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Defending a Lifestyle, If Not a Republic

By Marianne Kyriakos
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 4, 2006

Many house hunters in search of the perfect neighborhood make a list of amenities they would like. Just in case that list includes a community with its own anthem, passports, currency, navy, militia and flag, there is always Eastport.

Across the Spa Creek drawbridge from downtown Annapolis, Eastport's 1,200 residents share a chunk of land 12 blocks long and five blocks wide in Anne Arundel County. The town was settled a century ago by blue-collar boat builders and watermen.

The streets are narrow, with almost no off-street parking and none of the historic charm of Colonial Annapolis. Eastport's simple houses include single-story clapboard bungalows and Cape Cods.

"There isn't a grandeur here," said Ross Arnett, president of the Eastport Civic Association. "People almost think of the house where Grandma lived when they come over."

"We have a lot of little funky houses over here," Linda Brown said. "They're kind of like little detached row houses with nice porches on the front. They're skinny, 16-to-20-feet wide, with little lawns."

Those houses, though, "are being replaced, increasingly, by million-dollar, very narrow detached townhouses," said Roger Blau, a real estate agent with Prudential Carruthers.

Even so, Eastport still has its own flavor, said Kevin "Brother Shucker" Brooks, who describes himself as a longtime "Eastporterican and banjo/guitar guy." He and Jefferson Holland make up the neighborhood's own troubadour duo, "Them Eastport Oyster Boys."

"It is kind of a bohemian lifestyle, and we treasure and promote and protect it," he said.

Brooks and his wife, Jan, have lived in Eastport since 1989. "We have an old duplex, and the other side is two apartments that we rent to the boating community."

Many Eastport residents are year-round sailors who never take their boats out of the water.

"The crazy people put their boats away; I don't know any in Eastport that do," said Arnett, who retired from Washington and a career that included a role on the Clinton administration's health-care reform team. "We went from a house on Capitol Hill to a huge Colonial in Columbia." Then came Eastport. "We were looking to downsize, and boy did we ever -- from 4,600 square feet to 1,200 and one bathroom."

A sailor, Arnett has used his boat on Christmas and New Year's Day. "We have 'frostbite races' all year long," he said.

Arnett said his friends now remind him of his former Capitol Hill neighbors. "They were really exciting. They were kind of in-the-know," he said, "and that is the Eastport style. We understand serious things, but we just don't take ourselves too seriously."

Eastport was annexed by Annapolis in 1951, a move that, in the view of many residents, served only to raise taxes.

In 1998, the Maryland State Highway Administration decided to close the bridge for three weeks of repairs. That news, swallowed with several beers at a nearby pub, inspired a small group of residents to stage a mock secession. Their goal: To draw attention to Eastport merchants, who worried that long detours would hurt business.

Thus, the Maritime Republic of Eastport was founded. That January, hundreds of brave patriots and at least 50 dogs revolted against what they called "snobbish Annapolis Proper." They fired Brussels sprouts from muskets and cannons across the creek.

The stunt attracted national media attention. A Maryland state legislature with a sense of humor issued a proclamation recognizing the independence of the "republic." (It is unclear what became of the neighborhood's application to join NATO.) The nonprofit Maritime Republic of Eastport continues to raise thousands of dollars a year through charity events, one of which is Eastport's annual .05K run/walk.

Brown plays a vital role in the 10-minute race across the bridge. "It's wicked," she said. "I stand in the middle, passing out water to everyone."

Most of Eastport's original citizens were African American laborers. Some of the black families sold their homes at a profit over the past decade and moved to Prince George's County, Arnett said, but two historically black churches remain active.

"It's a good mix of people," said architect Michael Jackson, who is black. Jackson grew up in Eastport, went to Howard University, and came back.

"I'm four generations here," he said. "My grandfather purchased this house in 1922 for $1,500. Back then, it was a four-room structure with an outhouse."

Jackson bought the 16-feet-wide Chesapeake Avenue property from family members in 1996, for $130,000. He gutted and renovated it without changing the proportions. "Now, it's worth $600,000 to $700,000 easy," he said.

A tougher task for Jackson was relocating his wife, Alecia, "more or less kicking and screaming from Northwest D.C., where there was always something to do."

Another lifelong Eastport resident is Sampson Pachler, who was born in September. His mom, Jessica, is the Republic of Eastport's premier, and was recently touted in a travel book as the world's only female head of a self-proclaimed nation-state. The book is "Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations."

Minister of Benevolent Activities John DiPietro's favorite neighborhood activity is the annual "Slaughter Across the Water," which is being held today. He claims it is the longest tug of war over a body of water in the world.

"We submitted it to the Guinness Book of World Records, but they won't certify tugs of war because of the inherent danger," Jessica Pachler said. "We laugh in the face of danger."

The 1,700-foot rope for the annual tug, which pits "Annapolis Proper" citizens against those in Eastport, was donated by Yale Cordage of Maine. The rope's replacement value is $30,000, Pachler said.

Michael Pachler, minister of war as well as husband to the premier, and other Eastport patriots spent two recent weekends in a cardboard "Border Patrol Station" on the bridge, where they checked drivers for Eastport passports. Those without received "temporary visas" -- fliers promoting the tug of war.

The Maritime Republic of Eastport's "Tug of War IX" takes place at noon today. Spectators are welcome at the end of Second Street in Eastport (next to the Chart House restaurant) or across the harbor at City Dock's Campbell Park. The free event features live music, dancing, a barbecue cook-off and a silent auction. For directions and information, seehttp://www.themre.org.

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