Warnings taken to heart, city's downtown still

On The Street

Annapolis Mideast Conference

November 28, 2007|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

An infrequent visitor to Annapolis, strolling past the storefronts of downtown yesterday, wouldn't have noticed.

The stench of exhaust and the low roar of midday traffic had been replaced by unfamiliar sounds and smells - the odor of fresh pine boughs wrapped around lampposts and of fabric softener from the vent of a hot clothes dryer. Only the tinkle of an unseen wind chime or the drone of an occasional passing car broke the eerie near-silence.

The Middle East peace conference at the U.S. Naval Academy, which drew delegates from 50 countries and organizations and hundreds of journalists and protesters to Annapolis, had driven away just about everyone else. For one day, the bustling little city went bust.

"The town is avoiding downtown," Adolph Brown said as he chopped carrots and looked longingly out the window of the Yin Yankee Cafe on Main Street.

Though the announced road closures were minimal, commuters had been warded off by talk about a potential traffic crunch caused by official motorcades. Merchants, meanwhile, quickly abandoned hope for a bump in business during what is typically a slow week.

"No one wants to be here," moaned Zack Ambrose, a manager at the Hard Bean Coffee and Booksellers. "It's been slower, but what are you going to do?"

Christy Hendershot, a mail carrier whose route includes the only two downtown streets closed to traffic yesterday, said the crowd - or lack thereof - surprised her.

"The Navy games are actually much harder on me," Hendershot said.

Not everyone who ventured downtown had rolled the dice.

"What's going on there?" dog walker Dina DiGregorio asked Henderson as she peered down the street at a group of shouting protesters.

"There's a big meeting, leaders from all over the world," Hendershot said.

"Oh, no wonder," DiGregorio shrugged. She hadn't heard. "I don't have time to watch TV."

Yes, it was entirely possible to be in downtown Annapolis yesterday and have no idea about the peace conference.

"It doesn't seem as crowded as people were expecting," said Ray Weaver, a spokesman for Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "I think all along we didn't think it would be as bad as people thought."

But did anyone expect it might keep people from downtown altogether? The early morning calm proved to be a foreshadowing. Even as dignitaries arrived via ground and air, there wasn't a single protester to be found near the chain-locked main gate of the Naval Academy, the area designated for protesters, just before 8 a.m. Police officers from various agencies set up barriers and milled around, chatting.

Bob Ray arrived early to check out what he'd expected would be a busy scene, sipping coffee with his wife and son and waiting for a crowd to assemble. But as the morning wore on and few people had arrived, he wasn't sure what to think.

"It's almost like it's a decoy and they're actually meeting in Easton," he quipped.

But it was hard not to notice the increased security presence.

"There's police cars and SUVs with tinted windows on every corner," said Susan Wetherill, who had lunch at Market House with her husband, Harrison, a downtown lawyer, and granddaughter Hilla.

Her assessment was no exaggeration - men in paramilitary gear scanned rooftops through binoculars; marked and unmarked police vehicles cruised throughout town; and helicopters buzzed overhead. Local police, however, said there were no incidents to report.

Groups of protesters trickled in throughout the day, walking up side streets or stepping off buses, and their presence contributed to some bizarre scenes around the historic town.

There was Liz Hourican, a protester with the activist group Code Pink, taking off her giant papier-mache Condoleezza Rice head to grab a bite to eat at a small restaurant within view of the protesters. The mask rested on a chair while Hourican, clad in a faux-prison jumpsuit, recharged for another round of demonstrating.

"That's probably the strangest thing I've ever seen," laughed Donna Bacchi, owner of the Corner Cafe.

There were groups that had been screaming at each other near the Naval Academy eating lunch nearly side by side at Market House, more focused on the menus than the signs adorned with fierce slogans still hanging around each others' necks.

And there was David Barkley, a Christian Zionist from Mount Airy, resting his shofar on the counter at a Starbucks as he ordered a cup of coffee.

A Budget rental truck, draped with messages chastising Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Hebrew, looped quickly through the empty streets. A mobile billboard for a group called Americans for Peace Now was often in tow.

The drivers used the parking lot at City Dock as a turnaround point. Though the city a week earlier had designated the spots there as meter-free for the holidays, visitors were prohibited from parking there, to allow buses to drop off protesters.

That had an effect on dock-front businesses. At Starbucks, there was a rush around 6:15 a.m. - mostly Secret Service agents and police officers getting ready for a long day. The number of customers dropped off drastically after that, said Joe Laugher, a shift manager.

"If I didn't live down here, I'd have stayed away too," said Melissa Holt.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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