Uneasy tide of change washes over Eastport

Character: Cottages make way for upscale housing as an eclectic Annapolis neighborhood grows wealthier, whiter and less like it was.

October 28, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

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 But as old-timers such as Wolfe have retired, moved out or died, they've often been replaced by wealthy outsiders drawn by the water and the proximity to downtown.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."

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