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My strange Takoma home

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A man named B.F. Gilbert saw a chance to cash in on one of the hot concepts of the day, the trolley suburb. You could work in the depraved city and take the trolley home -- or the train in Takoma Park's case -- to a B.F. Gilbert house in the fresh air. Business and idealism: partners in building a better America. People believed it back then. You look at old pictures of early Takoma Park families gathered on the front porches of Gilbert's Victorians, and you can feel the pep.

Next came all the three-bedroom houses that tried to reconcile the quaint and the idealistic, as American architecture does. Bungalows put the romance of their Hindu namesakes together with the progressivism of the craft-revival movement. Houses with Tudor entryways used English cuteness to take the commercial edge off a middle-class real estate boom.

Modernism left its spoor. In the 1920s, somebody built a house on Buffalo Avenue out of concrete, the building material of the future -- walls, ceilings, floors, everything. It's like being in a basement rumpus room, the whole house -- you keep looking for the ping-pong tables. I was never sure whether the previous owner of our house had wanted to make it look more Modern or more Federalist. In any case, she tore the porch off the front and dumped it in the backyard, then split the difference between the two styles by bracketing the front door with a pair of Victorian carriage lamps. The general effect was a flat, naked look that brought out the industrial essence of our asbestos siding.

In the '60s, Congress tried to run an expressway through the middle of town, through my backyard, as it would have happened, and a magnificent old loon named Sammie Abbott led the fight that stopped it. He saved Takoma Park, which thanked him years later by voting him in as mayor, and then voting him out when the citizenry got tired of his shouting at them the same way he shouted at everyone else.

There were lots of oddballs. They claimed the perquisites of exiles from one thing or another, but as time went along and their various utopias were not accomplished, they came to seem simply stranded, trapped in some mid-larval stage, progressive and nostalgic at the same time. Takoma Park was famous for them: the government lawyers with their subscriptions to Maoist newsletters, holistic midwives and subversive autoharpists, the Fruitarian Network telling people not to mow their lawns, the people who listened to them, apparently, until their houses were hidden in woods, Peter Pan socialists who'd peaked at 17 when they held the sit-in in the principal's office and even a beatnik or two -- I walked into the Takoma Park library one night and heard a guy declaiming at a poetry reading:

Come dance the moist fandango!


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