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A Newcomer's Take on the Historic Capital

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page AA03

Within minutes after I drove in to Annapolis for the first time, I had encountered the best and worst of Maryland's capital.

I veered down Rowe Boulevard and became instantly lost in the maze of circles and one-way streets. The Saturday-afternoon traffic was thick, owing to a downtown boat show, and I spent the better part of half an hour looking for parking. Yet as I crept along, I took in one of the most lovely coastal downtowns in America.

Two very different faces of life in Annapolis: the bustle of winter holiday shopping on downtown Main Street below St. Anne's Church, and summer kayaking and tubing on serene Spa Creek. (Photos Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)

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Annapolis is a preservationist's city. Its historic core is a patchwork of authentic and restored antiquities. Wherever possible, things are made to look as they did two centuries ago. There is no multilane highway blocking off the shoreline, no boxy convention center, no McDonald's, multiplex or mall. The cast of characters strolling through downtown -- state lawmakers, crisp midshipmen, businessmen and boaters -- hasn't changed all that much since the mid-1800s.

The lone concession is to tourism: Self-consciously rustic taverns abound, and if George Washington were to stroll down Main Street today, 222 years after he resigned his military commission here, he could have his pick of nautical slogans emblazoned on a T-shirt.

Anything that does not hew to the town's idealized Colonial vision -- warehouse retailers, burger chains, tire stores -- has been relegated to a humble business district up West Street. And even that is changing, as skyrocketing rents drive away old businesses and make way for new tenants looking to tap the city's spiraling economic growth.

The median price of a single-family home rose 19 percent, to $330,000, in 2004 in the central Annapolis Zip code. Newer, wealthier residents are bringing their disposable incomes with them. Not surprisingly, a woebegone strip mall just outside town will soon house the second-largest Whole Foods Market in the nation. On West Street, work is underway on Park Place, a $200 million project incorporating a performing arts center, upscale condominiums, shops and a hotel. Upscale grocer Dean & Deluca is poised to move into the Market House at the City Dock.

Annapolis was once, briefly, the capital of the nation. These days, the town feels almost too small and quaint to serve as the capital of Maryland. Many rank-and-file state workers have long since relocated to Baltimore, although the state legislature remains here. The city's days as a major Colonial port are long gone, but a thriving recreational boating community has given it a latter-day reputation as the nation's sailing capital.

My family moved here in November from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where we'd lived for seven years. We proudly identify ourselves as Annapolitans, even though we live in Severna Park, technically a Baltimore suburb, and I work for a company based in Washington.

We spent the first month in a rental house in Eastport, a defiantly independent Annapolis neighborhood that has innumerable yacht suppliers but, so far as I could tell, no proper grocery store. We walked across Spa Creek and up Compromise Street each morning for coffee at City Dock Cafe. We smiled each time our 3-year-old daughter announced to strangers that we lived "in an apple, us," a conviction we have never challenged.

But we knew Annapolis was not our final destination. Like many parents of small children, we'd studied the test scores and the home listings and determined that central Annapolis was neither the most affordable nor the most academically prosperous place in Anne Arundel County. The school district is working hard to change that, but, for now, two high schools, Severna Park and Broadneck, outscore the others on a range of academic measures. If we wanted access to those high schools and their feeder schools, we would have to settle across the Severn River along the Route 2 corridor, in Severna Park or Arnold or northeastern Annapolis.

And so we became pan-suburbanites, making weekend excursions north to the Port Discovery children's museum in Baltimore, west to the American Museum of Natural History or south to the Chesapeake Children's Museum; shopping at the kid-friendly Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis, with its mall-walking moms and its central rotunda perpetually crawling with kids; or setting the stroller down near my office on Church Circle, pointing in the direction of Main Street or West Street or St. John's College.

It has been winter for much of the time we have lived in Anne Arundel, so we have yet to see much of the county's lauded parks and trails. On the first weekend in March, when the temperature reached 60, we finally ventured out to the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail, a paved path stretching 13 miles from Annapolis to Glen Burnie, and walked as far as we could with one child in the stroller and the other in a backpack. We resolved to return often between now and the next chill.

There is so much yet to see. My job has taken me to some lovely places, and each time I have made a note to return with the family when the weather permits: the Naval Academy campus, which sparkles each morning as I cross the Severn on Route 450 from the east; Quiet Waters Park, an enchanted forest south of downtown; and out along Route 2 into southern Anne Arundel, where the malls give way to dreamy farmhouse landscapes and sleepy villages.

But mostly, I want to get to know Annapolis in ways that a commuter cannot.

My Post colleagues and I have probably lunched at every restaurant within a half-mile walk of Church Circle. But I've scarcely dined here, and I've sampled, at best, one or two of the innumerable beers on tap at the pubs that seem to populate every block.

I've walked miles and miles through town but never with the relaxed gait of a native. I would like to duck into some of the eccentric alleys, the galleries, music shops and upscale children's boutiques.

Some people recoil when I tell them how much I prefer coastal Maryland to South Florida. How could I choose rain and snow over sun and surf? Don't people, like birds, migrate south?

How can I begin to respond? I loved Florida; we stayed there seven years. But South Florida has no landscape, no hills, no basements, no real seasons, very little with which a transplanted northerner, raised in Chicago, could identify. Viewed from a car (and one never walks), my metropolitan area sometimes resembled one giant strip mall, broken up by the occasional palm tree.

Here, my daily commute takes me over the river and through the woods, just like the song. I live eight miles from one of the most beautiful state capitols in America. I work in a historic district. I know my way around now -- where to turn, where to park.

It's been a cold winter, sure. But it's getting warmer.

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