While it’s not a full blown tragedy, it was a little unfortunate that the threatening weather prevented some people from attending the Ramble Festival this weekend in Laurel. The festival wasn’t just a fun fall event, although it was a fun fall event. Rather it was a kind of a physical thought experiment that invited attendees to imagine a future downtown Laurel. The future Laurel it suggested was more than just a retail haven, although there was no lack of retail opportunities. Instead it was a lifestyle on show, displaying a Laurel that honored its industrial past while also bidding it farewell. The Laurel of the future has embraced the 21st Century economy by transforming into a middle place where business and leisure are both the order of the day.
I hadn’t fully appreciated this fact, although it was well reported in the Star. I was under the misimpression that the fall Ramble event was merely aimed at getting people excited about the possibilities the future held. I had no idea that it was, instead a physical representation of the Ramble that would be.
My initial plan was just to swing by and take a couple of “stand-and-smile” photos to run in this week’s paper. My first picture was of Mayor John Shwed, Doris Dayton, wife of former mayor Herbert Dayton, and Brian Shannon of the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation, who headed up the Laurel Development Corporation and was, in a way, responsible for the entire event.
I’d come upon the threesome by following the path that had been laid out for the occasion. Of all the many and wondrous displays the town and the development corp conceived to make the event an attractive one, the most critical was the pathway. Marked out in paint, the path demonstrated how the Ramble would connect Johnny Janosik Park with Fisher Park and the boat launch.
Dayton, who lives now in Seaford but was happy and proud to describe herself as a “Laurel girl” was as bemused as I about the project. She saw Laurel through the eyes of someone who hasn’t lived there in more than 20 years and I through the eyes of someone covering it sporadically over the last nine months.
Dayton still has interests and family in Laurel. Her son is a Laurel business owner who runs a Townsend street business overlooking Fisher Park. For her part, Dayton had property that overlooked the park as well. She was interested (and only vaguely skeptical) about the connector path and, like me, wanted to walk the route. We took it together.
‘The lines make it more real’
In the Laurel of the future, there will be a boardwalk or sidewalk that runs the length of Broad Creek where it meets the downtown. For months town officials have been talking about the project, but some time last week they marked it out, cleared the way and invited people to take advantage of it.
It was this aspect that intrigued Dayton at least as much as any other, the notion of walking below the train trestle from one “part” of Laurel to another. It was something she never had done and had trouble imagining.
As we walked along the path that was demarcated by white parallel lines maybe three feet or so apart, Dayton talked about her hopes for the future Laurel more than reminiscing about the past. She also took the time to locate herself, and me, in space, pointing out landmarks and finding them in her head.
For example, a pump house lies up the bank from Broad Creek, just 20 or so yards from the railroad bridge. It isn’t obvious from the street which caused Dayton to wonder over it. Eventually, she oriented herself and pointed along a line that connected the pump house to the end of West Front Street. We climbed the hill and proceeded through to the railroad trestle.
Vandals have been at the bridge with spraycans, but the writing was more juvenile than vile. The path narrowed and as people passed back and forth,especially because of the steep angle the path took toward the bridge’s foundation, it pretty much was single file through the pass.
More than a little work had been done to clear a way through the bush and it was easy to imagine a future where this point might hold a bench or two and a small landing platform for people to take in the sight of the water passing under a railroad bridge that used to bring people from and to Wilmington and beyond. Even though we only were feet from the place West Front Street ends and Townsend Street passes close to Fisher Park it was easy to get a sense of solitude.
Ed Lewandowski, coastal communities development specialist with the University of Delaware, later said that was a big part of the plan.
“It’s the embodiment of our vision even for a day,” Lewandowski said. “It’s a chance to see the activity instead of just talking about it.”
Looking at a model will never replace walking the distance the model represents, and as Dayton made her way past the last of the overgrowth and out into the park, the view was all the more impressive for its suddenness.
Walking along the pathway, Dayton pointed out the car wash and some of the other property she kept up on the ridge above the park while noting how underused the place was. There is a pavilion with a massive chimnied fireplace, a boat ramp from which people were test paddling canoes and kayaks, and plenty of open space to enjoy.
A new experience
Coastal steward Marque Edourd and naturalist Phil Miller were at the board ramp volunteering for the afternoon. They had brought canoes from Trap Pond and were letting people take them out for trips up and down Broad Creek.
Hampered a little by the weather most of their customers had been other volunteers, including two students from Laurel Middle High School, Maria Leyva-Hernandez and TyAnna Handy. The pair had taken the opportunity to have their first solo canoe rides. They had a little trouble navigating the board, as evidenced by the dirt and grass from a bank collision that remained on the bow when they pulled up and onto the boat ramp. Still it’s something they both agreed they looked forward to being able to do again.
Dayton pointed out that eventually wended to Phillips Landing where it met the Nanticoke and remarked that it seemed a pleasant enough way to spend an afternoon. According to Miller, that was a likely circumstance as part of the Ramble pan included installing a kayak launch just upstream from where the boats currently take to the water.
Back up along the path, as we came out of the trestle overgrowth and out into the open land where cone flowers had been planted in what appeared to be an attempt at creating a meadow, we noticed the faux houses. When we had started near the single lane bridge, the structures hadn’t stood out, but they did now.
Mounted to the back of a low-slung aluminum shed were two plastic home fronts, meant to represent the housing that the Remble plan called for. Again, it made everything about the Ramble a little more real, seeing buildings rather than hearing that there would, in the future, be buildings there.
Dayton decided she would stop for the oyster fritter sandwich she had promised herself. She was able to get one in a makeshift farmers market populated by a few venders, including Watermelon Queen Courtney Hastings of Laurel and representatives from T.S. Smith. There also were several artisans and a band providing music for the assembled few.
The farmers market was situated between the proposed housing and a place marked ‘The Shoppes at Village Green,’ the working title for the retail development that could be built at the South end of the Central Avenue bridge.
This day it was occupied by the folks from Gordy’s Produce who came in to sell arts and crafts, but mainly as a show of support for the notion of local businesses.
“This is just an awesome festival, it’s great that they’re doing something like this for our town,” said Marie Gordy.
‘Do it again’
Lewandowski said people kept coming up to him to ask whether this would be an annual festival. It wasn’t worth explaining that the “festival” was as much an abstract idea as the faux buildings were, because it doesn’t matter. He said he thought it would be a great idea to have a festival every year and watch as each part of the plan comes to fruition.
If that’s the direction the town chooses, it could very well be that by the time the Ramble is fully populated, the crowds will be in Laurel waiting.
In the meantime, those who made it out for the afternoon will certainly let those who couldn’t make it know what they missed, including the “Art Gallery” installed on the corner of Central Ave. and East Front St. and the tantalizingly named Ramble Tap House in the former liquor store building.
This last acted as the event anchor. The pretend tap house had real 3rd Wave beer, made just down the block in Delmar, cafe tables and a display put together by the Laurel Historical Society. As larger towns struggle to look for ways to attract larger industry, places like Laurel are cultivating a welcoming space for a lot of small businesses. Events like this are aimed at reminding people of the benefit that shopping local can have.
In 21st century Laurel it isn’t too outlandish to imagine a future of relative economic self sufficiency, especially once you’ve seen it large as life.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 1 edition of the Laurel Star.