Berlin: The Making of Small Town “Cool” on the Eastern Shore

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Recently the Eastern Shore town of Berlin, MD, won Budget Travel Magazine’s 9th annual America’s Coolest Small Town contest, garnering first place in the category which included nine other winners in the top ten list for the year.

main street Berlin

Main Street, Berlin, Maryland.

Berlin’s citizens-and fans from around the U.S. and beyond-helped the town win through online voting after it was nominated last fall by members of the Worcester County Tourism Office. Once everyone weighed in with their nominations, the editors reviewed all the nominations, “along with any other gems they discovered on their own,” to narrow the list to 15 finalists, using preliminary votes as a guide, but also looking for diversity in geography, attractions, architecture, as well as “regional and cultural diversity.”

After more than a month of online voting, which began in mid-January and ended February 25, Berlin, MD, earned the title of “Coolest,” receiving a record 28 percent of the votes among the 15 finalists. Total votes cast were 137,819, with Berlin receiving 39,285 votes.

Budget Travel magazine editors tallied up the nominations, “added a dash of editorial discretion,” and came up with a list of 15 finalists-cool burghs from Upstate New York to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, from northern Colorado to the Everglades, and, of course, the Maryland shore. Each of these ten towns will be featured in an upcoming story on BudgetTravel.com and in Budget Travel’s tablet edition. BT editor Robert Firpo-Cappiello is also making the rounds of the talk shows to promote the towns and his publication.

The second place winner was Cazenovia, NY, followed by Buckhannon, WV; Travelers Rest, SC; Mathews, VA (on the Chesapeake Bay); Nevada City, CA; Rockport, TX; Estes Park, CO; Galena, IL and Elkin, NC. Berlin Mayor William “Gee” WIlliams III earned a growler of craft beer from second-place finisher Cazenovia’s mayor, Kurt Wheeler.

Lisa Challenger, Director

Lisa Challenger, director of the Worcester County Tourism office in Snow Hill, spearheaded the campaign to win the America’s Coolest Small Town contest.

Lisa Challenger, director of the Worcester County Tourism office in Snow Hill, spearheaded the campaign to win the coveted title. It became a major focus for everyone in her office, rivaling any political campaign; they held weekly strategy sessions, created a graphic containing a link to the voting site which they used in signage and “I voted” stickers handed out by local businesses. Challenger recruited the Governor’s office to use its contacts to encourage daily voting, and utilized blurbs in social media like Twitter, Facebook, and various state and regional newsletters. The town will now be allowed to use the first place moniker along with the Budget Travel logo in various publicity materials

According to Budget Travel magazine editor Robert Firpo-Cappiello, “to be considered, the town must have a population under 10,000. It also needs that indescribable something: independent shops, a sense of energy, an epic backyard, culture, delicious coffee. In other words, cool doesn’t necessarily mean quaint: We want towns with an edge and a heart.”

Although Berlin has the “epic backyard” nearby in one of the most pristine natural beaches teeming with wild horses at Assateague, an impressive variety of locally owned shops and galleries, popular non-chain restaurants with great coffee, one probably would not describe Berlin as edgy; but it certainly has heart. Not exactly an urbane hip culture for thirty somethings, it’s more the baby boomer crowd who visit or relocate to enjoy the nostalgic look of the place with its late 19th century architecture and picturesque turrets, perusing the numerous antique shops that beckon a walk down memory lane. Many of the folks staying in nearby Ocean City will also visit Berlin for a vastly different atmosphere and shopping experience, or to try some of the gourmet eateries in town. Others come from the various campgrounds nearby, and many arrive in large tour busses from the northeast, descending on the town en masse to the delight of business owners and occasional consternation of locals trying to walk down sidewalks filled with meandering tourists.

On any given day, whether off season or weekday, one can observe large numbers of visitors of all ages strolling through the main street shops and restaurants, or taking a peek inside the historic Atlantic Hotel–a visual anchor for the town, nestled within the convergence of four main streets, a spot featured in several major feature films shot on location in Berlin.

The historic Atlantic Hotel is a visual anchor for the town and  featured in several major feature films shot on location in Berlin.

The historic Atlantic Hotel is a visual anchor for the town and featured in several major feature films shot on location in Berlin.

The most famous was Runaway Bride starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, directed by Gerry Marshall and filmed in various locations around the historic area. Tuck Everlasting starring Ben Kingsley, William Hurt and Sissy Spacek was also shot in the same main street area, transforming it into a 19th century town with dirt streets; many of the period-style fictional business signs still adorn the shop windows for posterity. Berlin business owners continue to market the movie location aspect to visitors, with signage and photos of the shoot prominently displayed in the various shops.

Ask any who were here during the filming, and each has a story or two to tell. Many were involved as extras or gophers for the film crew. Dee Gilbert, owner of The Nest, an eclectic collection of furnishings, housewares, gifts, and original art, previously owned the video store when the “Tuck” crew arrived in town. She became an assistant location manager, meeting with homeowners and shopkeepers to notify them of closed streets and sidewalks. Gilbert recalls being recruited for all sorts of tasks, including driving Sissy Spacek to the hair salon and performing as an extra along with her husband.

Jack Gerbes, Director of the State of Maryland Film Office, discussed some of the reasons why Berlin was chosen for these film shoots. “For Tuck, the big thing the director and production designer were looking for was a main street that fit the early 1900s architecture, and because Berlin has that, and no visible utility poles, that’s a huge advantage. Even in Runaway Bride or other modern films, the underground utilities make it easier for crane or tracking shots to move easily, following the actor as s/he walks down the street.”

“For Tuck, the film office presented options from Cumberland down to Berlin. We looked at Annapolis, Snow Hill, Chestertown, St. Michaels, we hit various towns on that day of location scouting– myself, the director, the production/costume designer, arrived late in Berlin and stayed over at the Atlantic Hotel. The director walked outside that evening, looked around and said ‘this is it.’ It has that nostalgic look, and what’s great about Berlin is the architecture on main street, the angle of streets all converging. The next morning, Mayor Haley was very positive and helpful.

It’s important that creatively it works but also the cooperation from the town and the businesses is a factor, there they all saw the benefits immediately. The town has a great vibe to it.”

Berlin has a strong positive sense of community, with locals banding together for numerous annual events and celebrations, like the street party already arranged for Saturday, March 29 from 1-6 pm to celebrate their “coolest small town” designation with music, dancing, marching band, performances, food and beverages. It will surely feature a rousing chorus of “Cool Berlin,” by local songwriter Steve Frene, written especially to promote the town’s campaign for the top spot.

Other annual events include the Berlin Fiddlers Convention, New Year’s fireworks, Victorian Christmas featuring carolers in vintage costume and horse-drawn carriage rides, and the annual parade and bathtub races.

Forty seven well-preserved structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and represent nearly two centuries of architectural heritage from three distinct periods: Federal, Victorian, and 20th Century.

Magnolias, sycamores, tulip poplars, bald cypress, and ginkgo trees line the streets and add to its historic ambiance.

The main street was once the path taken by the Assateague and Pocomoke Indians well before the colonial period. Later, it became the Philadelphia Post Road, the main route connecting the centers of commerce to the north and west. This area was part of the Burley Plantation, a 300-acre land grant dating back to 1677. At the corner of the Philadelphia Post Road and Sinepuxent Road, now South Main Street and Tripoli Street, colonial travelers stopped at the Burleigh Inn. “Berlin” is said to have come from a contraction of the words “Burleigh” and “Inn”. Since the late 1980s the town has undergone considerable revitalization of its historic downtown commercial district and adjacent residential areas, including the upgrade to underground utilities so vital to preserving its historic look and making it a prime film location.

The small town comprises only 2.2 square miles and has less than 5000 residents; of the thousand or so new residents in the past ten years, it’s been mostly retirees, but also younger professionals arriving to work at the local schools, or Atlantic General Hospital and the many supporting medical offices. If you include the long-time residents or those born and raised there, Berlin has a diverse population both in age and income. The racial makeup of the town is similar to most Eastern Shore towns: 64% White, 32% African American, less than one percent Native American, 2% Asian, and Latino of any race were just over 3 % of the population. The age of the population was more diverse, with 26% under the age of 18, 7% from 18 to 24, 26% from 25 to 44, 20% from 45 to 64, and 20% who were 65 years of age or older, this was before the great influx of retirees in the past ten years.

Half of new residents are originally from the Eastern Shore, others are from the DC, Baltimore and Philadelphia areas. There are a few new 55+ housing developments close to the historic area, and there’s Gull Creek Senior Living, a non-profit assisted living center that combines apartments with additional services like group meals, activities and medical services for older seniors, located just across the highway from town near the local park. Residents make regular visits to the town for shopping, dining or visiting the library on Main Street.

With all the national publicity Berlin is now receiving, one imagines it won’t stay so small for long, but hopefully it’ll stay “cool.”

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