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Uneasy tide of change washes over Eastport

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Leon Wolfe announced his retirement this month after almost seven decades of cutting hair in Annapolis' Eastport neighborhood, politicians and residents called it "an end of an era."

But they could just as well have been talking about Eastport as about the white-haired barber known as the unofficial mayor of this quirky community.

In nearly every direction from Wolfe's Fourth Street shop, tiny bungalows built by blue-collar workers and watermen - some now not more than facades - are labeled with building permits and public notices for renovation, demolition, expansion and reconstruction. Eastport is being transformed from a neighborhood of modest means to one of waterfront mansions and tall, upscale homes.

Those changes have sparked tension between longtime residents and newcomers, while raising concern that Eastport is losing its cherished quirkiness and diversity.

"There aren't many of the old-timers left," Wolfe, 86, laments, as he and his son Ronnie sort through photos of naval clients, yellowed certificates given for children's first haircuts and newspaper clippings about the mock secession four years ago of the Maritime Republic of Eastport. Wolfe was named "prime minister."

"It's very expensive to live around here now," he says.

Eastporters have long prided themselves on having an offbeat, neighborly, laid-back community compared to what they see as the stuffiness of Annapolis' historic district across Spa Creek. But as old-timers such as Wolfe have retired, moved out or died, they've often been replaced by wealthy outsiders drawn by the water and the proximity to downtown.

"It has become really trendy," says George Davis, laboring in a brick foundation on Severn Avenue. He bought a century-old home on a narrow lot for $300,000 and knocked down most of it, leaving just a front porch and facade.

"A couple years ago, I was turning my nose up at it," Davis says. "Eastport used to be not that great."

The influx of new residents has spurred resentment among some old-timers about changes they can't control. Experts worry that as century-old homes are renovated or replaced, Eastport is losing its architectural character. Meanwhile, the emergence of bigger houses - and boat lifts - has neighbors squabbling over water views in a place where the Chesapeake Bay or a tributary is at most a few blocks away.

Michael Matthews, 40, whose family has lived in Eastport for 60 years, snidely refers to some new residents as "merlot-sucking yuppie scum."

"There is definitely a growing have and have-not line," she says.

Adds Alderman Josh Cohen, "There is concern and uneasiness for a lot of people in Eastport that change is happening too fast and we are letting a lot slip away from us. The community is struggling, and trying to hold on to what makes it special."

Early years

Once the farm of Maryland Gov. Benjamin Ogle, Eastport was subdivided in the 1860s and became home to watermen, oyster shuckers, Naval Academy employees and other working-class families. They built modest, wood-framed dwellings much different from the elegant townhouses downtown. And though a bridge connected Eastport to Annapolis, the neighborhood remained independent until 1951.

Longtime residents describe a place where whites and blacks intermingled before the end of segregation; where barbecues and parties stretched house to house; and where children always had somebody's parent to look after them.

Residents lived alongside oyster houses, boat builders and other maritime businesses. But over the years, the oyster houses - like McNasby's, the largest and last oyster house, which closed in 1985 - gave way to marinas and yacht clubs. More sailors flocked to the neighborhood, and in the 1970s and 1980s condominiums began springing up along the waterfront.

In the mid-1980s, the city rezoned much of the waterfront to protect maritime businesses from being forced out for high-rise apartments and office buildings. At the same time, newcomers began renovating old homes and building on vacant parcels. Concerned about the threat to the neighborhood's look and feel, the city established the residential conservation overlay district in 1990, allowing city planners to review construction designs to make sure they fit in.

But some residents say that as old homes continue to be demolished and the roofs of tiny cottages are lifted for more square footage, more needs to be done. The zoning does not cover the farther reaches of the neighborhood or offer enough protection, they say.

"There seems to be this trend toward a Potomac mentality," says Matthews, a board member of the Eastport Civic Association, referring to the Montgomery County community of expensive homes. "We have people who come to the neighborhood and say they love the character and want to move in. Then they go about rebuilding the neighborhood to look like the place they just left."

On Lockwood Court, just beyond the boundaries of the conservation district, residents say they feel walled in by the emergence of million-dollar homes that have almost completely blocked their water views.

"It's like the Great Wall of China," says lawyer Sara Arthur, who lives across the street.

Two doors down, Del Rene Smart once had a view of the Spa Creek bridge and the sailboats of Eastport Yacht Club from the sunporch of the tiny cottage where she has lived for three years. After a $1.25 million home went up on a lot across the street - so tall that the city ordered the builder to lower the roofline to meet the city code - she is clinging to a sliver of a view. And it is threatened by plans for a garage.

"I just want to see two boat masts - is that too much to ask?" Smart says.

On the other end of the peninsula near Horn Point, developer William F. Chesley is building a home on Eastern Avenue that some say epitomizes the struggle in Eastport. Chesley paid $1.2 million for a 1,500-square- foot, three-bedroom home with a sweeping view of the Chesapeake's blue waters and the Bay Bridge, only to tear it down and build a home that he says will have almost 5,000 square feet of living space.

City planners negotiated an easement on the property to protect neighbors' water views through a narrow side yard. But Chesley does not think the process was fair.

Chesley also disagrees with residents who say big homes are spoiling the area's character.

"What character?" he asks, noting that he bought the property to be on the water - not for the eclectic cottage feel that many promote. "You have a certain group of people who are against larger homes. They are not against it so much when they are getting ready to sell."

According to the MRIS Inc. multiple-listing database, the median sales price of a home with an Eastport listing rose from $195,000 in 1998 to $373,000 this year. The highest-priced home sold in 1998 cost $860,000; this year, the highest-priced home sold for $1.825 million.

With those figures in mind, Doug Lamborne, 61, climbed a ladder recently to scrape chipping blue paint from the wood siding of the Third Street home he is trying to sell. An active community resident, Lamborne decided to move out of Eastport for the money - just like many others his age, he says.

"The money that people are bringing into Eastport is staggering to behold," says Lamborne, who expects to sell his home for more than four times what he paid for it 15 years ago.

Lamborne says some of the things he liked most about Eastport are gone - like the "clink, clink, clink of people playing horseshoes" in the summertime.

Homogenization

The high price of homes has taken a toll on the diversity that has been part of Eastport since the 19th century. Older residents die and, most often, white residents move in.

When Matthews' grandparents bought the family's Third Street home six decades ago, the street had an even split of black and white families. Since the mid-1980s, hers has been the only African-American family on the street, she says.

The African-American makeup of Eastport (pop. 1,200) has fallen consistently. According to census figures, blacks in 1980 accounted for about 37 percent of the population in the area between Sixth Street and Horn Point. By 1990, that figure had dropped to 25 percent. In 2000, blacks made up less than 14 percent of the residents.

Meanwhile, incomes have risen steadily, according to census figures based on a survey of 10 percent of the population. Adjusted for inflation, the median household income rose 74 percent between 1979 and 1999, to $68,906.

Upscale restaurants have followed. Sam's Corner deli became Lewnes' Steakhouse. O'Leary's seafood restaurant replaced Sadler's crab shack. Carrol's Creek, Ruth's Chris and the Boatyard Bar & Grill - the newest sailors' hang-out - moved in. McNasby's oyster house became the Maritime Cafe and the Annapolis Maritime Museum.

Alderman Cohen plans to recommend a moratorium on some maritime construction, as a committee of residents prepares to study the conservation district, to see if it should more strictly regulate the size of new homes, further limit demolition or expand boundaries. Meanwhile, the city is pursuing a designation for Eastport on the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation would make properties eligible for a state rehabilitation tax credit and send a message that "this is what's here, and it is of value," says Donna Hole, the city's chief of historic preservation.

Architectural historian Laura Trieschmann says demolition and construction should be more strictly regulated in Eastport. "It was the workingman's suburb of Annapolis."

But some say a strong sense of community remains, illustrated by events including the Maritime Republic of Eastport's annual tug of war with downtown Annapolis, in its fifth year.

"People are moving here because they like the small-community feel," says Peg Wallace, a Realtor, founder of the Annapolis Maritime Museum and longtime resident. "Eastport still has that, though, indeed, it is not as small as it used to be."

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