There ain't much future for a man who works the sea,
There ain't no island left for islanders like me.
-- Billy Joel
FOR THE nouveau riche nowadays, the next best thing to owning a horse farm is having waterfront property, private or commercial.
Unfortunately for people who do own waterfront homes but don't drive expensive imports, don't have stock portfolios and don't already own a pseudo-mansion in one of the better neighborhoods, this socioeconomic trend spells disaster.
New York's Long Island used to be a seaside community filled with people who made their living from the sea: oystermen, fishermen, charter boat captains, cannery workers and similar salty folk. But over the decades, affluent newcomers have waged and won an economic war by building expensive homes that raised property taxes far beyond the means of those who made a living from the ocean. The natives couldn't afford to stay, so they left. Their homes and a rare piece of Americana were wiped out and replaced with yuppieville-by-the-sea: designer digs, condominiums and shopping malls.
Our own Annapolis was another seaside town where development ran amuck. The result today is bumper-to-bumper cars on the roads and gunwale-to-gunwale boats on the water. The small rivers and creeks and other arteries of the Chesapeake Bay are choked with floating Boy-Toys.
Down river is Solomon's Island, already affectionately called "Little Annapolis" by some Calvert County residents. Solomon's Island was once a seaside village with a rich character all its own, but commericialization has replaced it with a cheap imitation: small-town charm with a big-time price tag.
A short trip up the Patuxent River lies Broome Island, where my parents have owned a beach home since 1957. Two new marinas, a restaurant and a general store opened this spring -- all owned and operated by businessmen from Northern Virginia who bought up two-thirds of the commercially zoned lots on the island. Many islanders are concerned about the aggressive way that business gobbles up land, driving taxes up and private landowners out. It happened in Long Island, so why not here?
Today, unfortunately, unless you are willed the land and house or have a couple of hundred thousand to spare, a beach house is something you rent for two weeks a year in Ocean City or on Cape Cod. But when I was a child, it wasn't uncommon for a working family to have a place at the beach. If he was willing to put in extra hours to pay for the second home, and if he knew some plumbers, electricians and carpenters -- craftsmen who helped build one another's homes in a kind of blue-collar barter system -- then the average guy could afford a beach home. Back in 1957, my mom, Nancy, and dad, Elmer, bought waterfront property for what seems like a sheet of music and some beads compared to today's prices. The original one-room cinderblock house was built by my grandfather and father. In more recent years, my brother, "Jim the carpenter," has metamorphosed the little cottage into a home.
I remember with an ache of nostalgia what it was like to spend my summers there as a kid. My favorite book was a children's version of "Robinson Crusoe," because I too was kind of shipwrecked. Broome Island -- in reality a peninsula, not a true island -- was as wild and untamed in my 10-year-old mind as any faraway shore paced by poor old Crusoe. A swamp on the far side of the island was filled with critters -- ducks, cranes, snakes, frogs, muskrats. A born environmentalist, I patrolled the beaches, burying the dead marine life and picking up trash that washed ashore.
But most of my time was spent in the water, swimming, boating, fishing. In 24 years, I saw my dad go in the water only once. Looking back, I realize that people like him didn't buy waterfront for themselves, but for their children. It's the children who really enjoy and take full advantage of a home by the sea.
I hope against hope that Broome Island does not go the way of many seaside towns. And when I get worried, I remember one time when I was 8 or 9 and I was riding in the family car with my dad. As we approached the island's public beach, we noticed several parked cars and out-of-town families milling about, happily sunburned, enjoying a brief getaway at the beach.
My father said to me, "Look at them, John. They drove all the way down here to spend one day at the beach, and you get to spend the whole summer here. See how lucky you are?"
Now when I drive past that beach next to Bernie's boat rental on a late Sunday afternoon, I see people queuing up, fighting and arguing to get their boat out of the water first, leaving trash blowing around on the beach and then speeding up the road with boats in tow. I try to remember my father's words and seek solace from them. I was indeed lucky.
John Coffren is a part-time Washington Post sports reporter.