On the west side of town, where the glistening blue waters of the Choptank River are graced by sleek white sailboats, the Rev. Nathaniel Pierce lives in a historic old house not far from the shore. By local standards, he is a newcomer, just eight years in town, not a son of the Eastern Shore.
He lives in a neighborhood where there are other outsiders -- people drawn to this onetime commercial port because of its quaint little marinas and long shoreline, and because it is less pricey and tourist-minded than places nearby. They are part of a slow change in Cambridge, a town that the pharmacist dreams will become a "little Annapolis," but where racial tensions once prompted talk of a "little Mississippi."
Change has often come haltingly here, and that's partly because of the region's history as a sylvan outpost of farmers and watermen, largely isolated from the urbanized mainland until 1952, when the Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built. As one longtimer noted: "Some people here still say the Bay Bridge is the worst thing that ever happened to the Eastern Shore."
Lately, this sense of intrusion, of outsiders insisting on their vision of the world, has come to bear in a feud over sewage, which has pitted Pierce and his church against the city's elected leaders and landed Cambridge in court, fending off a lawsuit.
The issue is more complex than sewage. It is about change in a place that has stood still longer than most. It is about new vs. old -- about power and protocol -- and how people adjust when the wider world moves in with different ideas and money to spend.
These are tensions playing out in one form or another throughout the far reaches of the Washington region -- in places such as Charles County, for example, where commissioners last week proposed a law to ban construction of smaller homes, and Howard County, where farmers have bristled over the years at anti-sprawl zoning proposals that they fear will diminish property values.
"The new people simply think they are more modern, that they can do better," said Charlie Feaga, a semi-retired dairy farmer and lifelong Howard Countian who served 12 years as a County Council member. "They want everything in the world, and the taxes go up."
On the Eastern Shore, seemingly separated from Washington's sprawl by the Chesapeake Bay, the clash is particularly striking. "The wagons of the longtime residents are being circled against the newcomers," said Memo Diriker, a professor at Salisbury State University who studies development on the Maryland shore. "It's a badge of honor how long you've been here. It's almost the new race issue."
Many years after the first influx of newcomers, St. Michael's and Oxford have become trendy tourist destinations with lovingly restored gingerbread houses. Once-sleepy Kent Island is a booming bedroom community. Salisbury is percolating as a hub of government and commerce. Cambridge has taken it more slowly. It was a port and steady manufacturing town until the 1950s and the 1960s, when a major food-packing plant closed and racial tensions touched off civil rights protests and later riots.
Now plans are in the final stages for a flashy Hyatt resort. A cappuccino cafe has shouldered its way into a business district still marked by vacant storefronts. A new bed-and-breakfast has opened, and new real estate agents are moving in. Still, development is edging in bit by bit.
"Cambridge has always resisted change," said City Council President Octavene Saunders. "It always has, and it always will. It's a small town, and small-town people like to keep it safe and comfortable, the way they're used to it."
But one disgruntled newcomer sees it more harshly. Cambridge's leaders, he said, "don't necessarily know what they want. They just know they don't want what you want because you suggested it."
Across the country, people are moving farther away from cities, thanks to telecommuting, commuter airlines, a boom in early retirees and a growing desire to escape the rush and worry of city life, said Diriker, the professor at Salisbury State.
The Eastern Shore has absorbed some of the migration. In the last decade, the population of its larger towns has jumped 5 to 7 percent a year on average; within 25 years, Diriker said, population may double.
This is not considered good news by all concerned.
Just the other day, civic leaders at a Chamber of Commerce on the shore compared notes about the trend at public hearings -- how longtime residents now begin their statements of opinion with emphatic declarations about their years of residency.
Used to be, people just said their names.
The sewage saga, in its latest incarnation, started in 1991 when newcomer Gene Slear started to build a big house on a corner of Water Street -- three stories, lovely red bricks, more than a dozen windows in front. Just across the way is the Cambridge Yacht Club.
Slear soon discovered that, on some days, sewage sloshed in the street and a nearby park -- including a scattering of condoms and tampons, a mix of what some gingerly call "suspended solids and floatables."
Slear is a detail guy who had just moved from the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr. He is in telecommunications. He speaks softly, using technical jargon, reads inch-thick studies. The wallpaper in his house is abundant and coordinated with the moldings, the floor tile, the dishes.
He tackled the problem from a technical standpoint -- with the city, the state. Some felt he went too far. Some whispered he wanted revenge after a dispute with the city over how high to build his front walkway. Some considered him "uppity," a friend recalled.
"You'd think there was sewage on the street every day, the way they talk," said Edward E. Watkins, a 30-year Cambridge City Council member and the only elected official who would discuss the suit even minimally while the case is in court.
"This is two or three people who are trying to force something down the City of Cambridge's throat," he said. "Some people think they can force the city -- do what I want you to do."
The lawsuit filed by the Slears and 12 other property owners -- as well as the vestry of Christ Episcopal Church and its rector, Pierce, and his wife -- contends that Cambridge has dragged its feet on building the sewer system it promised in 1993, when it signed a consent order with the state. The city has missed its deadlines again and again as sewage has flowed into streets and the river, the suit alleges.
The city counters that no environmental or health hazards exist. It does agree that a new sewer system is needed and, having completed an engineering study, it is ready to build as soon as the state gives the go-ahead, lawyer Lydia Duff said. But there is disagreement over the design of the new system.
The basic trouble with the old system is this: One set of pipes carries both storm water and sewage to a treatment plant -- and pipes down by the river overflow at times of rain and high tide.
"The sewage just comes right up and fertilizes my flowers," said Lene Robbins, who arrived in 1973 and lives in a big white house with a roomy screened porch that faces aptly named Water Street, which hugs the Choptank River shoreline. "I'll sit on my back porch and see these little kids wading in it and playing in it. They just think water is water. No one tells them it's not safe."
The lawsuit in 1998 marked the first time many in Cambridge could remember a citizens group suing. Complaints have come, sure. Infighting, yes. But few if any dramas in court.
"It's the new folks," said Shirley Brannock, 73, a lifelong resident. She quipped: "Foreigners. I mean that jokingly because I don't feel that way. But some people here still do."
Some argue the tension is not new vs. old but simple vindictiveness: One plaintiff is angry about problems with his posh house. Another lost a bid for City Council. Another lost a race for mayor. Yet another was a contract employee who lost his position.
But it is hard to miss the strain toward perceived outsiders. Saunders, the council president, did not want to discuss the suit, but suggested: "You may want to know how long each of them [the plaintiffs] have been living here and are they natives."
About half the plaintiffs are considered recent arrivals -- five years in town, eight years, 26 years. The other half have longer ties.
So does the church, with its green-tinged serpentine stone chapel and impressive Gothic arches. Its history goes back more than 300 years. In its adjoining graveyard are four Maryland governors from the 1800s and early 1900s.
But its rector is not a man rooted deeply in Cambridge's past. The Rev. Nathaniel Pierce is a liberal-minded priest who landed in Maryland by way of Boston and Berkeley.
Battle lines in Cambridge have been drawn before, but historically the divisions have fallen along racial differences, black and white.
This was the place that attracted national headlines for its sit-ins at lunch counters, staged with the help of Freedom Riders, and for its civil rights protests, televised for the world to see. The National Guard occupied the town for 360 days.
Then there were riots.
In 1967, an old school and a stretch of businesses in the heart of the black community burned down when fires were set in the aftermath of a call-to-action speech by a black activist. As the blaze spread, it was bitterly observed that the all-white volunteer firefighters would not respond; they said they feared getting shot.
National news reports were filled with visions of angry, smoldering Cambridge.
Now the area of Pine Street that burned is in another kind of ruin, with boarded-up houses and broken front porches and people hanging on by a thread. Businesses are few. A new police substation has been built, and plans are underway for an empowerment center.
But change has come one small piece at a time, said the Rev. Leon B. Hall Sr., the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church, which civil rights organizers made a base in the 1960s, still there today -- a towering red brick and stained glass chapel with classic red doors.
Racial tension is not as charged as it once was in Cambridge, but it's still around, Hall said. The sewage feud has not played out along those lines, he notes: The council majority is white, and the plaintiffs are white.
The problem, as Hall sees it, is that the standoff costs money needed for solutions.
Legal fees so far total more than $200,000 for both sides, in a city with a $6.9 million budget, with crumbling houses in its poor neighborhoods, with a business district in need of revitalization.
Rector Pierce is affable -- not a picture of zealotry -- but he's comfortable in controversy. While at a parish in Idaho in 1983, he was arrested at a nuclear-weapons protest. In Massachusetts in 1989, he gave refuge to the staff of an abortion clinic after it was picketed.
In Cambridge, he found the neighborhood was talking sewage. "I don't know of anyone who's gotten sick, but the potential is there," he said. "The kids swim in the water."
One recent day, he stands on Water Street, pointing toward the ground. At this spot, he says, raw sewage bubbles to the street, floating into yards and the waterfront park. "Something needs to be done." He is firm.
His vestry voted 5 to 4 to join the court battle in 1998. In a show of support, the Episcopal diocese contributed $1,000 for legal costs.
The narrow vote of the church elders reflects a continuing division among the people who fill the pews in Pierce's church each Sunday. Take Tom Flowers and John Comeau, for instance.
Flowers, president of the Dorchester County Board of Commissioners, with lifelong ties to the area, said: "I walk the city streets every morning, and all of these 15 years I've never noted a sign of sewage in the street. I really think there are personal vendettas involved in this."
Comeau, executive director of the Dorcester County Chamber of Commerce, arrived in 1998 from Silver Spring. He concluded: "It's not good for the environment and it's against the law. The city just needs to come to grips with it."