History and loyalty in `paradise' on bay

Community: Residents of Havre de Grace cherish its roots and small-town feel.

October 27, 2002|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When you're born in paradise, there's no reason to ever leave."

That's the sentiment of David Craig, mayor of Havre de Grace, a scenic waterfront community on the Susquehanna River with a rich history that inspires fierce loyalty in longtime residents and newcomers alike.

"It's the land that time forgot," joked Craig, whose family has lived in Havre de Grace since the 1600s.

"Houses here are passed on from generation to generation," he said. He and his wife, Melinda, live in a 160-year-old house within blocks of two of their three children.

Although the area was first home to the Susquehannock tribe of Indians, Capt. John Smith is credited with "discovering" Havre de Grace in 1608.

The name Havre de Grace is French for "harbor of mercy" and was named during the American Revolution by French army officer General Lafayette. While on his way to meet General Washington in Philadelphia, Lafayette looked upon the city on the Susquehanna and the mouth of the Chesapeake and exclaimed, "C'est Le Havre!" referring to the town's striking resemblance to Le Havre de Grace in France.

Havre de Grace has managed to maintain its small-town feel while the area around it continues to grow.

"If you're driving north on Interstate 95 and you pass by, when you look off to the left, it looks like a little Christmas village," Craig said. "It's not changed a lot in the 50 years I've been here."

Just how small-town is this community of more than 13,000? It's the kind of place where people who have long graduated - and don't have kids in high school - go to the weekend football games to see people they know.

It's the kind of place where Independence Day is celebrated not July Fourth, but the Saturday closest to that day - and where two parades are held, "the official parade down the street," Craig said, "and the unofficial parade on the sidewalk, where you see people going from house to house to visit friends."

Havre de Grace is so small-town that being mayor isn't considered a full-time job. Craig is also the assistant principal at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air. Handling both jobs usually doesn't cause many problems, said Craig, who was elected in May last year after having served as mayor before from 1985 to 1989.

Lately, though, things have been changing, he said.

"It used to be I only had one project at a time," he said. "Now there are so many, I sometimes feel like that guy on the old Ed Sullivan show with all the spinning plates. I have a lot of plates to spin now."

Some of those spinning plates are new housing developments and the changing demographics of the area.

Not everyone can afford to live in or keep up a 160-year-old Victorian mansion with five or more bedrooms. Many of the area's beautiful old homes have been carved into apartments - and not always in the neatest or most efficient way.

In the 1990s, the majority of people in Havre de Grace - 55 percent - lived in rental properties. But the town is starting to see a reversal in that trend. Now, more than 55 percent of residents own their homes, and those numbers are sure to increase with the new developments.

Besides the nearly 1,000 single-family homes built on property annexed by the city over the past decade, site plans call for construction of about 500 homes in the next five to six years.

Havre de Grace recently issued its first building permit for a structure of more than 5,000 square feet. It's for a luxury town home villa. A development of 200 of these homes will be geared toward retirees, empty-nesters and others looking for a low-maintenance lifestyle.

In the new Grace Manor community, prices will start at $170,000 for the 78 homes that will be built and have reached $230,000 as owners have added options and upgrades. The community will grow by about 100 homes a year for the next five years, Craig said.

This is good for the community.

"This gives a lot of people in their 30s a chance to buy a house in town, otherwise they'd have to move out," Craig said.

The town's historic area also is seeing a revival as people buy the houses that were divided into apartments and turn them back into grand homes.

"There's a real gentrification to the area," Craig said. Many of those buyers have plans of turning the homes into bed-and-breakfasts, he said. The town has six B-and-B's, and Craig expects more as Havre de Grace's popularity with tourists grows.

Jane Currier Belbot owns Currier House Bed and Breakfast on Market Street, close to the town's historic Concord Point Lighthouse. When she inherited her family home in 1991, she had no intentions of turning it into an inn or even living in it. When she was 17, she left the family home, which was built in 1790 and has belonged to the Curriers since 1861. It was the 1960s, she said, and she wanted to escape small-town life for Greenwich Village.

"I had no idea what to do with this monstrosity of a home," she said. "I planned on selling it."

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