A New Guy On an Old Block

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 28, 2008

The offer was written in pink letters on a small, lonely blackboard, set on the front lawn of a shotgun-style house like a poster for a bake sale or lemonade stand.

"FREE MEAT" the sign read. "Thurs 10-11 a.m. Here!"

Walking by, Town Council member Kevin Brown looked it over and gave a bemused smile. "That's Quantico for you," he said, by which he meant nothing bad -- just friendly, generous and maybe a little odd, at least alongside the rest of the Northern Virginia suburbs. The meat-sharing neighbor was a food bank volunteer for her church, he explained, adding, "It's not like an official thing."

Like anything that exists in relative isolation, the town of Quantico has developed some rather unusual characteristics over the years as a result of its geographic circumstances. A civilian island in a camouflage sea, the town, 30 miles south of Washington, faces the Potomac River on one side and is surrounded everywhere else by its more famous and much larger neighbor, the U.S. Marine Corps Base Quantico. The town's 550 residents inhabit an area roughly the size of six city blocks, and the only public access road requires drivers to pass through a security checkpoint guarded by rifle-toting Marines.

Quantico has no church, no grocery store and no elementary school, but buzz-cut barbershops proliferate along its Eisenhower-era main street, Potomac Avenue. Alas, so do empty storefronts.

Brown was elected to the council, and in little time he has found himself at the center of a new controversy about an old theme: change.

"This town could be so much nicer," Brown said. "But a lot of people think there's nothing wrong with it."

With Quantico's famous name and the new $90 million National Museum of the Marine Corps up the road in nearby Triangle, Brown and others can imagine their town as a kind of Marine Corps village that would lure tourists to its downtown and entice young officers and their families to settle along its residential streets. But where Brown sees ugly, unkempt properties and peeling paint, others see a refreshing lack of pretension.

"Quantico is not a cookie-cutter suburb with yuppies living in it," said council member and former mayor Albert R. Gasser Jr., 68, owner of the Command Post Pub, Quantico's best-known watering hole. "I'm happy Quantico is diverse in population and in properties. We're a small town, and we take care of each other," he said.

Depressed housing values have drawn many lower-income renters to the town, but a kind of neighborly tranquility reigns on Quantico's streets, insulated from the commercial and residential bustle of the rest of Prince William County. Trains rumble along the edge of town from time to time, enhancing the nostalgia.

Despite its size, or perhaps because of it, Quantico residents practice an intense, if occasionally raucous, brand of local politics. Personal rivalries and feuds that stretch back decades can flare up during council meetings, and they helped drive turnout in the town's May elections to more than 40 percent, a level of participation twice that of other towns in the area. Given that there are only about 30 owner-occupied households in all of Quantico -- the rest are renters, town officials said -- this was no small feat.

It was into this maelstrom that Brown inserted himself this spring, going door to door with his campaign slogan, "Brown for Q Town," and a platform that promised better fiscal management, greater civility at council proceedings and tougher oversight of the town's police force. Brown got 76 votes, more than Florence "FoFo" Petkoson, William J. Unrine and any of the other council candidates. It seemed like a mandate.

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