The gallant phoenix of Ellicott City


November 21, 1999|By C. FRASER SMITH

THE ODD gawker still shows up to see what remains of an All-American Main Street in Ellicott City. Charred wood -- and dreams -- flavor the autumn air 10 days after a catastrophic fire.

Businesses are consumed and lives shattered by fire and flood, but, as always, moments of tribulation stir the soul of a community.

A poster on the front of a burned building announces that Spring House Designs, one of the ruined stores, will have a "FIRE SALE" at a nearby Lutheran Church.

The antique store closest to the disaster has a sign inviting passersby to contribute to the fire victims via the Red Cross. A sign on the wall in front of the burned-out stores also announces a "FIRE SALE," half off and more.

Hope lies in the sustaining momentum on Main Street, though every act of compassion is haunted by the need to find affordable safeguards against the threat of further disaster.

Reminders of the street's travails are everywhere. Spectacular wooden beams in one store still in operation were installed after the flood of 1838 which claimed at least 30 lives . Brick buildings put up to replace those consumed in a fire 15 years ago blend seamlessly with older ones.

A visitor doesn't notice until a resident says, "Those are the ones that burned before."

The temptation to move ahead bravely, without regard to the continuing threat, is powerful, alluring and dangerous.

Many are acting prudently, though.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey has asked the county council to explore ways in which merchants can be helped with the high cost of installing sprinklers. Various others are brainstorming for other ways to help.

A few steps north of the fire zone, the tangy aromas of scented soap, candles and potpourri overwhelm the acrid reminder of calamity on this historic Maryland street.

The six-alarm fire wrecked five businesses and forced people out of apartments above the stores. A narrow, winding thoroughfare, this Main Street has renewed the commercial life of a former mill town. No serious injuries were reported in the fire, but the shopping and tourist venue sustained at least $1 million damage.

The fire spread quickly from the rear of Main Street Blues, a restaurant and bar, enveloping several stores, including Spring House Designs. The stores sold rugs, paintings, furniture and knickknacks.

Competitors, untouched this time, put their wares on the street, leave their doors open in the mild fall weather and wait for the shoppers. They are not disappointed. At midday last Thursday, the brick sidewalks were filled with curious people out for lunch or to attempt themselves with a lovely spray of dried flowers affected

Cacao Lane, a restaurant, across the street from the burned buildings, was operating as if nothing had happened. Inside one store, two clerks finish their lunch. They preside over a delightfully chaotic mix of rag dolls, Christmas fare, coat trees and framed quotations from the Bible, among other texts. (Take care of strangers, one suggests, you could be hosting one of the gods.)

People are calling their shop to be sure it's open.

"Oh yeah," the clerks say. "Come on down."

A delivery truck arrives outside as if this is a day like any other. It is, of course. Stock has been ordered. Stock will arrive. Stock must be shelved.

Everyone on this street and many in the broader reaches of Howard County endeavor to accomplish the same feat -- to get back to normalcy, to put a happier cast on demoralizing sadness.

Without direction or organization, people are coming together as a community to share the pain and to suggests remedies. A few ideas are volunteered in a letter to The Sun. These thoughts go to rather fundamental -- but possibly critical -- changes that could be made at little cost. We tend to search for the big picture sometimes when small steps can help almost as much.

The young man whose smoking led to the fire called it an act of God. And, surely, one is tempted to see some larger force at work. History contributes to that feeling: An earlier devastating fire and a horrific flood. But no one should be much consoled by musings of that sort.

The solutions are not out of our hands. Wouldn't it be good, says the letter writer, if the shopkeepers did a better job of policing behind and beside their buildings. Wouldn't mini-dumpsters with metal lids help? What about finding a safe place for people to smoke?

Last Thursday, two days after fire officials identified the cause as careless smoking, yet another young man was seen lighting up between two other buildings to have a smoke break of his own. The walls, no more than four feet apart seemed to be made of brick or stone.

But what of the steps leading out of the buildings? Were they made of wood? Was there more tinder nearby? And what of the newest young smoker? Did he have a pang as he flicked his lighter?

The momentum of habit, of daily life sustains us -- and lulls toward complacency.

C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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