The day to celebrate Essex

September 17, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

For Sunday's Essex Day Festival, Jeff Swope will prepare nearly 800 pounds of pit beef, considered by many along Baltimore County's eclectic east side to be one of the basic food groups.

Swope, 34, is owner and chief griller at Big Al's Pit Beef, an east-side institution. For 14 years, he has sliced and served sandwiches from his stand along the midway as part of Essex's annual celebration of itself.

"This is a proud place," said Swope, whose one-room barbecue shack is two blocks from the festival site on Eastern Boulevard. "But Essex is changing from an old blue-collar town to a revitalized community. And that's the cool aspect of the fair - seeing familiar faces and new people."

New housing developments, including one that will feature million-dollar mansions, are being planned or built to capitalize on the lure of the county's 175-mile waterfront. And since the mid-1990s, more than $800 million has been spent on revitalization projects such as streetscapes, public parks and a major highway extension.

And for the first time, another, potentially grander, festival will be held in two weeks in nearby Middle River. The county Waterfront Festival, scheduled Oct. 2 at Martin's Lagoon, is to include plane and boat rides, a wine tasting and fireworks display.

But that doesn't bother old hands like George Wilbanks.

Wilbanks, publisher of a local weekly newspaper and longtime Essex Day organizer, said that although the region is witnessing a gentrification, the Essex event will remain the same.

15,000 expected

This year, he expects 15,000 people to stop at more than 100 booths featuring food, beverages and a chance to shake hands with politicians.

"This is the festival's 27th year, so why change a good thing?" Wilbanks said.

The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the 400 and 500 blocks of Eastern Blvd. In the event of rain, it will be held the next Sunday, Wilbanks said.

At this year's festival, three east-side residents will be honored for volunteer work after Tropical Storm Isabel struck the waterfront communities a year ago, forcing 150 families from their homes.

They are Bernice Myer of Millers Island and Dottie Coppell and Michele Kehl, both from Bowleys Quarters. Myer helped Isabel victims with flood insurance issues, and Coppell and Kehl assisted storm victims with daily meals at a church.

Attractions Sunday include children's rides and three stages featuring such guests as local singer Ronnie Dove, country music and karaoke.

Feelings about Essex

To Swope, the Essex festival is all things to all people.

He grew up in nearby Rosedale, and his father was a Bethlehem Steel welder. Swope's college courses have sharpened his entrepreneurship and the reach of his pit beef sandwich.

Swope owns another pit beef stop on Pulaski Highway near his home. He said that after he bought the business he decided to retain the name of the former owner, a local fellow named Al DeCarlo.

"I do the other events like Artscape in Baltimore and the Fells Point Festival, and they all are different fun, but because my business is located in Essex, I feel an attachment to Eastern Boulevard," Swope said.

Some loyal to the Essex festival and the community see a brighter future on the waterfront.

A community that traces its roots to just after the dawn of the 20th century, Essex offered inexpensive housing and a rural setting to city dwellers.

It once served as a major force in Maryland politics and, while remaining a provincial area, residents were known for their hospitality.

However, Essex has struggled in recent decades after large industrial plants shut down and tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs were lost. That downward spiral led to the county's ambitious east-side revitalization project.

More than two decades

Donald Crockett, an Essex resident and former president and member of the local festival board, has been involved in the event for more than two decades. But this is his last year, he said.

During the 22 years he helped organize the Essex event, Crockett said, he grew frustrated with what he describes as strife among festival leaders, vendors and businesspeople. "You just can't please everybody," he said.

He said the horizon beckons.

"After 22 years, I feel as if the Essex Day event is getting smaller while the waterfront festival is an opportunity to draw many more people into the east side, celebrate the entire area, a new day," he said.

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