There are as many ways to look at the Washington area as there are cities, counties and neighborhoods scattered around the Beltway.
Geopolitical thinkers see Washington as the dot at the end of an exclamation point of urban sprawl that stretches north to Boston.
Developers and conservationists tend to ignore the familiar landmarks on the map and look at the blank spaces, where they see the future.
Politicians see wards, precincts and clusters of special interest. Retailers see not cities or counties, but trade areas, shopping malls surrounded by concentric circles of consumers.
As an archeologist, Conrad Bladey looks more closely than most of us and yet views the world from a great distance.
When he walks the streets of Laurel, Md., where he lives, he sees yards not as green grass, flowering begonias, and ripening tomatoes but as cultural artifacts. The occasional unkempt yard amidst manicured zoysia reveals as much as a family Bible about the cultural heritage of the occupant.
The Laurel that Bladey sees is neither a race track town nor a congestion of clutter along Route 1. What he sees is a snapshot of the late 20th century.
To him, Laurel is a 17th century manorial estate that, after 300 years, is still evolving into what Bladey calls "the inevitable city." The city, in turn, will mature, ripen and then -- as surely as flowers wilt in the August sun -- began an inexorable slide into urban decay.
That is, perhaps, a singular view of the world, but then Conrad Bladey is not your usual suburbanite. He is, he says, "the municipal archeologist of Laurel, the only municipal archeologist in Maryland."
"Municipal Archeologist" is a title, not a job, a station not unlike that of some displaced Russian who still carries the rank of duke or count as if the Kremlin were Buckingham Palace.
Though he occasionally digs and pokes in the dirt like the stereotypical archeologist, Bladey spends more than a little of the time between unemployment checks thinking about what some 25th century student of American Civilization will find when the excavators unearth the community on the northern fringes of Washington. What they find is not unlike what will be dug up at other "archeological sites" around the vast ribbon of concrete that encircles what was in the late 20th century the center of Western culture.
The history of the nation and the meaning of its monuments may well be recorded, but what will future generations know about the way people lived?
From the archeologists' perspective, Laurel is far enough from Ground Zero not to have been swallowed up by the explosion of population that turned a swamp by the Potomac into a great city.
Yet in ways that are surprising, Bladey says that Laurel is an excellent specimen of life as we know it. "Laurel is encapsulated. Its past happened right around the corner and its future is a couple of blocks away." ost of what is now Laurel, he explains, was given in 1658 to a Welchman named Snowden, a 12,000-acre land grant that grew into an even bigger estate eventually spawning a village and a mill and, finally, a town.
Economists say America is evolving into a service economy, a system in which the manufacture of goods will not be as important as the exchange of services.
Laurel has had a service economy for about a hundred years, says Bladey, ever since the flour and cloth mills closed up. Just as industrial archeologists will link Japanese autos to the abandonment of auto plants in Michigan, he has an idea of why the mills shut down.
It was the death of sailing ships that did it. The abandoned mill that Laurel city fathers would like to turn into a shopping mall or something constructive once wove cotton duck, raw fabric for the sail makers of Baltimore.
When the sales of sails dried up, the millers tried to find something else to weave, but the limits of transportation and trade left no alternative. So Laurel turned to trade and services, the economic future of America.
For a couple of decades, Bladey says, "The business of our city has been selling lots and building houses." New houses bring new people, enabling the declining downtown to sprout boutiques and creating a market for the prototypical 20th-century shopping mall at the south edge of town.
It has progressed through phases he describes as "the mill town," "the capitalist phase," "the Our Town phase" and now is in the midst of a long era dubbed "the inevitable city."
Regardless of what Prince George's County planners do or do not do, Laurel is becoming a city, the archeologist says. Its economy already depends more on its own growth than on its role as a bedroom community. Going-out-of-business sales and zoning fights are but minor digressions from the plot line of history. Fast food joints and garden apartments are simply the artifacts of an emerging civilization.