This down-at-the-heels town on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, once a thriving resort area where luck ran out when the slot machine era ended in 1968, may be on the brink of a long-awaited revival.
With an energetic new mayor and Town Council leading the way, homeowners are being told to cut their grass and tidy their yards, police are cracking down on public drinking that has long been a town problem and a waterfront redevelopment plan is being proposed to return "the Beach" to its former glory.
"The people's attitude was all negative before," said Mayor W. Alan (Buck) Gott, who is overseeing the $190,000 remodeling and expansion of the town hall. "Now, I think the attitude is more positive than negative."
Such stirrings hereabouts recently prompted the Calvert County Independent to refer editorially to North Beach as a "phoenix rising . . . on the verge of becoming a county showpiece."
Yet, skepticism persists. "Five years from now, this town will look the same," predicted a 59-year-old woman who declined to be quoted by name. "As soon as I can, I'm leaving. I don't want to die in this place."
"The only way this beach can go is up, of course," said Joy Cassidy, whose mother and father first came to North Beach in 1930, during the town's heyday as a working-class resort. Alba Franchi, her 74-year-old mother, still runs the restaurant she and her late husband, a Washington chef, opened in 1943.
Gott's spirited talk of turning North Beach into a "family type resort" recalls its earlier, more prosperous days. The town, 35 miles southeast of Washington, sprang up in 1910 as a summer cottage community for the amusement park at Chesapeake Beach a mile south. The Chesapeake Beach Railway carried as many as 350,000 passengers annually from Washington to this working-class vacation spot. A small trolley connected "the Twin Beaches."
The railroad stopped running during the Depression, but the area continued to flourish through the 1940s and 1950s. While the opening of the Chespeake Bay Bridge in 1952 lured away families to Ocean City, a faster crowd kept the beaches going until slots were finally banned 15 years ago. To make matters worse, severe storms, the last in 1972, swept away most of the sand.
While adjoining Chesapeake Beach slumbered after its amusement park closed, North Beach became, to the dismay of many residents, a mecca for motorcycle gangs, alcoholics and drug users. Calvert County officials as recently as 1979 described it as "a place to run away to, or from," a town that "makes Skid Row look like paradise."
At Chesapeake Avenue and Third Street, Albert (Pop Brown) Glickfield, 82, holds court in his small furniture store. A nightclub owner in Washington in the 1940s and 1950s, he was one of the largest owners in North Beach of run-down residential and commercial properties until recently, when he gave the properties to his daughter.
Although Pop Brown rues the day the slots shut down, even he thinks North Beach's time has come again. "I've been waiting 40 years for it to happen," he said. "There's no reason for this town not to build up. It's so close to Washington. In Ocean City, you can't even walk, it's so crowded, it's disgusting. I've been holding onto property here waiting for it to build up. If it don't happen this time, they might as well burn the town down."
Pop Brown belongs to an older generation that comprises much of the town's population, 1,504 in the last census. Behind the run-down commercial district, the elderly, most with Washington roots, live in small summer cottages that have been winterized to serve as year-round residences. The older residents have been worried that improvements will boost their property tax assessments. But the new generation is unswayed by such talk.
Like a pincer movement, the forces of change are pressing North Beach from several directions. In Chesapeake Beach, expensive new town houses overlooking the bay sell for $100,000 and up. To the north, Rose Haven, a 1950s yacht club development of the late Joe Rose of Washington, who also had interests in North Beach gambling houses, has undergone change as well. It is now Herrington Harbour, a restaurant-motel-marina complex with 650 boat slips, the largest on the bay.
The spillover here may not be immediately apparent to the first-time visitor: There are still chipped and crumbling sidewalks, junked cars and boarded buildings and half a dozen or so bars and liquor stores within a small area. But a visitor who found two blocks of empty storefronts on Bay Avenue five years ago today finds a supermarket and several shops.
Real estate prices, still modest by most standards, have risen in recent years. A house that could be bought for $8,000 four years ago now brings $40,000. William Nomikos, 37, a local real estate broker, asserts, "The time is here."
Town Council member Fred Roberts notes there has been an increase in the number of remodeling permits issued, and he is enthusiastic about investing in North Beach property. "I can see it coming," he said. "I'm buying anything I can grab hold of now."
Some landlords of low-income property say they also are looking forward to change. Wilford Petrie, whose tenants are mainly on public aid or Social Security, said he's had no economic incentive before to fix up or tear down his aging properties. He closed the Calvert Hotel, once a thriving guesthouse, three years ago after it was vandalized. Now, he said, he would like to raze it and "put up a new building that will stay for 30 or 40 years."
The revitalization movement has brought together newcomers and old-timers in a political coalition. Mayor Russell Hall, a well-digger who once told a visitor the town had "no big problems," was replaced with Gott, 55, a building contractor. Gott beat Hall by 15 votes in a hotly contested three-way election last fall for the unpaid post, and he carried a new council in with him.
Since then, events have moved swiftly. Gott obtained a state grant of about $10,000 to undertake a waterfront revitalization study. A crowd of 60 residents, almost unprecedented, attended a meeting last month on the plan, which calls for the town to acquire the beach and pier and to build a "bay walk" with lights and benches. There also would be a restaurant at the pier's end, as before, parking areas, dressing rooms and, at the north end of town, a boat ramp.
The plan, so far, is modest by traditional standards of redevelopment, but consultants believe small, incremental changes are needed to convince the community and outside investors that North Beach can indeed change at all.
Gott's grantsmanship is regarded as a key. He plans to seek state funds to shore up the eroding beach. Meanwhile, just the other week, $655,000 in federal flood control and sewage grants came through. There's money in there for administration, and the council voted the other night to hire a town administrator for the first time.
Gott, who drives an orange Lincoln Continental, also frequently tours his town on foot. The other day on a walk, he noted Petrie had two old refrigerators sitting in the front yard on Bay Avenue. "Get rid of 'em. You're in violation of a town ordinance," he said. Petrie promised he would.
"It's gonna take a couple of years. You don't turn it around by waving a magic wand," Gott said. "The stigma has been here so many years we've just got to overcome it."
Meanwhile, North Beach citizens, like their metropolitan counterparts, vacation in Ocean City. And a bus regularly takes them to Atlantic City, N.J., where they can gamble.