isn't necessarily in the true spirit of our street," Lisa says.

"No, hodge-podge is more the spirit," Eric laughs. "I think ours is a little too restrained."

Still, "it's great living here, it's a lot of fun," Eric says, once you learn basic survival strategies, like making sure to get home before dark, before the crowds arrive. Otherwise, finding parking is its own miracle on 34th Street.

Not everyone agrees that the "miracle" is great fun, especially residents of surrounding streets who have to bear the brunt of nightly traffic jams, idling tour buses, litter, and noise. After the first few hours of hearing Jingle Bells and other holiday hits wafting from outdoor speakers on the 700 block, it can get a bit old – quickly. "It's fun for the first week or so," says George Noleff, who used to live in an apartment across from the Christmas Street, "but then it can get on your nerves. You begin to mumble under your breath."

• • •

The "miracle" is not an official civic event, which puts the Hampden Community Council in an awkward position. It wields little authority over a six-week long extravaganza that has a major impact on its neighborhood. Over the past few years, tensions have surfaced between those who think it helps boost Hampden, a traditionally blue-collar community wrestling with gentrification, and those who find the crowds and traffic unbearable. One unifying element is that almost everyone resents the vendors who come from the outside, setting up trucks and stands to sell hot dogs and hot cocoa, trinkets, and "Miracle on 34th Street" T-shirts.

Powering all the lights must be costly, but no one on the Christmas Street seems to know, or want to know, how much. People often ask if the local utility company, Baltimore Gas and Electric, offers to subsidize the event as a public service. It doesn't. "I don't want them to," Hosier insists, even though electricity rates have doubled in the past year. "If I gotta have other people pay for it, I might as well stop doing it."

But there's another tradition here worth noting: If a family can't afford to light their house, neighbors will, without fuss, pull over an extension cord and plug it into their own socket. And everyone pitches in to decorate the homes of the elderly and help each other string lights from rooftop to rooftop. "I just wish people would take this idea back to their own neighborhoods and decorate," says Hosier, who dons an elf suit most nights at this time of year. "Maybe not as crazy as we do – but in their own way."

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