It wasn't always necessary to call it old Bowie, since it used to be the only Bowie there was -- a turn of-the-century railroad community in eastern Prince George's County where 800 people lived in wood-frame houses.

But that was before the arrival in the mid-'60s of a New Bowie -- the Belair community in Old Bowie's back yard, now home to 30,000 people.

It was also before age began to catch up with Old Bowie's buildings, many of which were built before 1940 and have not been significantly improved since.

And before crap shooters and loitering drunks became everyday sights on Bowie streets -- so commonplace that some Belair residents say they drive 10 miles out of their way to avoid the area.

For a long time, "Old Bowie was down," says former mayor Bill Wildman, who has lived in the area all his life. "Down, and damn near out."

There is no shortage of suggestions on how to revive Bowie.

Next month the Bowie City Council will consider a plan that some residents say would forever turn Old Bowie into a "theme park" rather than a "real city."

The plan, drawn up by an Annapolis consulting firm, would tilt Old Bowie's commercial center almost entirely in the direction of one kind of business -- antique shops.

Since 1972, 30 antique shops have sprouted in Old Bowie, in buildings that used to house such now-failed businesses as an upholstery shop, a dry goods store, an art gallery and a liquor store.

Most of the antique shops are owned ans operated by whites who do not live in Old Bowie, which is about 40 percent black. None of the shops permanently employ any blacks who live in Old Bowie, say antique dealers.

The antique shops are housed in 13 buildings, all within shuddering distance of the Amtrak trains that barrel through town at 85 miles an hour. The buildings are clustered together much as they are in New Market and Ellicott City, two of Maryland's primary antique centers.

It is no mystery why the antique shops cropped up in Old Bowie: the rent is cheap. "I'd be in Georgetown in a minute if I could afford it," says Abbie Banks, owner of Images Antiques.

However, Old Bowie's antique shops have been burglarized at least 45 times since 1975, according to county police. In addition, eight fires said to have been caused by arson occured in Old Bowie antique shops during the same period. Break-ins have been so frequent that one antique shop owner has taken to leaving five dollars in change on a counter so burglars won't disturb the valuable furniture.

But, far worse for the community, crimes against antique shops have tended to be racially tinged.

According to P.G. County detectives, eight young men have been arrested for antique shop burglaries since 1975. All have been black residents of Old Bowie.

Antique dealers and community leaders of both races speculate that the burglaries have been committed because local blacks are angry at the presence of white-owned businesses.

As black community leaders point out, blacks -- drawn by jobs with the railroad, or at nearby Bowie State College and Bowie Race Course -- have lived in Bowie at least as long as whites, and in many cases longer.

Despite black anger, the consultant's plan for Old Bowie would make it possible for the number fo antique shops there to double. The plan would also provide more than 100 new parking spaces, space for specialty shops, a town green and improved curbs, sidewalks and landscaping.

But the major effect of the plan would be to "spend" almost all the land in Old Bowie that is now zoned commercial on antique shops. This would close the door on any other kind of significant business development in a community that has not had a full-service grocery since the mid-'70s, or a dry cleaner or department store since at least 10 years earlier.

The City Council's decision will thus have wide-ranging effects on Old Bowie's image, its desirability as a place to live, its employment picture and its often-rocky race relations.

The community faces these questions about its future at a time when federal money to upgrade basic public facilities is being spent in Old Bowie at a record rate.

In the last three years, the city government has poured $1.3 million in federal community development block grand funds into street improvements and construction of sidewalks, curbs and gutters.Later this year, another $475,000 will be spent to turn an abandoned school two blocks from Antique Row into a community center.

The consultant's plan that the City Council will consider in September would cost $1 million or more to execute. But city officials expect aditional block grant funds to be available.

Meanwhile, Howell Mole, a local commercial developer, is about to open an 11-unit building along Ninth Street, Old Bowie's main business strip. It will be the first major commercial development in Old Bowie in 35 years. Mole said he expects most of his tenants -- if not all -- to be antique dealers.

Which makes Darius Hinton, an unemployed 18-year-old resident of Old Bowie, extremely unhappy.

"What the hell do we need more antique shops for?" Hinton asked the other evening as he sat on the rickety bridge that carries Chestnut Avenue over the Amtrak main line in the center of Old Bowie, and nipped from a bottle of wine.

"I need a job, and I ain't getting no job from no antique shop.

"They're trying to turn this into Georgetown or something, and it's the same thing: how many black folks you see working down there?"

Hinton, who is black, said he and his black friends in Old Bowie resent the protective steps some antique shop owners have taken as much as he lack of employment at the shops.

"You look over there," Hinton said, gesturing at a nearby antique shop whose front stoop was covered with broken beer bottles.

"That lady put up burglar alarms and screens and everything. She won't let us sit on the steps; says it's bad for business. Hell, yes we're gonna resent it."

Resentment also festers over the reluctance of antique shop owners to permit black browsers.

"If a black kid comes in my store," said one businesswoman, "He'll be asked to leave. Pronto."

The racial tension between Old Bowie blacks and business owners served as the underpinning for one of the community's ugliest incidents.

A white volunteer fireman, Mark Mullikan, who was assigned to the firehouse on Ninth Streets in Old Bowie, was charged in 1978 with setting three fires in the community late at night, two of them at Ninth Street antique shops.

Two other volunteer firemen, also white, were charged in the cases, but charges were dropped when they turned state's evidence.

Mulikan was acquitted of one charge of attempting to burn down Fireside Antiques, but pleaded guilty to subsequent arson attempt at the same location and was placed on probation. A third charge, attempted arson at an abandoned house in Old Bowie, was dropped.

"The antique dealers wanted to put it on the local blacks, and the locals knew it wasn't any of them, but they didn't want to say anything," said George Webster, the 29-year-old chief of the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department.

"The black kids in this community do everything else. It would have looked easy to pin that on them," said one longtime Old Bowie resident, a white who was a key witness in the Mullikan case.

George Webster is so suspicious of local black youths that he has declared his firehouse off-limits to them.

"We had a $600 television walk out of here," Webster said. "Then it was tools and some other stuff. So we had one boy from here (a fireman) go up to one of the local blacks and say he wanted his stuff back, no questions asked.

"It came back. Which tells me something."

"Many local black adults think employment and pride of ownership would go a long way toward eliminating such crimes. Their feelings about Old Bowie's becoming Antique Alley thus range from doubt to disgust.

"Most of the time, this is a slow community," said Anthony Henry, a builder who lives on 10th Street. "If they build this into a pretty site, with a lot of traffic but without jobs for kids, it could be trouble."

"It's the wrong way to go about it," said another Old bowie Black. "They should put an industrial park in here."

Indeed, the city hopes to do so nearby. It owns a 105-acre site about a mile from the center of Old Bowie, and a feasibility study completed in May estimates the site could produce between 800 and 2,400 jobs.

However, one factor that could prevent an industrial park from being built is the impending shift of Rte. 197.

Now a two-lane road that pases through Old Bowie on its way north to Laurel and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Rte. 197 will be expanded to four lanes next year -- but on a new route that will bypass Old Bowie.

"The only people who will come to Old Bowie will be people who want to," said one antique dealer.

Nevertheless, Bill Wildman sees the consultant's proposal for more antique shops as the only way Old Bowie can profitably go.

"What you have to ask is what would happen if the antique dealers went away," he said.

"There'd be vacant buildings, that's what, and they'd be burned down, probably. Nobody wants that."