“We have to change the perception of Ocean City,” Ashley said one recent afternoon. He sounded utterly urgent, although he acknowledged that a rash of violent incidents last month, including stabbings and a nonfatal shooting, haven’t been repeated.
Visitors are returning in increasing numbers as the weather has improved, and most aren’t sporting droopy drawers, a style that spread years ago from prisons to mainstream youth culture via hip-hop.
“It’s more of a problem in June,” Ashley said. But unless the council passes an anti-sagging ordinance, he warned, the look will be back next June, when Ocean City is overrun by high school students for Senior Week.
“If you dress like a thug and think like a thug,” said Ashley, 62, “chances are you’re going to act like a thug.”
His crusade to force young, male visitors to pull up their pants and shorts — “to turn this into Maryland’s first crack-free city,” he cracked — has the American Civil Liberties Union on edge and has led to much hand-wringing at City Hall.
The Ocean City Council president told him to stop stirring the sand. The city solicitor told him a ban might be unconstitutional, even if more than a dozen jurisdictions around the country have introduced laws to govern waistband levels, including, just last week, Wildwood, N.J. The mayor told him there were less-controversial ways to address public safety and perception concerns.
“I understand he wants to have a discussion about public decency,” Mayor Richard W. Meehan said in an interview. “But I’m not a big proponent of his idea. I don’t personally approve of that look, but I don’t really know if stereotyping a certain type of dress as being the cause of problems is really fair or the proper way to go.”
Ashley is pressing on with his proposal — or trying to, anyway. He keeps asking the council to schedule a formal discussion about his idea, he said, and the council president keeps leaving it off the agenda.
“I just want to take some action to change the environment,” said Ashley, a former Chamber of Commerce president who has lived in Ocean City year-round since the 1970s. “But I can’t even get the town to discuss it. Why wouldn’t any elected official in Ocean City want more decency and dignity on our boardwalk, our crown jewel?”
He sighed, then smiled, then reeled off a series of one-liners.
“We can’t let this fall through the cracks,” he said. “We’ve gotta get behind this. We’ve gotta make sure a family vacation here what it’s cracked up to be.”
In the lobby at City Hall, two large lithographs depict Ocean City a century ago, when men and boys wore tops and tightfitting shorts and women and girls wore long dresses, even in the water. “Times have changed,” the mayor said.