OCEAN CITY — Please don't call them trailers: The polite term is manufactured homes or, at the very least, mobile homes. In Ocean City, they often feature screened sun porches, verdant gardens and adjacent boat slips. Some are simple, some are gorgeous. And no, the people who live in them don't know why tornadoes always seem to target the darn things.
But as summertime fills up this resort town and rental prices soar, residents of the resort's mobile home communities know ++ they have carved their own relatively inexpensive niche. And skeptics who think they've accomplished this by settling for dowdy surroundings had better take a closer look.
"I swore I would never live in a mobile home," remembers Jeanne Kramer. "I was opposed to the idea of a trailer."
Nonetheless, Mrs. Kramer and her husband, Charles, sold their five-apartment home in Hamilton six years ago and moved to the Montego Bay mobile home community with their dog. They paid just $55,000 fortheir home, a double unit that sits on two lots and includes a fireplace, three bedrooms and two baths (one with a whirlpool). In back, they have a spacious deck overlooking Assawoman Bay, and a pier where they keep their boat.
With 1,525 lots and more than 300 year-round residents, Montego Bay is by far the largest of Ocean City's mobile home communities. Most -- there are more than a dozen-- are on the bay side of Coastal Highway, where land is more readily available and property taxes lower. But unlike the town's hotels and motels, no central association or committee binds them, so no one seems to know exactly how many there are or just who lives there.
On a summer stroll through a few of the parks, you'll meet mostly older people. Many of them spend summers in their mobile homes as they ease their way toward retiring permanently here. They seem to cherish the small-town sense of neighborhood.
"We have something better than a neighborhood watch. Everyone knows everyone. We can spot a stranger right off the bat," says Duffy McKenzie, who has spent the past31 summers with his wife, Rachel, at Warren's Park, a midtown mobile home community on Coastal Highway.
"Everybody helps everybody," agrees Charles Calk, a seven-year resident who lives year-round at Warren's Park with his wife, Betty. Before moving to Ocean City, the Calks lived for 40 years in Catonsville. "I prefer living here. Down here, we always have people dropping in."
Fewer than 10 of the 117 lots at Warren's Park are occupied by year-round residents. Most residents visit for much of the summer and many off-season weekends.
"If you like living in Ocean City, this is a very economical way to do it," says Robert Todd, who moved here from Salisbury seven years ago with his wife, Betty. Mr. Todd estimates that a plot of land and a mobile home at Warren's Park cost about $50,000.
Warren's Park was one of Ocean City's first mobile home parks, founded in 1960 by James Warren. The late Mr. Warren was a favorite cousin of Roland "Fish" Powell, who is now the mayor of Ocean City and a fan of mobile home communities.
"They add a lot of property to the tax base," says Mayor Powell. "A lotof the people who live in them are elderly. They don't bring a lot of kids that cost the community money by attending the schools or whatever.
"I'd be tickled to death to own [a mobile home] myself," the mayor adds.
Mayor Powell no doubt recognizes that, as more mobile home owners retire to permanent residence in Ocean City, they will have increasing political clout. In June, members of the Montego Bay Civic Association crammed the City Council chambers to protest a new trash pick-up policy. Though they didn't get exactly what they wanted, they won a compromise from the city that was the envy of some other local residents.
Still, it's the sense of community more than the political punch that year-round mobile home residents appreciate about their growing numbers.
"A lot of people we grew up with [in Baltimore] were retiring here," says Charles Kramer. "Plus we've made other friends here. You get to know each other. You hear who's sick, who's in the hospital."
Mr. and Mrs. Kramer belong to Ocean City's senior citizens' center. He plays cards and pool; she's learning to paint. Other than missing their three children and four grandchildren, who visit often, the Kramers say they have no regrets about moving to Montego Bay.
"I just think the good Lord planned it this way," says Mrs. Kramer. "We never planned for our retirement, we just worked hard. Fate must have played a big hand in bringing us here."