December 13, 2017 - Neighborhood Tour
On the Final Friday of every month, Live Baltimore heads out of the office and into one of Baltimore's 278 neighborhoods. For our November tour, we ventured into Hampden on the first Friday of December instead of the last Friday of November and loved what we found!
Twas the first day of December, and all through the city, Baltimoreans flocked to a block that’s known to be pretty. The Live Baltimore team explored this great street and found neighbors who are always so friendly and sweet. The 34th Street lights include flamingoes, snowmen and a recognized red sleigh --- all of the makings for an incredible, extraordinary, festive (not-so-Final) Friday.
In an effort to jumpstart our holiday season, we ventured into Hampden to take a peek at the magic behind our city’s most cheerful block.
We kicked our special night edition Final Friday meeting off by admiring the artwork at Make Studio on Keswick Road. Our night was off to a festive start as we found holiday inspiration in some of the pieces on display at Make Studio, which was founded in 2010 and aims to provide arts programming to artists with disabilities.
We met with Matt Stegman, president of the Hampden Community Council, and several of the 34th Street neighbors. Once everyone arrived to the studio, they shared stories about how each of them came to live on 34th Street. Emilie Clingerman, a Baltimore native, moved from Ellicott City to Hampden over a year ago. She expressed her excitement to move back to the city and particularly to the most festive street in Baltimore.
“I was very happy that a house went up for sale on this street and that other residents were willing to talk to me about it and dispel some of the rumors about how crazy it is to live there,” she said.
Like many Baltimoreans, Clingerman had heard rumors surrounding the residents who go all out on 34th Street each year. The rumors are false! Our neighbors on 34th Street do not have to sign a contract vowing to decorate, BGE does not assist them with their electric bills and decorations aren’t gifted from one resident to the next. They are normal people who enjoy holiday decorating like any other household. The truth is, the lights unite this block of neighbors each year to help one another complete their displays and add finishing touches. The sense of community carries over into all of the other months of the year when this tightly-knit group continues to look out for one another.
Hillary Strilko, was also welcomed with open arms to the block despite an unusual favoring of the lights. Strilko joked about being the only Jewish girl on a block full of Christmas cheer.
“I moved to the Baltimore area about 10 years ago,” she said. “I started out in Pikesville and identified that I didn't like it very quickly.”
When she moved to the block, she was in search of ways to make the holiday display meaningful as part of her religious beliefs. She decided to use her home and yard to give back to a community she cares about: animals in need. Each year from the time the lights go up until they come down, Strilko lends her display to fundraise for local animal shelters.
“My front yard becomes a concession stand on weekends and we do cocoa and cookies for our animal rescues,” she said.
While Strilko drew her display’s inspiration from her desire to give back, Riley Wilks’ display takes a completely different turn. His yard, which is oftentimes a fan favorite, is adorned with a flock of flamingoes known as the #FlockParty and was inspired by his fiancé who was raised in Florida.
This year was Wilks’ third Christmas on 34th Street and while he enjoys the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, the lights weren’t what attracted him to the block.
“I rented for 5 or 6 years in a big row home and I didnt know my neighbors,” he said. “I knew who they were because their names were on the mailbox, but you see these people and you don’t know them. I chose (Hampden) for the community aspect. You're going to know your neighbors. You’re going to do things together and have a bonding experience.”
And that’s exactly what he got. The folks in Hampden help each other out no matter how big or small the task. Wilks told us how during his first week on the block one of his neighbors came over to help when they saw him struggling in the yard. Bob Hosier, the founder of Lights on 34th Street, came over to introduce himself.
“My first week moving in, I was climbing a tree cutting down branches and Bob comes over and hands me three tools and says ‘do it with this’. I still have one of those tools,” Wilks said.
Hosier started the 34th Street tradition with a single wire of lights in 1991. In an effort to be a great neighbor, he strung lights and a sound wire from his home to his neighbor’s home. When the other residents of the block saw it, they wanted to join in on brightening the city block and a tradition was born.
Neighbors have come and gone over the years, but the spirit of the holiday tradition lives on each year and tourists from around the world come to visit the street. At the Hosier house, visitors are encouraged to sign a guest book on the front porch. Hosier said he has more than 300 of the books full of stories, signatures and holiday wishes.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I would have never thought Christmas lights could have led to all of this.”