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Lights between houses in Baltimore neighborhood show connection in pandemic holidays


One night last November in a neighborhood just outside Baltimore, Kim Morton was watching a movie with her daughter when she got a text message from her neighbor, Matt Riggs. He told her to look outside. Morton saw a string of twinkling holiday lights connecting her home to Riggs' house directly across the street. Riggs said it was a reminder of the connection that the two of them shared despite how isolated she might have felt through the pandemic. Pretty soon, other neighbors hopped onto their rooftops to hang up lights, too, connecting their house to other houses.

Well, this year, the neighbors of Rodgers Forge got together again to light up their neighborhood together. And joining me now is the person who started this tradition, Matt Riggs. Welcome.

MATT RIGGS: Thank you.

CHANG: So can you just take me back to that November night last year, Matt? Like, I want to just know what was going through your mind when you decided to put up that first string of lights between your home and Kim Morton's home.

RIGGS: Sure. She was rather upset about some things going on just kind of personally. It was a difficult time for her. It was a difficult time for me - work stresses, home stresses. And so my wife and I wanted to connect with Kim and her husband, Will. And so I'd finished lighting our house, and then I wanted to see if I could extend the lights across the street from my tree to the Mortons' tree. And my wife Kerry made some cookies and took them over. And her response was absolutely overwhelming.

CHANG: How did she react when she looked outside her window?

RIGGS: She was thrilled and she - it was very gratifying to her to know that she's seen and I understand what she's going through. We all do.

CHANG: At the time, did you even expect other neighbors to join in?

RIGGS: Nope (laughter). No, not at all.

CHANG: (Laughter) Wait, so how exactly did it happen?

RIGGS: It's beautiful. It was such a surprise. It all grew organically. Last year, we - you know, we were happy just to do our block. But then the next block down, the neighbors there wanted to do it as well. So they started doing it. And then other streets started doing it. We just kind of all wanted it and needed it, I guess. So this year, we wanted to take it a step further and make it a little more coordinated.

CHANG: Mmm hmm.

RIGGS: So our friends climbed up on rooftops and drilled into the brick to mount anchors, and we made an event of it, a party. We - it was BYO and then they were listening to Christmas music and climbing ladders and...

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, I love it. You made a whole party out of it.

RIGGS: Yeah.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious. Were you already a tightknit neighborhood? Or did these lights kind of help bring people together and literally, in some cases, introduce neighbors to each other for the first time?

RIGGS: As close as we have been for a decade-and-a-half plus, this did bring us even closer and really fortified our friendship. Kim Morton will tell you that her daughter coined the phrase we are like family and neighbors and friends. We're fenamily (ph).

CHANG: (Laughter) I love that - All in one. So, Matt, do you think this is a tradition that you expect and want to continue, even beyond the pandemic?

RIGGS: I do expect it will - that we'll keep on doing it. I think it's a wonderful representation of the connection that we feel to one another. And it literally brings light to kind of a dark time.

CHANG: Well, happy holidays.

RIGGS: Thank you very much. Same to you.

CHANG: That is Matt Riggs. He's a longtime resident of the Rodgers Forge community outside of Baltimore, where he began the tradition of hanging up holiday lights, connecting homes in his neighborhood. So great to talk to you.

RIGGS: Thank you. Same to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTR.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.