Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Miracle on 34th Street

Baltimore is an older East Coast city with more than 200 distinctive neighborhoods. It's a port and manufacturing city that flourished during the 19th century. Starting in the 1960s, these industries declined and ultimately vanished.  Among the hardest-hit city neighborhoods was Hampden, which had originated as a mill village close to the Jones Falls. But about twenty years ago, artists and artisans began buying and renting the stone mills and cottages, as well as the hundreds of brick and stucco row houses on Hampden's tidy streets. Restaurateurs, antique and specialty store owners and service providers followed. This reborn residential-commercial area drew Baltimoreans hungry for good meals, special shops, and a stimulating life. 
A creatively decorated antiques and home decor shop in  Hampden

You've heard this gentrification story before: it's happened in New York, Paris, London, and so many other cities. The end result is a lot of the old people are driven out. Hampden (we pronounce it HAM-den) may sound like Baltimore’s own Soho, but what’s made it click is that the original residents welcomed the new folk, and the newcomer-artisans don't make gobs of money. They're as hardworking and warm as the Hampden originals.

Shared neighborly cheer reaches its peak with an event called “Miracle on 34th Street” or simply “The Hampden Christmas Lights.”

Home on the right features some Baltimore icons: Natty Boh beer and Utz Potato Chips
According to the  neighborhood's holiday website, after World War II several households on the block of 34th Street between Keswick Road and Chestnut Avenue began helping each other create holiday light displays. After all, during the war years, Baltimore homes had to paint over their window panes or cover them with dark paper to dissuade the anticipated Axis bombers. I've still got paint in the corners of some of my windowpanes.

Back to Hampden. As years passed, gaudy, kitsch, and wildly artistic Christmas décor has made one block of 34th Street the go-to destination for families from all over the city. Just imagine: starting Thanksgiving weekend in late November, the neighbors on the north side all string lights from their third-story row-house roofs right across the street to the neighbors on the south side, forming a canopy of sparkle. Electric bills go way up, but no corners are cut in creating this fantasy-land.

34th Street at night

Hawkers are not allowed on the block, but established businesses thrive on the neighboring avenues and 36th Street, which is simply known as "The Avenue."  I got to be a part of that scene this year, when  the Falkenhams hardware shop on Chestnut and 34th (a very old local business) and The Food Market (one of the Hampden’s most popular new restaurants) generously offered space and donated food for a service-trip fundraiser for the GreenMount School. My husband, son and I sold hot chocolate and hotdogs and chilli to spectators of all ages who’d come to marvel at the lights.

Here's a short  Christmas Lights video  giving a sweeping look at 34th Street in Hampden in a recent year.

You have to be in Hampden at night to catch the excitement and magnitude of the decorations. But midday in December is perfect for relaxed shopping and more photography.

A tree made of hubcaps on 34th Street

A skeleton Santa holding a pie outside Dangerously Delicious

Indian colors and tiny twinkling lights at The Verandah, a South Asian cafe

A vintage Santa is the upstairs doorman of an antique shop

I imagine the 19th-century mill workers and their families would not recognize their neighborhood in 2015, but they'd be pleased.


  1. I spent a lot of time visiting my grandparents on Pickwick Road in Dickeyville. Even as a small child I understood the historical significance of the neighborhood. It would be fun to get back there and see what it looks like at this time of year.

  2. DIckeyville is another famous little village within the city! I bet they're decorating, too.

  3. An entire article on Bawlmer, and not a single flamingo in sight? Within walking distance of Café Hon, no less? That couldn't have been easy ...

    Ah, I miss 34th Street. I remember it before it became the huge, crowded scene it has become in the past five, ten years. A grand sight, truly.--Mario R.

  4. I love the video, Sujata! Over the past two months I've spent a lot of time in gentrifying cities--Portland, Seattle, Denver, PIttsburgh--and I "pioneered" in NYC's East Village in the early '80s. I must say the Hampden is showing all the right moves in keeping the originals there, because once they're gone, the area's lost the vibe that made it attractive in the first place. Bravo, Baltimore!

  5. Sujata, This so lovely. I hope your neighborhood can hold off rising prices and the push that has turned my old neighborhood of Greenwich Village into an enclave of billionaires. Typical in NYC is that the artists move in and make the place interesting. Then come a sprinkling of lawyers and bankers who enjoy the nice atmosphere. And then before you know it, the big designer stores move in and BAM, there are only the super rich moving in and the artists are priced out. UGH!!!

  6. Did you say hot chocolate? I'm there virtually - how special your hood is and thank you for sharing with us! Cara