When Albert (Pop Brown) Glickfield, a controversial nightclub figure in Washington during the 1940s and '50s, came to this tiny resort town "to find peace of mind," it was in the midst of a gambling boom.
But now, the slot machines on which this community by the Chesapeake Bay once thrived are long gone and so is the prosperity.
"This ain't no Ocean City," said Pop Brown, who runs a small furniture store here. His past as Washington's premier operator of after-hours "bottle clubs" has faded into obscurity. Here, in this community of Washington expatriates, he is widely regarded as a pillar of society.
But North Beach is not a refuge, by and large, of the famous or the infamous, the hip or the affluent. Mostly, the town attracts working-class whites, many teetering on the edge of despair.
With a brand new town administration in office, there is an undercurrent of hope for better days ahead. It is bolstered by small pockets of private development and escalating market values that in three years have turned $8,000 summer bungalows into $30,000 properties.
"We don't have no big problems," the mayor, a well digger named Russell Hall, said recently. "Everything's going pretty smooth."
But the skeptics here far outnumber the optimists. Past administrations have promised civic improvements, but life at North Beach seems to march on relentlessly to an unchanging beat.
"I've been all over the world, and I've never seen anything like North Beach, never," said Sam Bergin, director of Calvert County's alcoholism program. "It makes Skid Row look like paradise." It is, according to Gordon Glazer, the head of a Calvert County drug-counseling program, "either a place to run away to, or from."
Once the town was a flourishing resort and a working man's oasis. But things changed, slot machines came and went, and in the past decade, the town drifted into decay.
The catalogue of ills here is familiar: alcoholism, drugs, unemployment. But instead of being hidden troubles, these problems have almost become the town's trademarks.
One county drug treatment official reports that one-fourth of the program's 150 "clients" in a recent 12-month period came from North Beach, a town that contains about 2.5 percent of the county's 30,000 people.
In addition, while no hard statistics on the town's alcoholism problem exist, officials say that a "great proportion" of the patients admitted to the county hospital with alcohol-related ailments hail from North Beach.
The figures, however, don't impress Thomas Stoner, the town's third police chief in little more than a year. "It's all blown out of proportion," he said. "Every community has its drugs. Bozeman, Mont., has it. I haven't a bit of problem. This is a gravy job."
Whether or not it is seen as a problem, alcohol is one of the town's most prevalent commodities: there are six bars and two liquor stores in a town that, according to the 1970 census, contained 761 people.
There was a time when the town's economy was fueled by other things: when Pop Brown arrived here nearly 30 years ago to run a small furniture store and a bar called Mother Brown's, slot machines and the business they brought kept the money flowing at a brisk pace.
Then, in 1968, the slots were banned, but the bars remained. "You can get loaded and you don't have to stand out," said Nancy Bowles, a county alcoholism counselor. "It's an alcoholics' paradise."
One haven for some down-and-out residents is Ye Ole Anchor Motel, a converted warehouse across Chesapeake Avenue from Mother Brown's. The Anchor is owned by Pop Brown and operated by John Prender who said of some of his tenants, "I got a bunch of drunks, but they gotta live." Many are on welfare, Prender said, some drink heavily, and almost all of the approximately 20 residents are down and out.
Some residents say they come here for their health, but they complain of ailments -- aching legs, bad backs, bursitis, chest pains -- commonly associated with alcoholism, according to Nancy Bowles. For around $100 a month, at places like the Anchor, they get a room with a hot plate, toilet and sink.
In one such room at the Anchor, also known locally as the "Tiltin' Hilton," Eugene (Skip) Davis sat on the edge of a bed the other morning and said, "The doctor says I drink too much and smoke too much.... I drink more now because I can't work and there's nothing else to do down here."
A gaunt-looking man of 61 with a bruised forehead, Davis had just emerged from the hospital, which he had entered with chest pains. He had worked in the Washington areas as a painter, bus driver and auto parts salesman "until I hurt my back."
Across the street, Dawn Charast, 18, stood in front of Mother Brown's, which advertises "Liquor to Go" and sells school supplies along with groceries and whiskey by the gallon.
"There is nothing for kids to do down here," she said. "Everything down here is for the old people: Bars." With her at midday were four youths 18 to 22, all with the same complaint -- no work.
Inside Mother Brown's, John Prender, the Anchor Motel manager, said North Beach "ain't all bad."
Working the cash register was Sherry Gay, 22, a refugee from Bethesda with two young children. "It's pretty good down here, as long as you don't go out after dark," she said. "On Fridays and Saturdays, you got 50 or 60 kids out here breaking windows. You got 10-year-olds drinking Jack Daniels. The police don't do nothing."
"We have meetings and nobody goes," Prender said.
"What's the point?" shrugged Sherry Gay. "I've been sitting here for two years listening to all this talk about change."
"There is a complete new administration," Prender said. "You got to give the new administration a chance. It takes time. The problem right now is too many people want to knock the Beach. A lot of nice people are moving in, taxpayers."
The tone of listlessness that pervades such conversations, however, disappears when the talk turns to the town's hobgoblins: the motorcycle gangs. There is a resident group, The Tribes, and occasional visits by other cyclists from the Washington area.
"The motorcycle guys down here don't bother anybody, unless you bother them," said Pop Brown.
"Anywhere you got barrooms, you got problems," said Mayor Hall. "I hope it'll be better, but the laws are not like they used to be."
For years, it used to a little different. North Beach began in 1910 as a summer cottage community for the amusement park-resort at Chesapeake Beach one mile south. The two were linked by a streetcar to each other and to Washington by the Chesapeake Beach Railway.
After the railroad went bankrupt during the Depression, they came by bus. "There were so many people in North Beach, you couldn't walk on the sidewalk; you had to walk on the street," recalled Alba Franchi, who began coming here with her husband in 1932, first for weekends, then to live.
"You had a Safeway, an A&P, a Rexall drugstore," she said. "Now, you don't have nothing."
She now operate Franchi's Italian Restaurant, one of the few bright spots in town.
The slot machine era -- from 1949 to 1968 -- gave the town two decades of prosperity. The small summer houses were winterized and the old people stayed on in retirement. But when the slots left, the economy plummeted.
A suspicious fire consumed the Reef Restaurant at the end of the pier. Today, the pier itself remains but is off limits to the public "By Order of Police Department," according to the hand-painted sign.
There are no marinas and no seafood emporiums here. There are a few stores -- a small supermarket that used to be a casino, a High's, a bowling alley, a bakery, a gift shop. There are several vacant storefronts. And in what used to be Ewald's dry goods store on Bay Avenue, there is "Nice & Fleazy," a used furniture and junk shop aspiring to "antiques and collectibles" status.
"There is a gentle niceness about North Beach I didn't find in Georgetown or Capitol Hill," said proprietor Dale Thomas, to an audience that included a neighborhood youth with a tatooed forearm and shaggy blond hair. "It's always the arts and crafts people who renovate ghost towns."
Around town, there are also a few "For Sale" signs, and perhaps two dozen newly built houses -- modest homes, mostly selling in the low $30,000s to families whose breadwinners typically commute to jobs in the Washington area.
"There is an awful lot of renovation and new construction intermingled with existing slums," said J.D. Murray, a Calvert County developer building in the North Beach area. "There is an awful lot of pride among the people who live there. With a little tender loving care, it could be a dynamite community."
Still, the image of lawlessness, of rough-hewn frontier justice, persists. A few years ago, it is widely recalled, the town's then police chief and his deputy drew guns on each other in the middle of the main street.
It was the embarrassing theft of a police car from in front of the town hall that led in 1977 to the departure of another police chief and one of his deputies.
"My son's probation officer told him to stay away from the Beach," said a former resident. "Last summer, the kids were all over the Beach blowing their minds on drugs. It seems like the place you go just to get in trouble."
Mayor Hall disagreed. "Things are shaping up real good," he said. "We don't have any problems now." CAPTION: Picture 1, A pier stands abandoned, a snack bar closed, in the once-flourishing resort of North Beach, Md.,; Picture 2, The bayside section of North Beach. Despite its economic decline and problems, some private development and soaring market values have turned $8,000 summer bungalows into $30,000 properties in three years.; Picture 3, Two residents walk along generally deserted North Beach street under a badly weathered motel sign., Photos by Gerald Martineau The Washington Post; Map, By Milton Clipper -- The Washington Post Picture 4, North Beach's decaying town warf is shown in the foreground. Behind it is the bayside section of the town. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post