It started last November with a single string of Christmas lights on a Baltimore County street.
Kim Morton was home watching a movie with her daughter when she received a text from her neighbor who lives directly across the road. He told her to peek outside.
Matt Riggs had hung a string of white Christmas lights, stretching from his home to hers in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood, just north of the Baltimore city line. He also left a tin of homemade cookies on her doorstep.
The lights, he told her, were meant to reinforce that they were always connected despite their pandemic isolation.
“I was reaching out to Kim to literally brighten her world,” said Riggs, 48.
He knew his neighbor was facing a dark time. Morton had shared that she was dealing with depression and anxiety. She was also grieving the loss of a loved one and struggling with work-related stress. The mounting pressure led to panic attacks.
Riggs could relate.
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Guiding his two teenagers through remote school was draining, financial angst was consuming, and “by the end of the year I was just beside myself, 2020 was difficult for a lot of us,” he said.
A bit of brightness was in order, he decided, but he certainly did not expect that his one strand of Christmas lights would somehow spark a neighborhood-wide movement.
In the days that followed Riggs’s light-hanging gesture, neighbor after neighbor followed suit, stretching lines of Christmas lights from one side of the street to the other.
When Leabe Commisso, who lives on the other end of the block, saw what Riggs had done, she wanted in.
“I said to my neighbor: ‘Let’s do it, too,’ ” she recalled. “Before we knew it, we were cleaning out Home Depot of all the lights.”
Quickly, other neighbors caught on.
“Little by little, the whole neighborhood started doing it,” said Morton, 49, who has lived in Rodgers Forge for 17 years. “The lights were a physical sign of connection and love.”
She and Riggs were stunned to see neighbors with drills and ladders, up on their rooftops and tangled in trees, doing whatever they had to do to hang the lights horizontally. They were mostly masked and at a distance, but for the first time in a long time, a feeling of togetherness – and light – had returned.
“What blows my mind is that it was all organic,” Riggs said. “It just happened. There was no planning. It just grew out of everybody’s desire for beauty and joy and connection.”
Seeing his neighbors adopt his idea, “genuinely brought tears to my eyes,” Riggs continued. “From such a humble beginning, a tiny little act, it became this event.”
Even though he was initially seeking to support Morton, “it turns out, we all needed this,” he said.
Melissa DiMuzio, who lives on the same block with her wife and two children, was due for a pick-me-up.
“It was a tough time. We were all struggling in our own way,” she said. When she saw what Riggs had done, “I really wanted to participate.”
DiMuzio took her contribution a step further. She decided that, on her string of lights, she would include a fitting message: “Love lives here.”
“I’m a go-big-or-go-home kind of person,” she said. “I stayed up all night bending dry cleaning coat hangers. It was crazy, but it worked.”
Before the pandemic, DiMuzio and her wife were contemplating moving to a new area, hoping for a house with more space and a bigger yard. But once they saw how the neighborhood came together to support one of their own, the couple decided to stay.
“You’re not going to find this community just anywhere,” DiMuzio said, estimating that of the hundreds of red-brick rowhouses that make up the neighborhood, at least 75% of residents participated in the entirely unplanned light display.
Although it started on Dunkirk Road, other streets in the area were soon lined with lights, too, and each block had its own character. While some showcased classic white lights, others opted for colorful or twinkly bulbs.
Megan Wilberton, a middle school teacher who lives on Murdock Road with her husband and two children, quickly got on board.
“It was unbelievable,” said Wilberton, who recently shared the story in a Facebook post. “It just blossomed into this amazing community effort.”
“It’s the best neighborhood,” she added. “Everybody is friendly and helpful and loving and kind.”
For Riggs, the sea of light symbolizes exactly that.
“It really does represent a connection that we are feeling,” he said. “This is a very special neighborhood, and this is a physical manifestation of that.”
The collective display resonated so deeply that the neighborhood agreed to do it again this year, and every year to come, pandemic or otherwise.
On Nov. 21, Rodgers Forge residents hung their lights together.
“We made a party of it,” Riggs said.
To emphasize their commitment to the project, and ease the process going forward, neighbors drilled anchors into the brick of their homes and attached the light strands to metal cable wires to make them more secure. They also added more signs to go along with the original “love lives here” motto, including one that says “dream” and another that says “believe.”
“It’s been a bright spot, truly,” Riggs said.
But the impromptu effort has perhaps had the most profound impact on the person for whom it was originally intended.
“It made me look up, literally and figuratively, above all the things that were dragging me down,” Morton said. “It was light pushing back the darkness.”