When President Clinton and Vice President Gore visit Havre de Grace tomorrow to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, they'll find a town, nestled at the headwaters of Chesapeake Bay, that is a microcosm of the way we think about our natural environment.
For its first 200 years, the water meant work in Havre de Grace (which was briefly considered as a site for the nation's capital in 1789 and, but for a twist of fate, could have been President Clinton's present address.) The Chesapeake provided transportation for the vegetable cannery, ice for the icehouses, a bountiful harvest for the fishing industry. After 12-hour days toiling on the water, that was the last many in Havre de Grace wanted to see of it. Housing and stores set up farther in town. In fact, some of the public spaces that grace the town's shoreline today are there mostly because few bidders besides government would take the land. As late as the 1970s -- when Earth Day was born -- Havre de Grace's waterfront remained a patchwork of dumps, fuel and fertilizer storage and fetid, weedy lots where kids would hang out.
By the 1980s, though, the waterfront took on a new cast. Restaurants and condominiums sprouted, attracting trade far beyond Havre de Grace. Summer weekends, you're now as apt to see a license plate from Pennsylvania or Delaware as from Maryland. The town's new, non-commercial, bayside boardwalk may be the greatest unknown gem of the upper Chesapeake.
This pattern of rediscovery of the water has been repeated in towns across the Susquehanna River in Perryville and Port Deposit and around the bay as well. This reassessment of the water can be measured in the recent laws passed to protect it and in the mushrooming value of waterfront property. The tar-paper shacks that still provide low-income housing in the shadow of Havre de Grace's 1827 lighthouse could never be built there today; luxury condos now rise just yards away.
Still, our appreciation of the environment has room to mature. This new mingling with nature is a bit sanitized; they don't use decoys to hunt ducks in Havre de Grace anymore, they furnish homes with them. And, the more we live and recreate by the water, the more stress we put on it. Yet we still believe, in the long run, this new esteem reflected in places such as Havre de Grace will serve to nurture Earth beyond Earth Day.