Rockville Pike offered little in the way of roadside distractions when Gen. Edward Braddock marched his troops up it back in 1755. There was no mattress emporium, no muffler shop, no place to get quick cash or an Egg McMuffin. And, if heaven could be thanked for many things, 7-Eleven was not among them.
What stands along the Pike today most likely would terrify Braddock and his troops as much as any mortal enemy.
The dusty Indian trail of centuries ago is now a six-lane swath of concrete with all the trimmings of modern America. Maligned as an eyesore, a tawdry slice of sprawl, a monument to ersatz -- to some the Pike is all of this and more. It is the Main Street of the suburbs, the likes of which Sinclair Lewis never dreamed.
Midafternoon. Traffic on the Pike is moderate along the five-mile stretch from White Flint Mall to the city of Rockville that each day is worn down by about 50,000 cars.
At the landmark on one end of the Pike, Serio's vegetable stand, an oversized American sedan pulls up and noses into a wagon of peach-laden baskets. Two half-bushels overturn and Catoctin Mountain peaches, as big as softballs, bounce onto the parking lot in all directions.
John Serio rolls his eyes. For 22 years, customers have been crashing into his peaches. His brick and awning stand is sandwiched between a 7-Eleven and a Burger Chef like a Rockwell painting between two works of pop art.
"When I came here in 1946, Rockville Pike was a little snaky road north of Bethesda. It was a single lane, there were woods all around." Those were the days when peach sales were higher -- 1,000 bushels a week -- and Serio would pile canteloupes right along the road.
Eventful days still loom in Serio's memory. "I remember when Khrushchev and Eisenhower came up the Pike. It was lined with people waiting for them to go by. Boy, did we do a landover business that day."
The changes that have come to the Pike are not lamented by the vegetable man. "We grew with the area," he said. "I'm tickled to death to see it grow." He is tickled, in particular, by the fact that of all the produce markets that once lined the road, his is the only survivor.
"The ugliest place in Maryland." That is what a Montgomery County council member said of the Pike 15 years ago. What commerce has wrought in 1964 was indeed a world apart from the era in the early 1800s when a stagecoach ran the route twice a week from Georgetown to Frederick.
From the start, however, the Pike was a product of commercial pressures. It was not built for scenic tours of the Maryland countryside, but for rolling hogsheads of tobacco down to the Georgetown docks. Its surface began as dirt, a muck in heavy rain. Then came a log corduroy, then planks, before the road was the first to be paved in the county in 1817.
The Pike's modern-day look emerged in 1955, 20 years after the last trolley rolled, with the emergence of the area's first shopping center. The Congressional Plaza is still there, a great L-shaped reef of stores that looks like a remnant of the "Happy Days" decade.
What happened to the Pike over the next 10 years was a "classic example of lack of planning," said Steve Rubin, a vice president of the company that manages Congressional Plaza. "An urban planning philosophy that was present 20 years ago is reflected in the mishmash of the Pike."
For the last 15 years, at least, there have been periodic attacks on the anything-goes style along the Pike.
In 1966, the city of Rockville launched Operation DeUglification, which was primarily an attempt to get rid of the road's utility poles and wires. Former Rockville Mayor Achilles Tuchtan remembers that the program was only a partial success. The city failed to get above ground lines buried along the Pike, but underground lines were made mandatory for new developments along the pike within the city limits.
Four years later, in 1970, flashing lights were banned along the Pike. David Gold, manager of George's, an appliance and furniture store in the Dart Drug shopping center, rues the day they had to turn off George's sign, whose thousands of light bulbs and sweeping script epitomized the shopping center baroque of its time.
"That sign used to flicker until they made us turn it off," said Gold, his hands energized by the memory, moving this way and that to depict the sight. "Oh, you should have seen it. It would go black, then red, then yellow. The G would light up, then the E, and the O. Then the rest of the word. Oh, it was so colorful. It was like New York City, only better. We spent a fortune on that sign.
With the 1970s came a new vision of shopping centers. Malls, they were called, and foremost among them along the Pike was White Flint. They were finely detailed and well-landscaped centers that some planners say substantially improved the look of the Pike. The malls were a product, in design at least, of the county's increasingly sophisticated zoning devices.
"The strip has always had haphazard zoning," said Jerry Korpeck, a land use lawyer who handled the zoning for White Flint. "What's changing and enhancing the image is zoning like White Flint. You won't have a driveway every 50 feet."
Added Al Blumberg, a planner with the county park and planning commission: "Malls are preferable to a string of driveways. Commercial strips are the worst thing that can happen. Everybody gets a sign. There's a whole string of lights and fluttering banners saying, 'Come to MY Store,' and little parking lots that increase storm flow. The total ambiance . . . turns people off."
But to the people who make a living along the Pike, looks do not really count. Exposure is what matters, and in that sense their road is paved with gold. Those 50,000 cars that drive up and down each day carry two and three times that many potential customers -- well-to-do customers, for the most part, from a county that is one of the wealthiest in the nation.
Exposure is what affords life to curious businesses like the Chocolate Box in Congressional Plaza. Owner Rochell Jaffe says that the Pike is "an incredible headache." But only, when she drives it. When she is at work, the Pike is her lifeline.
"We wanted the visibility. It's just basic," said Jaffe, explaining why she recently moved her store to a location on the Pike. "There's more people up on the Pike. We would have survived before, but now we're in business."
Pontiac dealer Tom Hatton is one of seven car dealers along the Pike, feeding more cars into a system that highway engineers rate as "D9" A "D is one step away from an "F," and an "F" means that a stalled moped could back up traffic for five miles.
"I like the way it is," said Hatton. "I like the shopping centers and malls. Hatton also likes the fact that his business has grown from sales of 20 cars a month to more than 100 -- an increase that coincidentally mirrors the surge in traffic over the last five years.
No corporation has taken better advantage of the Pike than Marriott, the food and hotel operation that on one five-mile strip owns a Big Boy, Roy Rogers and Hot Shoppe. "We're very pleased with our operations on the Pike," said Marriott official Roger Conner, in a mild understatement. "Bill Marriott said there are three key things -- location, location, location."
But Howard Fox, a 24-year-old law school graduate who grew up in the sprawl of suburban Washington, said something quite different, and he said it with biting sarcasm. "Isn't that (the Pike) the most tasteful place? My favorite spot is the Korvette's parking lot. There's nothing growing."
It is hard to say what makes a drably decorated place such as Dietle's Tavern more colorful than the more modern establishments along the Pike. Perhaps it is the sign on the wall that says: "Surliness and flies no charge. This is a bar, not a restaurant." Or maybe it is an entree on the lunch menu -- liver and onions -- $1.25. The charm of such a human place, in any event, fairly leaps out at you along a Pike whose images largely are shaped by corporation.
The brick and wood frame building that houses the tavern was built in 1916. It was a general store with gasoline pumps out front, and, on Sundays, a service was held.
"There's no other place between here and Rockville like Dietle's, to my knowledge," said one customer. "Look at the pictures of fishing trips on the wall. It's nonair-conditioned, nonplastic. It's the only place I know without snobbishness and credit cards."
They are vestiges of another time, places like Dietle's and Serio's vegetable stand. How long they remain on the Pike depends, as one fellow said at Dietle's, on "how long the old people have it."
The Pike the old people knew 20 and 30 years ago, set beside what is there today, is nearly as foreign as Braddock's path.It is almost as though the Pike no longer connects with the places it once did.