The reconstruction of Main Street in downtown Annapolis began officially yesterday when a backhoe shovel crashed into the historic roadway and dozens of onlookers scrambled for souvenir bricks.
"I'm putting this in my living room," said Betty Langenfelder as she clutched a brick still covered with dirt from the street's foundation. "Now I have a little piece of history," said Ms. Langenfelder, who works at the nearby Board of Education offices on Green Street.
The bricks were such a big hit that the work crew had to dig another hole in the street so spectators would not go away empty-handed.
It was a light-hearted start for the $5.5 million modernization project that was the subject of intense debate last fall and winter and will close portions of the street at the center of the city's historic district through the entire tourist season.
Crews from Fort Meyers Construction Corp., the Washington, D.C., firm with the contract for the job, will work from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. six days a week to get the job done.
Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins called the start of reconstruction a triumph.
"I'm pleased that I'm going to be remembered for good things," he said after the ceremony. "This has been needed for a long, long while and it took someone to bite the bullet and I did it."
While the mayor signed bricks and shook hands, spectators drank free lemonade and bought "Main Street -- I Dig It" T-shirts.
A bagpiper, a unit from the U.S. Naval Academy band and elementary school children performed next to the heavy machinery at the construction site.
The festive atmosphere contrasted sharply with the acrimonious debate over blueprints for the project that delayed the start of work nearly four months.
Originally the city had hoped to create a more pedestrian-friendly Main Street with wider sidewalks. Historic preservationists rejected that plan, arguing that the new walkways would give the street a theme park atmosphere and invite sidewalk cafes.
City officials finally adopted a plan that left the design of the roadway mostly unchanged.
But yesterday, neither the threatening rain clouds, chilling winds or memories of that political battle could dampen the good feelings. Some people even took gentle pokes at the project's contentious past. Jerry Hardesty, owner of O'Brien's Oyster Bar & Restaurant, set up six tables in front of the restaurant, an arrangement that looked suspiciously like a sidewalk cafe.
"Hey, don't you need a license for those?" joked Ward 2 Alderman Dean Johnson as he gave Jan Hardesty, Mr. Hardesty's wife, a mock glare.
"It's only for today, and then the backhoe chases us out again," Mrs. Hardesty said. "I told Jerry he was going to cause a commotion with this."
Many restaurant owners and shopkeepers are trying to be optimistic about the future despite worries of losing business because of traffic delays and parking problems. Others said the project could bring tourists to town.
"It's not every day that the Main Street of a city established in 1649 gets torn up," said Nancy Johnson, the Main Street representative for the Annapolis Business Coalition. "It makes people curious."
As the ceremony ended, workers, who began preliminary street work two weeks ago, shored up the barrier around the site.
Jack Cunha, the superintendent on the job, wore a yellow flower in his hard hat to celebrate the day. But he was more interested in getting the work done than picking up a souvenir.
"Why would I want to take a brick?" he asked as he looked down the street. "I have plenty here."