Howard County Times
Howard County

Displaced Main Street denizens: beloved hometown 'will come back stronger'

When 73-year-old John Beck emerged Saturday from his 330-square-foot apartment above Psychic Readings, the shop below, he was shocked.

In the nearly 44 years he has lived on Main Street, Beck said he has witnessed the town change from a motley collection of grocery stores, a movie theater, hardware shops and "hippie" spots into a vibrant small town.


Saturday night's flood is unlike anything he thought he would ever see.

Beck said the damage is worse than Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the costliest hurricane to hit the county, which happened a few months after Beck moved to the historic district.

John Beck, 73, has lived on Main Street for 44 years.

"I didn't know where to focus. There was so much to see," Beck said.

Many owners "panicked after Agnes and sold their properties," slowly paving the transformation of historic Ellicott City, Beck said.

Dozens of residents living above businesses that line Main Street were displaced by the flooding, according to local officials.

On Tuesday afternoon, nearly two dozen stood outside St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City hoping to grab toothbrushes, laptops and clothes from their abandoned homes.

Property and business owners were given first priority to tour their businesses, leaving some displaced residents frustrated.

"At the information session, we were told to come up so we could get to our homes and grab what we need. Now we can't. I literally just have the clothes on my back," said David Ruth, a 34-year-old who lives above of Bean Hollow, which sustained major damage on Saturday. "It's like you have to be in the right place at the right time to get access."

Though most businesses were hit hard by the flood, many residents, displaced from their homes, said they felt ignored.

"We've escorted more than 60 property and business owners down. Just now, we've sent 11 rovers. There are a lot of people here and the businesses get the priority," said Vernona Thompson, executive vice president of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, which is helping with recovery efforts.

John Beck, 73, has lived on Main Street for 44 years.

Jason Crebs, who lives below a dentist's office, said he tried to push police officers to let him get to his home.

"I literally stood at the police line and I could see my house. It's right there. And I can't get to it," Crebs said. "I'm so close."

Beck calls the residents above the businesses in the flood zone "the forgotten people."

"People think we're just a tiny little tourist town. They think it's almost like a movie set," Beck said. "There are people who live above these businesses. There are business owners who live on top of their businesses. This is a real community."

Chip Spencer, 39, has been living with his parents in Ellicott City since Saturday.

"I don't even know where to begin. I don't know if I'm going to lose everything or not. I just don't know and that's the hardest part. I don't know if I'll ever go back," Spencer said.


The night of the flood, Spencer stepped out of his apartment atop Joan Eve's Collectives, thinking the pool of water would subside.

Spencer once worked at Shoemaker Country , an antique and furniture shop on Main Street, for nearly 10 years before moving into real estate.

The community spirit is beyond words, Spencer said. Weekly happy hour dates with neighbors at Cacao Lane Restaurant are a staple of Main Street Life, he said.

"You can't walk out of your front door without getting into conversation with someone," Spencer said. "Everybody knows everybody."

Cindy Brown, a 39-year-old who moved into an apartment above A'Divaz Boutique clothing shop late last year, misses her home's charm.

Brown, a technical writer, has been a regular at the Judge's Bench pub down the street for a decade.


"Everything you need is right here. It has the most perfect arts and community vibe," Brown said. "I just know it's never going to be the same."

'The Town Crier'

Beck has lived so long on Main Street that he is almost an icon.

Some Main Street residents call him the town crier. Others call him the mayor.

After living in a small town in Australia and serving as an interpreter during the Vietnam War, Beck was drawn to the historic district's small-town feel.

In 1972, he moved to Main Street and opened two shops, The Front Room, a paraphernalia shop, and Newspeak, a magazine and record store with content covering everything "from guns to gays."


Both closed within two years because they didn't grab business — or his attention.

He spent the next day years tendings bar and helping manage Cacao Lane Restaurant on Main Street.

A night class about the history of photography, one of his longtime passions, led him to an archival job at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

After 20 years on the job, Beck retired. Over the decades, changes in the town's makeup has forced him to switch his bedroom that faces the main thoroughfare to the back of his living room.

It's a change that comes with changing times, he said. Beck has been taking photos of old Ellicott City since the late 1970s.

Through his viewfinder, he loves watching the old structures get a touch of the new with modern refurbishments that preserve the city's historic character.


He can't imagine living anywhere else.

After weathering through a handful of floods, including Hurricane Agnes and Tropical Storm Lee, Beck said this year's flood turned the tables.

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Officials said the water flowed up from the river below. In the past, waters swelled from the river above.

From his narrow window, which offered a limited view the night of the deadly flood, Beck thought the floodwaters would subside.

"The water literally came from below and ripping straight through the buildings. It just seems the water has nowhere to run," Beck.

After taking photos of the waters, Beck went to sleep. His cat, Noir, stayed with him.


The next morning, a police officer gawked as Beck came down the street, he said.

He hopes to come back to Main Street once it rebuilds.

"There is no 'if.' It will rebuild. And when I'm no longer there, I hope someone moves into my place and has a beautiful garden. I love my place. And I know it will come back. It will come back stronger," Beck said.