Wednesday, February 3, 2010

They Paved Paradise

Bay Creek, 2006

Okay, so maybe it’s stretching things to call Cape Charles, Virginia, “paradise.” But what’s happening to it is still emblematic of Joni Mitchell’s song.

Cape Charles is the biggest town at the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula, the Virginia portion of which is known as the Eastern Shore. It’s a narrow peninsula, with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other. Its economy has traditionally been based in agriculture and seafood.

Years ago, the only way to get across the 17-mile mouth of the Chesapeake Bay from “the Shore” to mainland Virginia was by ferry. In those days, Cape Charles was a busy rail terminus and a leading shipping point for fresh Eastern Shore produce and seafood headed for markets and restaurants in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

For those driving south from the big cities of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast to the beaches of Virginia and farther south, Cape Charles was the last town of any size you passed before you arrived at the ferry terminal in the village of Kiptopeke.

All that changes in 1964 with the opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 21-mile-long string of causeways over barrier islands, bridges over the Chesapeake Bay and tunnels under the deepwater shipping channels leading to the ports of Norfolk and Baltimore. The Bridge-Tunnel was an engineering marvel and a godsend for vacationers and shippers. It was also the death of Cape Charles.

No longer was it necessary to stop over in Cape Charles for a meal before catching the ferry, or stay in one of its Victorian inns if you missed the last boat or if ferry service was discontinued because of weather. It didn’t take long after the opening of the Bridge-Tunnel for time to pretty much stop in Cape Charles. Very little was built there for 40 years. Businesses closed. Poverty went up. Just about everything that was once shipped by rail moved onto trucks. People who had the wherewithal to do so moved away.

In the late 1990s, a real estate developer bought much of the property surrounding the town of Cape Charles and set forth to build a community so large that, were it ever to be occupied by full-time residents, they would outnumber the townspeople and completely change the social and political complexion of the lower Eastern Shore.

The developer built a showcase golf course and a fancy yacht marina. He brought in a fancy restaurant to anchor a cluster of retail businesses inside his development. He marked off a series of neighborhoods, some with mansions, some with homes clustered together, all intended to be second (or third) homes for rich folks from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere up the coast.

Bay Creek Shops, 2006

On the plus side, the influx of affluent new residents created an economic renaissance in Cape Charles. People who didn’t want to live in a completely new development bought up the old Victorian homes in town. Until the current recession, beat up old houses you couldn’t give away a few years before were being sold for a half million dollars or more. Restaurants and retail businesses were opening.

From one standpoint, this is a success story. Except for a few lapses when the developers were caught filling in wetlands, there’s even a decent environmental story.

My only complaint is that a lot of the people who once made their lives on the water or from the land are now making their living cleaning rich people’s houses or tending their lawns. It used to be that most of the people on the Eastern Shore lived at the bottom of a rather flat and hardscrabble income pyramid, with just a few wealthy landowners at the top. Now, with the addition of hundreds of new affluent neighbors, the gap between the rich and the poor has become greater and more conspicuous. The brightly colored buildings of the new development are not only more suitable for, say, Celebration, Florida, than they are for the subtle green and brown landscape of the Eastern Shore, but also a striking contrast to the dark remains of the old town they surround.

Mason Avenue, Cape Charles, 2006

Kellogg Building, Cape Charles, 2006


  1. A perfectly expressed, lament, and tribute. Very poignant.

  2. I agree. One more piece of evidence that everything impacts everything else...