Growing Up Suburban

By Steve Coll
Sunday, June 10, 1990

"WHAT VILLAGE DO YOU BELONG TO?" THEY ASK ME AGAIN AND again in India, over tea and mutton, or meat substances I prefer to think of as mutton.

It's an unsettling question. On the subcontinent, you aren't just "from" somewhere, a word that might suggest having left a place without plans to return; instead, you "belong" to the place of your origins. When an Indian tells another Indian what village he belongs to, he defines himself -- he reveals his caste, wealth, ethnicity, language and probable political leanings. He's exposed.

For months after I arrived last summer to take up the strange business of foreign correspondence, I tried to dodge. "I was raised near Washington, D.C., but I've lived in Los Angeles and New York as well," I said.

But this only provoked glassy, uncomprehending stares, followed by, "What village do you belong to?"

In time, I gave in. I tell them now, "I belong to Montgomery Village."

MONTGOMERY COUNTY IS A TERRIBLE place to be from, never mind belonging to it. Although I lived there for 17 years, I have trouble thinking about the place as anything besides lines on a map, an uneven parallelogram affixed to the broken diamond of Washington, D.C. I imagine that for many people the very mention of their old home ground conjures sensual memories -- the smell of smoking sausages, for instance, or the sounds of city or countryside awakening, the angle of summer light through shade trees beside a house, the wet bite of a winter fog. The Montgomery County that I grew up in evokes other recollections. Cement comes to mind. Telephone poles. The smell of tar where they're widening the road again. The angle of light through the steel girder skeleton of that new office building on Rockville Pike.

Memory usually arises from something fixed, something tangible, but Montgomery County is possessed by an ethereal transience. We didn't live in neighborhoods, we lived in developments. Everybody used that word in high school, as in, "I hear there's a kegger Saturday in your development." The word implied a kind of progress -- here was a notable development where before there was only mud and trees -- but also impermanence. In real estate as in life, one development usually led to another, overtaking what came before.

We changed developments on the day I finished fifth grade, moving from Kemp Mill in Silver Spring to Copenhaver in Rockville, one of those Orwellian Kettler Brothers villages where the homeowner bylaws read like an upper-middle-class prescription for the New Order. We traded up the way much of America was doing in 1969 -- three bedrooms for four, shingles for brick, a carport for a garage, a cramped recreation room for a full-basement-walkout-quarter-acre-dream-view.

Then we watched the developments. When we first arrived in Copenhaver, the view from our back porch stretched a mile to a wooded horizon, across grassy fields and past a rustic barn. First Kettler Brothers knocked down the barn, according to some 20-year master plan, until the cul-de-sacs and colonials multiplied like mutant Lego blocks and burst through the forest in the distance, connecting streets and sewer pipes and telephone wires to a development on the other side. By the time I entered high school, it was possible to ride a skateboard straight into the classroom two miles away. Even then it was clear that growth came at the expense of a sense of place. We would return from summer camp and have to learn the street map all over again. The scale of industrial accomplishment was dazzling in its way, but it also produced anxiety -- a fear that if you overslept you might wake up at a different address.

So the trouble with remembering a youth in Montgomery County, even one as recent as the mid-1970s, when I graduated from high school, is that many of the landmarks of my experience have already been plowed under and rebuilt in a way that denies the past. It's difficult to recall what existed when, or how it changed, or why, because Montgomery is in a state of continuous, rapid flux.

My first job was as a busboy and roast beef carver at the Washingtonian Golf and Country Club off Shady Grove Road in Gaithersburg, right next to Interstate 270, the main commuter artery from Montgomery County into the District. A bent old real estate speculator named Sam Eig owned the place and lived atop the apartment tower next to the restaurant. Every so often he would waddle through the banquet halls where we worked, talking about land deals with obsequious aides. I remember Eig standing by the big picture window as the trucks and cars on the interstate whizzed past, rattling the glass. While shirking our duties to smoke cigarettes or eat pilfered blueberry muffins in the club's labyrinthine basement corridors, we busboys discussed Eig's predicament. He seemed to be under pressure to sell or rebuild his property -- to redevelop. We imagined him nobly resisting the forces of progress to defend the integrity of his original vision of an integrated country club-apartment house-hotel-and-restaurant complex. The vision might be unappealing, but at least it was a vision. Whether to defend it or because he was too old to be bothered anymore, Eig did resist; it wasn't until after his death that his heirs finally agreed to demolish the Washingtonian in favor of some 20-year master plan for town houses and single-family homes. It was one of the biggest deals in Montgomery County's history, running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Not long after the transaction was announced, I drove along the old golf courses and by the restaurant where I had first learned about time clocks and Social Security taxes. Eig's apartment house was closed, the big picture window in the restaurant had been boarded up, and the green, sloping fairways of the golf courses were leveled into dirt. I didn't feel loss or nostalgia so much as an eerie sense that my being was condemned to an endless cycle of suburban renewal.

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