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Volume 16, Issue 42 - October 16 - October 22, 2008
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Voyages of Discovery by Lynn Teo Simarskiand Guy G. Guthridge

Crisfield up for Grabs

A condo-building boomlet in the crab capital holds wider lessons for Bay dwellers

As we steered our trawler Bright Pleiades down Tangier Sound not long ago, haze cloaked the Eastern Shore from view. When the veil lifted, white monolithic towers stood where we expected Crisfield’s low-slung seafood plants. We double-checked our chart to verify that this condo-mirage was indeed Crisfield.

We entered the harbor through symbolic city gates that captured Crisfield’s split identity: to the right, old packing plants featured Available signs; on the left, a looming condominium. Working waterfront is giving way to come-here condos whose parking lots have a water view.

How much, we wondered, does this mini-vision we saw from the water point to the wider future of the Bay.

“Crisfield has never chosen to go this way. All of this happened by default,” said Tim Howard, a native son from a waterman’s family who guides Elderhostel groups and other tourists through Crisfield’s historic area.

The building boom changed the city’s skyline and economy almost overnight. Crisfield has approved 450 condominium units in five locations. About half are now built, over the last few years. Two-thirds of some buildings are vacant.

Even the keys to the city — a crab knife crisscrossing an oyster knife — send a nostalgic message. They open doors to the city’s past rather than its future.

“I’d say the decline in watermen here is greater than the decline in crabs,” said Howard, whose waterman father Charles Howard was featured in William Warner’s classic book Beautiful Swimmers. Before Tim Howard studied history, he ran a crab-packing business here. His plant — marked by one of the Available signs we saw coming in — hasn’t received an offer in two years.

As workboats arrived in the harbor, Howard identified them at a glance. Here’s a gleaming white Tangier craft, 42 feet long and featuring a handsome box stern, with a captain and one crewmember. There’s a Smith Island boat, a few feet shorter, fiberglass, lacking crew. A Crisfield boat is just a small outboard.

Howard leads a gritty walking tour that is all reality show and no glitz across what once was marshland, filled in with eight to 10 feet of oyster shells. John Crisfield brought the railroad to town in 1877 to haul oysters out by the trainload.

“It was a Wild West town, but instead of gold it was oysters,” Howard explains. Down Goodsell Alley, buildings with white wavy blocks betray their origin as oyster houses. The alley was notorious in its time for “anything a sailor needed,” Howard says. Now ice cream and souvenirs are sold.

Records from the old Customs House on Main Street — a building recently bought by a developer — show that in 1910 more boats were registered in Crisfield than anywhere else in the country. No laws protect local historic architecture, according to Howard.

Underwater lots off the waterfront were bought and sold many times, with the intent of creating new real estate. They’re still an issue. Just a few months ago, Maryland’s Court of Appeals ruled that owners of such lots lack the legal right to cross other property to reach the plots.

The city once had more than 150 seafood processing houses. The oyster boom gave way to crab picking. Now both are gone. A few women pick local crabs for about a month for Christmas money. Today soft-shell crabs rule, an industry itself in transition.

“For 100 years we weren’t part of the national economy, but now we are,” Howard said. “Crisfield is hanging its hat on imported softshell crabs, which all of a sudden are available from Asia.”

We watched as a forklift loaded a semi-trailer with boxes of Asian golden crabs, brought to be packed at MeTompkin, a Crisfield company. Outside town, another company, Handy, runs the oldest and largest softshell operation in the nation.

The next day, we attended a meeting seeking public ideas on the city’s strategic revitalization plan. The plan notes that population is decreasing, poverty and unemployment are high and new development is “walling off” the waterfront. “Important urban design considerations, such as the best locations for tall buildings, have been largely ignored along the waterfront,” the plan notes. Locals worry that the essential character of Crisfield — what’s left of it — could be lost altogether.

“We’re all hoping it won’t be another of those long-range planning documents that winds up on a shelf gathering dust,” said Crisfield Times editor Richard Crumbacker.

We left Crisfield on a clear morning but in a mental haze of our own. The staggering change in the city’s atmosphere left us with a huge sense of loss — and we didn’t live there. The deconstruction of the seafood industry and the arrival of condos leave dazed residents and developers a labyrinth of new economic and social challenges to navigate.

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