It was a childhood friend who first alerted me to the fact that our hometown’s historic center was being destroyed for the second time in two years.
“Ellicott City is getting torn up again,” she texted Sunday afternoon, along with several sad and teary-eyed emojis. “I think they are going through 2016 all over again.”
My heart sank as I rushed to pack what I needed to get to town and start covering the flooding for The Sun. Images from the last time — of flipped cars and washed-out store fronts — rushed back to me. And a single question popped into my head: Is this the end of Old Ellicott City?
I didn’t like the thought, but I knew I wouldn’t be the only one to have it. And sure enough, observers of the latest devastation soon started suggesting that rebuilding wouldn’t just be foolhardy, but stupid. They pointed out that Ellicott City is a town that has twice in two years been demolished by the wrath of mother nature, and they said global warming, the area’s natural topography, extensive development uphill and government failures to mitigate the associated runoff mean there’s only more of the same to come.
I know — from interviews with shop owners and residents and conversations with family and friends — that many locals have considered all those things as well. But unlike some of the critics, they haven’t given up just yet. They think some will leave, but others might stay.
Closing up a town built in 1772 isn’t as easy as tracing a line through a floodplain and declaring it a loser — especially when it’s such a winner otherwise.
Ellicott City is a close-knit town with Old World charm that is surrounded by a beautiful state park with ample opportunities for recreation. It is not some lost town far from any city center and losing out on the millennial shift toward urban living. It is close enough to both Baltimore and Washington to make either commute bearable, and it’s in the heart of one of the most prosperous counties in the country.
It is safe. It has good schools. It routinely makes lists of America’s best places to live, and for good reason.
In an age of trite but sometimes-true stories about Small Town, U.S.A., becoming a thing of the past and Main Street, U.S.A., being boarded up in the face of corporate creep, Old Ellicott City is thriving.
It’s a town of knick-knacks and antiques, but also ice cream and craft beer and local merchants who know their regulars by name and welcome the tourists, too. Everyone is served up a taste of Americana.
It is a town where college kids and 20-somethings who grew up in the area still return the night before Thanksgiving and around the holidays to meet old friends and reminisce. It’s the home of artists and other quirky kinds of people who give a town a sense of place.
It’s a strange thing for me to think about Old Ellicott City disappearing, in part because, in some weird way, I’ve felt nostalgic about the old mill town since I was a kid, when I used to swim downriver in the Patapsco with my dad and brothers and gawk at the old burned-out hull of the former St. Mary’s College in Ilchester — known as “Hell House” to the local kids, because of course it was “haunted.”
Back in 2016, and again this weekend, as I drove through the wooded hills trying to get around the road blocks leading into town, I thought back to high school, when my friends and I would ride around the same hills killing time together. I thought of us grabbing a slice of pizza in town, or later, in college, returning for a beer at the Phoenix, or the deck bar at Cacao Lane, or, once we got a little older, up the hill at Judge’s Bench — where I knew I might run into my parents or their friends but didn’t mind.
On Sunday night, after I spent hours walking Main Street — now devastated again, with the same destroyed stores and sidewalks, flipped cars and clogged culverts, and blank stares of residents and shop owners who’d just lost everything — I went to crash for a few hours at my parents’ house.
When I got there, I talked to my mom about how sad it all was, and then realized I’d missed another text from my childhood friend. She recently moved back to town herself. I’ve known her since we met in third grade at the small parochial school we attended on the edge of the woods where I swam in the river and built a rope swing I was proud of for years.
“This is so heartbreaking,” she wrote. “I feel so bad for the businesses and residents. If you need to come by for a drink, feel free.”
I didn’t go, because I wanted — I needed — to get back to town early Monday morning, to see what the shop owners and residents had to say about returning or not returning, rebuilding or not rebuilding.
But I will go to my friend’s house soon, because I need that drink — and that unique sense of comfort one can only get from sitting down with an old friend, back in one’s hometown, to reminisce about what the place once was and what it still might become.
--Kevin Rector covers Baltimore City police for The Sun.