Cambridge and Chestertown, Past and Future

PETER A. JAY

March 14, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

CAMBRIDGE — Cambridge. -- Towns, like people, occasionally go through crises that change them forever. Two very different communities on the Eastern Shore, Cambridge and Chestertown, are reminders of that. Let's consider this one first.

Cambridge isn't what it used to be, and thank heaven for that. Its notoriety has faded. Today it deals with the daily muddle of municipal life much as other towns do, and stays safely out of the news. It isn't perfect, but it's doing all right.

Yet we're all prisoners of our experience, and so for those of us who don't live here but still remember the bad times in Cambridge, this place will always be full of ghosts. Even a brief visit can start the mental tapes rolling, and behind the thin transparent screen of the present the past begins to unfold.

It was just 30 years ago that Cambridge first exploded. It had been integrating its public facilities, under pressure, but the changes were coming painfully slowly. In early 1963, the movie theater and bowling alley, plus most restaurants, still denied admission to blacks. Some students from Swarthmore College, both black and white, arrived to conduct sit-ins.

Then, in June, with all the unexpected violence of a Chesapeake thunderstorm, rioting began. The civil-rights movement everywhere was turning militant, and Cambridge was one of the first places where the public saw the harsh new mood on display. Submissive demonstrators in suits were replaced by quite different people, angry and often garishly dressed, who mixed their demands with threats. Rocks were thrown and glass shattered. Governor Millard Tawes sent in the National Guard.

Cambridge became a national symbol: Redneck City, Mississippi North. For those on both sides of the civil-rights conflict, it was the place to be, and to be seen.

George Wallace began his Maryland campaign in Cambridge in 1964; in the Democratic primary, running against President Lyndon Johnson, he received 42 percent of the Maryland vote. The Guard stayed until 1965, then returned briefly in 1967 in the wake of H. Rap Brown's historic, incendiary speech from the hood of a car.

That speech, taped by police, helped radicalize Governor Spiro T. Agnew, turning him almost overnight from a moderate, civil-rights-minded Republican into the outspoken conservative whom Richard Nixon would choose a year later as his running mate. It was followed by fires that leveled two blocks of Cambridge's black Second Ward. The white Cambridge police chief refused to allow fire equipment into the area.

H. Rap Brown was indicted in Dorchester County for incitement to riot, but the trial was moved elsewhere. The defendant jumped bail and didn't reappear until several years later, when he was shot dead by police in New York after a robbery.

That was about it for Cambridge on the world stage. The wounds of those dark days have healed, leaving some scars. The memories linger, but time is inexorably working on them, and racial tension no longer permeates daily life. Cambridge in 1993 is a very different place than it was 30 years ago.

Chestertown, on the other hand, hasn't changed much in 30 years. But in Chestertown these days there is real fear that because of events taking place right now, the years to come will transform the community -- perhaps into a place that looks like much of the rest of America.

Like Cambridge in the '60s, Chestertown is facing an invasion of disruptive outsiders, and an implicit threat to a beloved way of life. Chestertown in '93 is confronted by -- Wal-Mart.

In brief, Wal-Mart wants to put a big discount store near Chestertown, just as it has in Elkton to the north, Dover to the east and Easton to the south. The Kent County commissioners have reluctantly approved the zoning. The matter has now moved to the courts, but the legal fight has a pro forma quality to it. Wal-Mart appears inevitable.

This has split Chestertown, not violently as racial issues split Cambridge, but just as passionately. And as in Cambridge, there are elements of class in the political confrontation. Local elites tend to oppose Wal-Mart; working people, noting the store's low prices and anticipating the prospect of jobs, tend to favor it.

Playing out a drama enacted in scores of towns across the country, opponents of Wal-Mart say the store will destroy the numerous small family businesses -- shoe stores, drug stores, lawn-and-garden operations -- that give the Chestertown commercial center both character and economic viability.

"Hello, Glen Burnie," wrote editor Hurtt Deringer of the Kent County News in a bitter editorial after the commissioners' vote. The Wal-Mart megastore, he has argued throughout the long and acrimonious dispute, will begin to unravel all that makes historic Chestertown the attractive, cohesive and distinctive place it is.

Nuts, says the other side. This is America. If the downtown stores want our business, they should match Wal-Mart's service and prices.

They have not yet added, but probably will, that if Cambridge could survive the fires and fury of the '60s, Chestertown ought to be resourceful enough to cope with the merchandising advances of the '90s. The road to Sam Walton's new store doesn't have to lead to Glen Burnie.

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