OCEAN CITY -- Jim Mathias, a sentimental soul, remembers growing up in Baltimore when it felt like the center of the known world. His family lived on 34th Street in Hampden. Mathias recalls Saturday afternoon triple features at the Ideal movie theater, road trips to the roller coaster rides at Gwynn Oak Park and cultural excursions all the way to the Greyhound bus station on Howard Street just to play the pinball machines.
They're all gone now. Long ago, the youthful Mathias imagined they would remain forever. Now 53, he sits in a back room at the Hobbitt Restaurant, on 81st Street by the Assawoman Bay, watching a glorious evening sun dip itself into millions of years of water. The bay might remain here forever. But it's clear, as Mathias commences his fifth term as mayor of this seaside resort, that Ocean City is balanced on the inevitable tides of change.
He glances out across willowy marsh grasses blowing in a strong wind. Ocean City draws 8 million visitors a year, half of them each summer and half spread across the chillier months. In large measure, it's the lure of these marshes and the ocean on the other side of Coastal Highway, of a sweet vision of nature before humanity started imposing its notion of progress on it.
The question is: How much progress can the place stand?
Ocean City is sometimes a victim of his own popularity. The place seduces millions of us, even as we watch it change. In the last fiscal year, 1,245 permits for new construction were issued here. The total value was $133 million. Luxury suites will be going up soon on Baltimore Avenue, a hotel at 45th Street, and condominiums on 49th Street. In the past year, residential projects went up called Bay View and Summer House, Sunset Bay and Adventura, each name an attempt to capture the town's most enduring charms, even as they pave over them.
Not to mention, says Mathias, this Hobbitt Restaurant where he's watching the sun go down. After 28 years in business, the Hobbitt's owners are looking to sell the place to convert it into condos. Never mind sentiment, there's so much money to be made in land. Maybe God's not making any more of it, but you can put buildings over it that stretch to the sky.
"The problem," says Mathias, "is hitting that balance. The city's doing great, and it'll evolve into more greatness, as long as there are steady hands on the wheel. But it's a living organism, and we have to figure out what kind of evolution is in the community's best interests.
"Ocean City has a sense of place. It has a quaint atmosphere. But there's also the pull of economics, which is like the pull of gravity. So we're all caught -- me and the City Council, and developers -- between this pressure to build, and wanting to preserve what we treasure. Believe me, I've been on the street my whole life, and the dam's getting ready to break on this one."
The last political campaign became a referendum on development. There were emotionally charged public hearings last spring, and battles between real estate types and a slow-growth coalition. Mathias says he "got my ears pinned to the wall by both sides."
His mayoral opponent, veteran Councilman Vincent Gisriel Jr., headed a slow-growth coalition that made development, gridlock and spending the defining issues. In last month's election, Mathias got 55 percent of the vote. Three weeks after the vote, he still carries the look of somebody coming off major surgery.
"A tough race," he acknowledges. In Ocean City, the mayoral campaigns come every two years. After four previous wins, he wasn't anticipating such a tough run. It's an indicator of high emotions.
And commercial development's only part of it. The Atlantic still pounds its way deeper onto the shoreline each year, and Ocean City has to scramble for beach replenishment money. There's an agreement, dating back to 1988, in which Washington kicks in considerable money -- but the Bush administration has taken the money out for the last two years, putting more financial pressure on the state and Worcester County.
Things change. The sentimental Mathias, lovingly recalling the Baltimore of his youth, graduated from Calvert Hall in 1969. Watching the sun set here, he rattles off names from his youth: Champs Drive-In, Tommy Vann and the Echoes, the Van Dykes, the Toddle House on Reisterstown Road, the Milford Mill Swim Club. He can still tell you, wincing slightly, about Calvert Hall's loss to arch-rival Loyola on Thanksgiving Day in his senior year.
Ironically, his mayoral opponent this year, Gisriel, attended Loyola. The weekend before this year's election, Mathias attended his 35th Calvert Hall reunion. Asked to say a few words to the crowd, he mentioned the football loss.
"Tuesday night," Mathias said to loud cheers, "we're getting revenge."
Thirty-five years ago, Calvert Hall lost by three points. Mathias of Calvert Hall won by 300.
"Now, we're even," he said.
The past clings. Ocean City tries to strike a balance between its past and its future, its charm and its needs. In 1905, the town's first volunteer firefighters signed up for duty. For 99 years, this worked fine. But last week, the Fire Commission voted to recommend a full-time, paid fire chief, the first in its history.
Some things are inevitable. Ocean City embraces the natural wonders of its past. But, sure as the tides, change is coming, too.