Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 16

April 18-24, 2002

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Where Has All Our Heritage Gone?

Change the environment;
do not try to change man.
— Richard Buckminster Fuller:Design Science, 1969

Though Buckminster Fuller, like this writer, was a New England Yankee — and a fine engineer and prolific inventor to boot — I say phooey, phooey, phooey — with emphasis on all three phooeys.

There are times when it is obviously best to try and change not only man but also women and children rather than the environment. And, one of those times is now. Now, when the powers that be are energized in attempts to complete the change of Annapolis City Dock.

When it comes to my old stomping grounds, the harbor in Annapolis, my mind tends to wander to the words of my grandmother, departed from this world going on 36 years, who when I was a boy of perhaps seven or eight reminded me that change is not always for the best.

Though she was not a Yankee by birth — she was a school teacher on the Iowa frontier when young — Clara Mahala Burton fully subscribed to the old Yankee adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And Annapolis City Dock wasn’t broken.

Grandma, I’m sure, would have blessed the words of Milan Kundera, who 13 years after Grandma’s passing wrote in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting, wrote:

The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past.

The title of that volume pretty much tells it all. It would be a laughing matter, this pompous effort to change the past at the Annapolis waterfront, if these masters of the future were not bent on wiping out all things of the past.

Whatever happened to tradition, history, heritage, continuity, atmosphere and nostalgia?

I see by the daily press that waterman Skip Parkinson has got his sailing orders from the City Dock harbormaster: Move on, and when you come back, your usual spot will not be reserved for you. First come, first served; wait in line like everyone else.

In other words, go, and don’t come back. We care not that workboats must have more or less a permanent address to ply the trade.

The rest, though untold, is obvious: The pittance you offer in dockage fees is nothing compared to that paid for hosting some visiting sleek, expensive and modern fiberglass sailboat or — perish the thought — motor yacht of the same ostentatious pedigree.

What’s this world coming to?

They call it Ego Alley, that stretch of dock where high-faluting, big yachts and sailing craft tie their lines at the City Dock. The same name applies to docks elsewhere along the coast. In Maryland there are Ego Alleys in places like Rock Hall, St. Michaels, Solomons and Baltimore, to name a few, with Crisfield, Chestertown and other ports also heading in that direction: places where the rich and famous are taking over the waterfront to bask in the oohs and aahs of passersby who envy their sophisticated craft.

Let’s face it. Annapolis City Dock has become just another yuppie hangout. To hell with tradition. Sweep the old under the rug or anywhere else where it won’t be seen. Emphasize the glitter and gold. Give the waterfront the appearance of a big boat show.

Let the original tenants of long standing scrounge around for a place to drop anchor. The fancy new boats are bigger, their owners can afford to pay much higher prices, and income is now the bottom line. What’s more, the waterfront will be much more tidy with all the old eyesores banished. Who wants to see an old workboat stacked high with crab traps or bushel baskets empty or full?

The Real Thing
Who wants to see those old workboats? Well, count this writer among them — and I’m sure there are many others who share that view. We all share a fondness for the heritage of the Bay, its workboats, the sight and smell of fresh seafood, the colorful skippers and their crews.

If we want to see long rows of Ego craft, we can buy a ticket to a boat show where we can not only gaze with awe at a boat priced at a million or more bucks, but we can board it and admire its interior — if we give any indication that we might have enough moola to make the payments.
Those boats tied to the docks at downtown Annapolis can only be seen from their sterns or gunwales. We never get to see what’s inside — only their owners tending a charcoal grill stacked with steaks as they sip fancy wines and munch on brie.
Me, I’ll take the old days when the docks at Annapolis, Rock Hall, Solomons, St. Michaels and such were lined (today, the yuppies would use the term “littered”) with scruffy old workboats piled with fresh seafood. The paint that was missing had been washed or chipped away from the hulls by rough waters, bad weather or debris on the Chesapeake.

The boats, like their captains and crew, had character and sometimes a crude type of charm. One could buy fresh seafood, then amble into a lively waterfront bar to buy a cold domestic brew at a reasonable price and rub elbows with watermen. It was heritage on display.

These days, not only have the docks been taken over by the elegant and grandiose, so have the streets surrounding the waterfront. The restaurants and the food are as dandified and expensive as the craft and their owners at the docks. Gone is the old hardware store where one could smell leather and oil, replaced by shops that sell trinkets and souvenirs that only those in those big boats, and their admirers, can afford.

It’s urban renewal at its worst. Money, income: That’s all that counts.

Yuppie Havens Up and Down the Bay
We saw it happen in Baltimore, where Sam Smith Park with its green grass and benches gave way to Harbor Place, catering to those who have wallets stuffed with cash. The Baltimore waterfront as we knew it is long gone. Development moved on to Fells Point, once the locale for quaint watering holes, but now just another tourist attraction.

Rock Hall was transformed in not much more than a decade, during which we saw the boats of watermen squeezed out. About the same time, renewal — some might say degradation — came to Solomons, where now the horizon is so littered with the tall masts of sailing craft that an observer thinks he’s looking at a forest of leafless trees.

Not only were the old workboats and charterboats squeezed out at docks, but at Solomons they even decreed that no one could fish from the walkway along the Patuxent. Fishermen didn’t fit in with the new image. Their opportunity was pushed farther upriver to the Department of Natural Resources fishing pier, where the catches weren’t so good. But now tourists didn’t have to rub shoulders with families trying to catch a bluefish, spot or hardhead.

For the traditionalists, there’s not much left in the way of tradition. Even at Tilghman Island, where workboats still line Knapps Narrows, we see fewer and fewer skipjacks and workboats and more fancy new craft. That Talbot County seafood center is joining the list of the endangered.

Alas, we are changing the environment along the shores of Chesapeake Country to accommodate people who want change in the form of glitter and gold and who don’t give a damn for the past. Like Grandma said, “All change is not for the best.”

Enough said …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly