When Frederick Avenue was a bustling thoroughfare, leading from Rockville's predominantly black Lincoln Park neighborhood into the center of the city, the building known as the Red Barn was a well-kept apartment house.
That was before Metrorail--before Frederick Avenue was closed for subway construction and the Red Barn's residents suddenly found themselves with their backs to the tracks, cut off from the rest of the city.
Nowadays, grumbling Red Barn residents tinker with their cars in the street in front of the deteriorating building and gaze suspiciously at approaching strangers. They call themselves forgotten and curse their lot as black, poor residents of a largely white and affluent area.
For more than a year, Lincoln Park residents have had to take roundabout routes to do their shopping, banking, laundry and other chores, or risk walking across the railroad and Metrorail tracks, which are side by side. Now a large concrete and metal pedestrian bridge is about to be completed, and Rockville officials believe it will give residents of this area sufficient access to the city.
Mayor William E. Hanna Jr. admits the Lincoln Park community, home of approximately 400 families, has been cut off from central Rockville. He also concedes that in an emergency, it would take more time for an ambulance or fire truck to reach the area.
There are no supermarkets, pharmacies or post offices on Lincoln Park's dozen or so streets. All these necessities are on the other side of the tracks.
Although officials explain that Lincoln Park's direct west access to Rockville had to be cut off for the good of the entire city, residents of the Red Barn have a different view.
"It is because we are black," said one man angrily. "If we were white they wouldn't dare do what they have done here. Nobody cares about the black residents of Rockville."
Cornelius Wilson, one of the few Frederick Avenue residents who agreed to be identified, rubbed his chin and added in despair, "There is nothing you can do about it; you can't fight government.
"We tried to do something about this a few years ago," Wilson said. "This is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, and I think the officials have done the neighborhood a serious injustice."
The closed-off end of Frederick Avenue is decaying in parts. Residents say drug dealers and prostitutes are infiltrating their neighborhood.
It has been a year since Frederick Avenue was closed. Residents call the construction project an "Iron Curtain" or "Berlin Wall" and are concerned for the preservation of their community, which for nearly 100 years has been known as Rockville's black neighborhood. And they do not like the spiraling design of the pedestrian bridge.
"I have a daughter in a wheelchair, and I don't intend to risk her life letting her cross that high-winding ramp," said Norma Duffin, president of the neighborhood civic association. "And it is going to be so hard on the old people."
The cutoff came after a long battle between Lincoln Park residents and city officials, which began in the mid-1970s.
At the time, Rockville officials realized that the vehicular bridge across the B&O tracks at Frederick Avenue would have to be closed to allow for Metrorail construction.
They began planning construction of a new vehicular bridge, a few blocks north at Ashley Avenue, and in 1976 appropriated $2.9 million for the project. The east-west bridge was to replace Lincoln Park's lost access.
Lincoln Park residents, although not pleased at losing their main street, were satisfied. But later that year, the City Council decided not to build the bridge and to use the funds instead for renovation of the Park Road underpass, adjacent to the planned Rockville Metro station.
"We were shocked," Duffin said of the shift in plans. "The total disregard for our needs was unbelievable."
Now Lincoln Park motorists can leave their community only by driving south on Stonestreet Avenue through an industrial district to Park Road, then doubling back into central Rockville. Or they can drive northeast on Dover Road, a residential street, to Rte. 355 and backtrack. Or they can go north through another industrial area and backtrack to the city.
"I have driven down Stonestreet toward Park during the morning and evening rush hours and have waited nearly half an hour to get onto Park Road, where there is a yield sign," Duffin said. "Not only is the way out of this community now time consuming, but the depression that you feel when driving through an industrial area is overwhelming."
Duffin lives in a small, well-kept house that is typical of Lincoln Park homes. But she points to the increasingly run-down Red Barn and expresses fear that the whole community might "go that way" because of isolation.
"If enough people get depressed you are going to see them move away and this whole neighborhood will close down," Duffin said. "It is hard now, but what will happen when Metro opens?"
Hanna does not believe Lincoln Park will close down. He does not agree that the community is "totally isolated" although he conceded that it is more difficult than it used to be for residents to leave the community.
"It was an unfortunate circumstance, as far as Lincoln Park is concerned, but we had to make a decision in favor of the overall community versus one neighborhood," Hanna said. "Had the Ashley Avenue bridge gone up it would have negatively affected two communities, although it would have benefitted Lincoln Park. More importantly, we needed the money to renovate the Park Road underpass, which will be a direct route for Metro traffic.
"That is simple mathematics. Two communities cannot suffer for the benefit of one," he added.
The two communities, College Gardens and West End, are predominantly white and affluent, but Hanna denies that the decision not to build the bridge was racially motivated. He points to the planned Gude Drive extension, which will run a major highway just behind the College Gardens area, where he lives.
"We have to put things into perspective," the mayor said. "Anyone who is fair will see that the council made an identical, tough decision in the mayor's own neighborhood in face of strong opposition."
Richard Haight, a Rockville council member until 1978 who was involved in the Ashley Drive bridge decision, said cutting off Lincoln Park may not have been a racial move, but it was definitely political.
"I think the present mayor and council don't give a hoot about the neighborhood, because the residents did not support them in the last election," Haight said. "At the time, I begged the mayor to pay more attention to Lincoln Park and give them access. Instead the council gave the residents that stupid spiral bridge. I never understood this."
Haight said he was "flabbergasted" at the decision against building the Ashley Avenue bridge.
"The oldest neighborhood in town and the council simply cut them off," Haight said. "How would you like to have to go to the laundry and drive around in circles to get there?"