Joppatowne by any other name remains what it is [Column]


For a few years now, there's been something of discussion about the name of the large community in the southeastern corner of Harford County.

The two key questions under consideration in some circles are:

• One word or two?

• With or without an "e"?

The long and short of it is a segment of the community known since 1962 as Joppatowne has designs on changing the name to Joppa Town, or maybe Joppatown.

The county councilman representing the area, Dion Guthrie, is a rather outspoken critic of the "e" at the end version of the spelling, and it's certainly worth noting that a sign at the corner of Joppa Farm Road and Route 40 makes use of the two word, no "e" version in big, festive letters.

The land associated with the community in question hasn't always been named after the Biblical port of Joppa. No doubt the native people of the area had some other name for it for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years. From the time of European settlement until 1962, it has gone by a few names, notably Gunpowder Town.

In those days, there was no Harford County and Gunpowder Town was the county seat of Baltimore County. Also, it was situated to the south of what was then Baltimore City, which was a small settlement on the Bush River.

Baltimore City was moved in early colonial times after the Bush River harbor silted in. A similar fate befell the Gunpowder Town harbor, at the confluence of the Big and Little Gunpowder Falls where the two streams meet to form an estuary off the Chesapeake Bay.

The harbors of the upper Chesapeake may have ceased centuries ago to be useful as major commercial ports. It's likely that even without the silt problems, the upper bay has been far too shallow for most large cargo vessels since the late 1700s.

Pleasure boats are another matter entirely and, around 1960, a developer named Leon Panitz unveiled plans for one of the nation's first modern planned communities with a selling point of living in close proximity to the water.

It was the forerunner of places like Columbia in Howard County or even Riverside a few miles up to the north on the other side of I-95, though it is something of a misnomer to say that laying out the design of a community before the first shovelful of dirt is turned is a modern concept.

The Chinese, Greeks and Romans, to name a few, were laying out cities in grid patterns and featuring public areas since before it was even known there were two American continents.

But that's getting a bit off the subject. Mr. Panitz, who died in 2008, combined the ancient concept of planning and building a residentially and commercially integrated community with the 1950s concept of building tract housing. The result was tract housing ranging from apartments to stately waterfront homes and that also included community gathering places, designated commercial areas and a healthy amount of parkland.

The name for his vision was Joppatowne, one word, with an "e."

People moved in, raised families and joined civic life in Harford County. Habern Freeman became an advocate for his adopted hometown and rode the relatively new electoral power base in Joppatowne to the post of Harford County Executive.

Strangely, planned communities like Joppatowne and Columbia were peddled early on as near-utopian visions for how the people of the future would live in civic harmony.

Over time, however, the human condition, as it so often does in matters such as this, has dealt the notion of happiness through community planning a rather devastating blow. No community can thrive forever with no missteps or problems, and Joppatowne has been no exception. The Joppatowne Shopping Plaza has seen its ups and downs. These days it is operating at a rather middling level, and appears to be on the upswing, but going back a decade, it was plagued by vacancies. As the gateway to the community, it was neither inviting nor representative.

Importantly, Joppatowne has seen its share of crime problems crop up in recent years, as the community has aged and become economically and socially more diverse, just like planned communities of old to include Washington, D.C., Havre de Grace, Bel Air and London.

The effort to promote a reinvigoration of the Joppatowne Plaza more or less coincided with the start of the two-words-no-"e" push for the community. To me, it's rather odd to put effort into something like a name. Sure, names do change. There's even a rather famous song that points out that Istanbul was once Constantinople, which also features a line noting that "even old New York was once New Amsterdam." A digression: the name of the fellow who wrote that song was Jimmy Kennedy, the name my parents are most likely to call me. The songwriter, however, lived in Ireland and has been dead for going on 30 years.

So it is possible to change the name of a place, and it does happen from time to time, but it usually takes some sort of official action. In the case of Istanbul, the name was changed when the Ottoman Turks invaded the remnant of the Byzantine empire. In the case of New York, the change was made after the English took over the seaport from the Dutch.

As Joppatowne doesn't appear to be under any immediate threat of invasion, and the people who live in the community moved there with full knowledge of the lack of a dividing space and the superfluous "e" on the end, I can see no compelling reason to change the name to Joppa Town.

Then again, I don't live in Joppatowne (though my wife and I did consider it a few years back) so I don't have a stake in the matter. The other Jimmy Kennedy had a good observation on the owners of a territory changing its name when he observed of the change from Constantinople to Istanbul: "Why they changed it, I can't say, people just liked it better that way."

If enough people like it better without the "e," at some point, that's what it'll be.

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