Creating Hampden's `Christmas Street' truly takes a village

Neighbors help each other for the big light show

Outside: sports, activities, events

November 27, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

About a decade ago, next-door neighbors Dan Brewer and Sharon Burke decided that something had to be done about the house across the street.

So they left their Hampden rowhomes with strings of lights and staple guns in their hands.

A dark 34th Street address that had recently been sold stood as their target.

With holiday cheer on their minds, the duo worked feverishly, wrestling with wires and wrapping the porch and ledges with hundreds of tiny, colorful lights.

And before the new homeowners could arrange their furniture and unpack boxes, the quick-moving pair had decked their neighbor's new home with an abundance of holiday adornments.

Diane Wallace, who had just purchased the place several weeks prior, didn't quite know what to make of the kind gesture - or her glittering stoop.

But "it was a nice surprise to come home and have everything already done," said Wallace, who reported that she had been too busy with the move to think about putting up seasonal decorations.

Brewer wasn't surprised that her initial reaction was one of befuddlement. After all, Wallace was not familiar with the neighbors' customs.

"She was confused about it, because she wasn't well-versed with what we do," said Brewer.

Creating a holiday spectacular is what he and Burke and the rest of the residents in the 700 block of W. 34th St. in Hampden have been doing for years.

Though no one could agree when the holiday tradition began, many in Hampden's posse of light wranglers said they have been decorating their houses to the hilt - scaling the old rowhomes and stapling wires to every inch of usable space - for as long as they can remember.

"It was more of an evolution," said Brewer. "There is no specific date that the neighbors decided, `OK, we're gonna do this.'"

To keep it interesting and novel for the local residents and the throngs who descend upon the block each year, most of the homeowners on "Christmas Street," as it's known to some, add a little something new to their displays each season.

For Burke, that meant constructing a set of wooden, polar bear cutouts this year.

"I gotta put another coat of lacquer on them, and then they'll be done," she said.

Brewer and his roommate, Brian Delp, updated their porch's mammoth wreath with new lights and other decorations.

"I had it redone," Brewer said. The designer was friend Randy Kessler, who lives in York, Pa.

The neighbors' ever-increasing, always improving collections of figurines, lights and other festive finds demand a lot of upkeep - and the amassed holiday decorations can take days, even weeks to organize and assemble.

Another 34th Street resident, Bob Hosier, has placed glowing plastic Santas, gingerbread men, lighted candy canes and strings of glittering globes onto his home's roof, portico and yard.

Hosier said he usually starts working on his elaborate displays in July - but he's one of the few early-bird exceptions.

The porch roofs and yards of many houses are still works in progress, and most who live on the street begin bringing in the annual holiday cheer just after the colder weather has moved into Charm City.

"It usually starts the first weekend after Halloween. [You] take the Halloween stuff down and start putting up the Christmas stuff," said Al Morgan, who was taking a break from decorating his home of more than 25 years.

He and his neighbors are working hard to get ready for Saturday, when the street will open its nightly illumination celebration, a spectacle that will continue each evening from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. until the new year.

People from all over the country have visited the small street to enjoy the scenes that include everything from lighted snowmen to smiling "sandee clauses."

Some residents keep guest books by their stoops for visitors to sign. Burke, Morgan, Brewer and Delp told stories of onlookers who've come back time and again from as far away as Florida.

It's the smiles from the crowds that make it all worth their while, they agreed.

But the cheery workers have suffered some setbacks in the past few weeks.

Morgan, a plumber by trade, is still recovering from an October knee surgery that had him laid up and unable to decorate for a while.

It won't affect his home's show of holiday lights, however.

With help from his son and daughter-in-law, Travis and Mandy, who live just around the corner on Wellington Street, Morgan will make sure that his house's display, one of the fanciest in the neighborhood, sparkles again.

Across the street from Morgan, Burke is nursing a shiner that she sustained when a cable that she was fastening snapped back, hitting her left eye.

"The wire caught me in the face and gave me a black eye. It was real pretty last week," she said, casually joking about the scary incident that was, in her mind, only a minor setback.

The bruise hasn't slowed her down, and she's already talking logistics - Santa's station location, dog-biscuit handouts and crowd control - with her many friends on the block.

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