In the aftermath of the flood, Ellicott City is down but not out
By By Max Robinson
Aug 03, 2016 at 2:49 PM
Waking up on Sunday morning in my Queens apartment, I sat in bed for two hours looking at the dashed-off photos and shaky iPhone footage of the flooding in Ellicott City. Confirmation that a woman's body had been found in the Patapsco. A woman screaming while two men hold her up. The crude canal where the brick sidewalk of Main Street used to be. I paused a 10-minute video from a local news affiliate documenting Gov. Hogan's post-disaster inspection long enough to confirm the dark, windowless storefront he was peering into was, yes, the remains of my mother's newly opened shop.
I didn't grow up in Ellicott City; I grew up right next door in Columbia. And for many of us, Ellicott City is/was the kitschy town down the road you hit up on weekends. In middle school, I'd pour over back issues at Cosmic Comix (a wonderfully dank comic book shop that pulled up stakes and moved to Catonsville about a decade ago). I remember a Spanish class field trip to the restaurant La Palapa, a late night date at the Diamondback Tavern. The drive through Oella into Main Street is low-key disarming, sort of a mini version of the "Twin Peaks" opening credits. When you pass under the railroad bridge bearing the words "E L L I C O T T C I T Y," you feel like you're entering something special.
At a cursory glance, downtown Ellicott City looks like it lives inside a snow globe framed by a hilly treeline. It's easy to think nothing could happen here, but we know that isn't true: A brutal 1915 fire, a 2012 train derailment that killed two college students, and of course many floods. The reality of Ellicott City comes in stark focus when disaster strikes, and it's easier to see the town as more than just a tourism hot spot, but a community of flesh-and-blood people.
My mother opened Park Ridge Trading Company several months ago. A retired federal prosecutor, she bought the building that she'd turn into a small gourmet shop two years ago. The name came from my great-grandfather's grocery store in the suburbs of Chicago. In the months leading up to its doors opening, I reassured her that this was a great business idea. And, it turns out, it was: People loved her store. The Baltimore Sun even ran a profile on the ribbon cutting the Chamber of Commerce threw for her last month.
If you go to Park Ridge Trading Company now, there's an 800-pound countertop pitched sideways on the floor amid broken jars of olive oil and toppled, water-damaged book shelves. This was my mother's retirement, now spilling out the doors that are spray-painted with orange X's by emergency personnel. She still hasn't been allowed back in to clear the debris. One of the few untouched areas of the store is her makeshift slogan in big block letters: "Live Well. Give Back."
Despite the piles of silt and the sandwiched cars, Ellicott City endures. "It's just stuff," to quote my mom.
And in the media coverage and on social media, there are plenty of examples of residents who are focused on helping each other; it's impossible to not see the best of humanity in this town. For every horrific Facebook video of a car floating past Portalli's, there's a video of passersby pulling a woman from that car. For every demolished local business or bombed out-looking apartment, there are people desperate to help fix this with whatever time and money they can spare.
Ellicott City faces weeks, months, and maybe years dedicated to repairing a delicate infrastructure along with asphalt and sidewalks. As expensive and exhausting as this will inevitably be, I take comfort in the fact that there will be men and women working tirelessly to fix everything from the ground up. If you ask her, my mom will tell you she isn't quite sure what kind of business she'll be running when she inevitably reopens. But she wants it to be something that the community needs—and she is definitely planning to stay there, committed to rebuilding what the flood tried to destroy.