There used to be just two reasons to go into Eastport: to buy oysters and to fight. As recently as 25 years ago, the children of genteel Annapolis parents were forbidden to cross the bridge into Eastport, where hard-drinking watermen and blue-collar workers lived in unpretentious houses on narrow tree-shaded streets.
Today, these houses are selling for more than $150,000 apiece, and children who dared not venture onto the Eastport peninsula just across Spa Creek from the downtown Annapolis historic district are buying. The oystermen are virtually gone, and their waterside shacks have been replaced by fancy marinas and plush condominiums.
But when you step away from the water -- into "the interior" as the real estate agents call it -- the old life still exists amid gentrification. Washington-oriented professionals live in renovated houses next door to older, less fancy dwellings of life-long, working class Eastporters. Blacks live next door to whites and doctors live next door to auto mechanics.
The change has been fairly rapid. Brad Davidson, a clean-cut stockbroker in his early 30s, says he rarely dared to venture into Eastport when he was a student at St. John's College in Annapolis in the mid-1970s. Now he lives there and represents Eastport on the city council.
"If you're talking about Eastport, you start with the blend of people who live here," Davidson said. "There is no one Eastport type. Eastport is young and old. It's rich, it's poor, it's black and white. More so than any other area of the city... . . My ward is 30 percent black but there's no particular concentration. It's just one of those rare communities where you have a white family, a black family and a white family living there with no particular rhyme or reason to it."
Newer residents are far wealthier than the older ones -- they need to be to buy a house these days -- but their houses are generally spruced-up versions of modest working-class homes. Most of the houses are on 50-foot-wide lots or smaller. "They're not knocking them down and building a huge new edifice," Davidson said. "They are taking a building and making it a beautiful house ... . There are no mansions set back from the street. You have typical houses without fences, which is very friendly. You've got tree-lined streets. You've just got a great neighborhood feel."
About 4,000 people live on the one-half-square-mile Eastport peninsula, but what actually constitutes Eastport depends on who one talks to. At one extreme, some older Eastporters insist that only the 120-or-so acres at the tip of the peninsula is really Eastport and that anything west of 6th Street and the Spa Creek Bridge leading into downtown Annapolis doesn't count. At the other extreme, anything south of Spa Creek is Eastport in the eyes of some enthusiastic real estate agents.
Eastporters generally view their community as something special and different from the rest of the city. Surrounded on three sides by water, it has its own elementary school, its own bars and its own character.
"It's a good place, a good village," said Robert D. Wood, 83, a retired carpenter and mason who has lived in Eastport all his life.
Pegg Wallace, a real estate agent who moved to Eastport from Washington about 30 years ago, said, "It's much more relaxed than other areas. I feel perfectly safe in the whole area taking a walk by myself or with a girlfriend, without having to take a fierce Doberman with me." And "I like the fact that it's near the water. At night, with the windows open, I can hear the clang of halyards on masts. I don't think there's anybody in Eastport who can't hear that with open windows. You can hear the fog horn off the point."
Almost all the waterfront in Eastport is taken up by boatyards and private houses on the Back Creek side, and by boatyards, condominiums and restaurants on the Spa Creek side. But almost every street dead-ends at the water, and in recent years, the city has been converting these streets into miniature waterside parks. Some only have room for a couple of park benches but others, like the park at the end of Chesapeake Avenue, have tiny beaches where Eastporters can swim or launch small boats.
Eastport is still the main marine center of Annapolis, with several large marinas, thriving boat yards, sail makers, marine equipment stores and sailing schools. About 1,500 Annapolitans are employed in about 200 boat businesses doing an estimated $200 million in trade each year, and most of this is located on the Eastport waterfront.
Over the last 20 years, several large condominiums, luxury office buildings and restaurants have been built on Eastport's Spa Creek waterfront. These were threatening in the eyes of many who valued Annapolis' maritime heritage and especially threatening to Eastporters who feared they would be reduced to living in a small, traffic-jammed island of houses cut off from the water by high-rise hotels and condominiums.
In an effort to prevent this from happening, the city council last month enacted a zoning law that restricts the Eastport waterfront to marine business and, in a few cases, to restaurants. According to city officials, the zoning combined with new state regulations that severely restrict development on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, ensures that no more condominiums, hotels or high-rises will be built in Eastport.
George Turner, an Annapolis real estate broker whose firm handled about 30 percent of Eastport house sales last year, said the marine environment is more important than anything else in attracting people. "It's the maritime businesses that give the feel to it," he said. "You really have the flavor with the boatyards. Downtown Annapolis is so congested and tourist-oriented, but you go across the bridge into Eastport and it's a different world."
Eastport houses are still less expensive than houses in the Annapolis historic district on the other side of Spa Creek, but they are not lagging far behind. The average sales price for a single-family house in Eastport and neighboring communities to the south was $130,700 last year, compared with $161,400 for the rest of Annapolis and communities to the north, according to sales figures.
Turner said Eastport houses were appreciating in value about 6 percent in the early 1980s, but he estimated that this year they will appreciate between 15 and 20 percent. While property values are shooting upward around the Annapolis area, he said "Eastport has certainly had above-average appreciation."
Three fairly large new single-family houses in the interior of the Eastport peninsula recently sold for prices ranging from $299,900 to $400,000, he said. A house-hunter could probably find a single-family house in good condition for $150,000 to $200,000, while a house that was "liveable" would cost $140,000 and up. A two-bedroom waterfront condominium could probably be had for about $190,000, while three "shells" -- houses that need total rehabilitation -- were recently sold at prices ranging from $80,000 to $110,000.
Whatever the price, there is no shortage of people willing to buy. "Sometimes people come to the house and ask: 'Do you want to sell your house?' " said Phillip Currie, a retired butcher who has lived in Eastport for 22 years. "I say no. Then they ask: 'Do you know how much your house is worth?' And I say no. I bought it for $9,500, and it's probably worth $180,000. But I would be dumb to sell it.