A Nov. 16 Real Estate article misidentified the editor of the Voice of Southern Maryland and incorrectly attributed a quotation. Mike Short is the newspaper's editor, and he is the person who said, "Every few years someone comes in to do a 'rebirth of North Beach' story." (Published 11/27/02)
There was a time when the four Bs -- bikers, babes, bars and brawls -- ruled in North Beach. Boarded up buildings and shady characters lined the Calvert County town's sandy shore.
"People used to say, 'Roll up your windows, we're going through North Beach,' " said retired teacher Larry Hatch, beaming as he looked out on the Chesapeake Bay from his beachfront balcony, which he calls "the best location in town."
Newcomers to this Maryland bayside town enjoy hearing those stories because it convinces them that they have invested in a community on the upswing.
Some old-timers, though, are not eager to talk about the rough edges, tending instead to look quizzically at anyone who suggests the down times ever existed.
"This has always been home and always will be home," said Virginia Grierson, 78, who has lived on the same street all her life. "I can still take a ride through and say, 'My father built that house, and that one, and . . .' "
Rich Romer, editor of the local newspaper, the Voice of Southern Maryland, said: "Every few years someone comes in to do a 'rebirth of North Beach' story."
During its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, North Beach was a lively summer retreat with a dance pavilion, Frank Sinatra concerts and slot machines.
"There used to be a wide, sandy beach as far as you could see," said Mary Locker, a retired Takoma Park teacher whose family has owned a 1910 bay-front bungalow for five generations. When she was a child, Locker recalled, her family kept its boat in the front yard and pulled it over 125 feet of sand to launch in the bay. Storms have depleted the beach, leaving the Lockers with only a chain-link fence and the width of the boardwalk between their property and the water.
The town was also known as a haven for tough guys. It was not unusual to see someone handcuffed to a telephone pole while police restored order outside one of several dozen bars.
Grierson giggled as she recalled how her father once broke up a brawl. "He got hold of the fire hose and sprayed everyone, knocking them off their feet."
Times changed. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952, slot machines were outlawed, and patrons went elsewhere. One popular biker bar gave way to a place that showcased the talents of transvestites, but most closed and moved out.
Today, there are only two bars within town limits, both in sedate restaurants, and a cozy coffee shop has become a favorite local gathering place.
About 45 minutes from the Capital Beltway and 28 miles from Annapolis, North Beach has been discovered by Washington area commuters and retirees who are seeking a rare blend of urban convenience and small-town waterside charm, with a bit of grit remaining.
Fifteen years ago, North Beach seemed to be frozen in time. Not much was happening, but no one seemed to notice.
Then, public water and improved sewer service came in. Oyster shell roads were paved, crumbling sidewalks replaced and abandoned cars towed. A wide new half-mile-long wooden boardwalk connected the north and south ends of town. A bayside welcome center became headquarters for a beach patrol trained to be ambassadors for the community while heading off problems. The community's garden club led the landscaping of public areas, replacing trash-strewn paths with borders of blooms. (Hatch's late wife of 51 years, Jean, has four areas in town dedicated to her memory as "the garden lady.")
It was not long before the sounds of raucous behavior along the shoreline gave way to the rhythmic beat of stroller wheels and joggers' feet.
In the summer, the beach and fishing pier are no longer free to non-county residents. Group picnics on the beach, once common, are now prohibited.
"The imposition of a small fee changed the clientele considerably," Mayor Mark R. Frazer said. "Freeloaders stopped coming. Almost immediately things began taking a clean appearance." On a good weekend, Frazer said, the town can generate $5,000 -- without parking meters.
It is difficult to find a block in town without a major home restoration in progress. What started out as one-story, square, wood-frame bungalows in the 1920s are expanding, to a point.
Most lots are 25 feet by 100 feet, though some are 50 feet by 100 feet. Because regulations require that rebuilding on the smaller lots be within the footprint of the original house, options are limited. Up is about the only way to go, and the height is limited by code.
There is also some new construction planned: A 140-unit townhouse development is coming.
A half-dozen antique shops and a small assortment of other non-chain businesses make up the commercial center of town. Residents still walk to the post office for their daily mail, and the town cat, Elvis Pussley, has his pick of food dishes set out by residents and business owners.
North Beach's revitalization efforts, concentrated to the east of Chesapeake Avenue, are either too fast, too slow, right on target, or completely unnecessary, depending on whom you talk to.
"Why do we need a museum or boat docks?" said former mayor Dan Hartley, 73. "We don't want this to become Ocean City on the Bay."
Compare that with a complaint from one newcomer: "You can't find a decent sushi bar around here."
Mayor Frazer said the goal is "to try to preserve the neighborhood character -- small homes, small lots -- west of Chesapeake Avenue." Chesapeake is the town's busiest street, a block back from the water.
He said, "We hope to insulate that part of town from efforts to develop the waterfront, which the town is dependent upon for growth."
North Beach's population of 2,000, described by one shop owner as "an eclectic mix of eccentrics," is heavy on do-it-yourself types. Residents recently enjoyed a breakfast of champagne and chocolate doughnuts before tearing down the ramshackle house of a down-on-his-luck neighbor. Then, under the auspices of a local group called Helping Hands, they used donated money, material and labor to build the man an apartment over a two-car garage.
Ground recently was broken for a $2.5 million senior center to be built near a playground and the local Boys and Girls Club. "I've traveled a lot in Mexico and really like the center-plaza idea where all generations come down on Saturday and interact," Frazer said
The rough edges have not completely disappeared. There is still an active motorcyclist component, now seeking affiliation with the Hells Angels, but today's North Beach bikers seem known more for community service than for rowdy behavior.
Even in the old days, Locker recalled, "they only bothered each other. They moved out of the way for you, and you made sure you didn't get in the way when they started swinging."
Barbara Brooks Wallace, an award-winning children's-book author whose family has owned a bay-front cottage in North Beach for 20 years, thinks it is time to let go of the coarse image the community used to have. "If anyone can find a boarded-up window now, I'll give them a prize," she said.