An article in yesterday's Maryland Weekly ("The Graying of Bowie") incorrectly reported that the Long & Foster real estate office in Bowie had been closed. The office at 7414 Laurel-Bowie Rd. is open.
Bowie is getting old. In the last 10 years deaths have risen by 73 percent. Births have fallen by more than 50 percent. The population has dropped from 35,028 to 33,677, as children have married and moved away.
Six Bowie schools have closed. Residents are trying to turn one into an apartment building for senior citizens and another already houses a new senior citizens center. Property set aside six years ago for new schools is being sold off, and town houses for elderly residents are being built on a 10-acre tract once designated for a new elementary school.
In 1970, 49 percent of the population was younger than 19. By 1980, only 37 percent was in that group, and 39 percent was over 35. "At the present trend," says Gerry Devlin, a Democratic state delegate from the city, "Bowie is going to be a bit of a geriatric community."
The people of Bowie are growing old together. When the Levitt Corp. carved out its subdivisions in the early 1960s it attracted large numbers of young couples. Between 50 and 80 homes were built each day and Bowie quickly changed from a quiet railroad town of 1,064 to Maryland's third largest city.
"People that were 40 we thought were old," recalled Nancy O'Brien, now 48, who moved with her family to a new house in Bowie in 1962. "Everybody on the block had babies."
Audrey E. Scott and her husband John arrived in Bowie with three preschool children in 1966. Now, at 46, she is mayor of an aging town. "You don't think about the fact that you're getting older," she said of that time.
But suddenly there was no escaping the fact. These young couples found themselves attending high school graduations, paying college tuition and helping plan their children's weddings.
And for the first time, they found themselves arranging funerals. The residents of a city without a funeral home and without a cemetery found themselves making the unfamiliar trek to neighboring towns to bury their dead.
In February 1981, Robert G. Beall Jr., who owned funeral homes in Lanham and Annapolis, opened Bowie's first at the corner of Annapolis Road and Route 197. It immediately became his largest operation and he closed the Lanham business.
The way of life in Bowie is changing. Business, politics, the atmosphere of the neighborhoods are all affected. The large, single-family houses are emptying.
In 1970, the average size of a Bowie household was 4.23. No other town in the state with a population greater than 4,000 had households that large. By 1980, the average had fallen to 3.56.
"In the house right next to me a woman lives all by herself," Scott said. "It's a four-bedroom house. Across from me it's the same thing. The children have all grown and left. In both cases there were divorces. In one house they had five children. That family went from seven to one in the last six years."
Nowhere is the aging of Bowie more apparent than in its schools. Six of the 22 schools Prince George's County has closed since 1977 have been in Bowie. Only six of the city's 11 elementary schools remain. School officials and the bicounty Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission predict that the remaining schools will operate at between 50 and 75 percent capacity for the next 10 years.
Belair Junior High School closed last summer and became a temporary annex for Bowie Senior High. The high school, with an enrollment of 3,137, is the county's largest senior high this year. But administrators predict that when school opens next September the student population will be only 2,500, and by 1990 it will be just 1,500.
There are no apartments and few town houses in Bowie for these children to live in when they grow up and leave home. So they leave town.
More than 90 percent of the homes in Bowie are single-family houses with three or more bedrooms; they change ownership infrequently.
People who live in the Levitt Corp.'s Country Club home, the firm's largest model with four or five bedrooms, are "still living with a payment of less than $300 a month. With that kind of mortgage it would cost more to move into a smaller house," said real estate agent Fred L. McKee. The result is that "people tend to stay put."
Last year, five real estate companies--Heritage, Medallion, Merrill Lynch, P.G. Property and Long and Foster--closed offices in Bowie. Burt Oliver, a 14-year Bowie resident and former chairman of the Bowie Planning Advisory Board, said even the relatively small property turnover in Bowie is deceptive: "It's just the same properties, turning over and over again."
New people are moving to Bowie, but many of them are elderly.
"My mother just moved into a senior citizens home," Mayor Scott said. "But the other alternative would have been for her to move with us. That is the case in a lot of Bowie families: We're at the age where, suddenly, our parents need a place to go."
In 1978, the city opened the Senior Citizens Center in the old Foxhill Elementary School. A few minutes farther down Kenhill Drive, it built the Senior Service Center for the elderly who need constant care. There are seven active senior citizens clubs in the city, and one of them has a waiting list.
Elderly citizens interviewed at the Senior Citizens Center said that, more than anything else, Bowie needs apartments for them and for young people now forced to leave the city.
"I'm living with a niece," said Mabel DeLoach. "I'd be in an apartment if they had one." Her children all have left town. "They can't afford to stay. They get married and have to go to Seat Pleasant for an apartment."
Another active member of the center, Marie Morrisey, who moved to Bowie in 1963, had the same experience. "I have two daughters," she said. "Both live out of Bowie--one in Riverdale, one in La Plata. They'd love to live in Bowie if they could afford it."
The only land in Bowie now zoned for apartments belongs to the 437 Land Corporation of Fairfax, which owns several undeveloped sections of the city. Regional Manager James DeFrancia said work will not start on apartments for 10 or 15 years. In the meantime, the corporation is building town houses in Bowie which, DeFrancia said, will "mix up the housing market, making it easier for young people to buy."
Denise and John Hazard are among a small number of young couples who live in Bowie. She is 22, he is 24, and they are the youngest people living on Idle Court in the Idlewilde section. They live in a three-bedroom house with two full bathrooms and an addition with an extra living room. "We couldn't find anything smaller," Denise Hazard said.
The Hazards are unusual because they could afford to buy a $77,000 house. "We do feel very lucky," Denise said. "A lot of my friends live in Greenbelt and Laurel, in apartments."
When her parents, Mickey and Terry Devaney, came to Bowie in the early 1960s they paid $16,200 for a four-bedroom house in the Kenilworth section. Their payments were $108 a month and Mickey Devaney said: "We wondered if we could make it."
By this spring, Devaney said, their household will have fallen in size from eight to four. Within a few years, she said, she and her husband will be alone. But they do not plan to move.
The city government has felt the effects of the aging. It now spends $70,000 a year looking after senior citizens. Before 1978, said City Manager G. Charles Moore, "there was virtually nothing" spent on the elderly.
While empty schools and senior citizens are the major effects of an aging and shrinking population, Moore said, the city government sees many smaller ones. The trash collection is smaller, he said, and water consumption is down. Requests for new baseball and softball fields, which once came to City Hall so fast that "temporaries" were built, have stopped.
Baseball is not a sport to sneer at in Bowie, where the high school team led by Coach William (Bumps) Thorne won the national championship last year. But the little leagues are fading fast.
"We used to be able to field approximately 12 teams in our county program," said Dave Committe, commissioner of Bowie Boys and Girls Club baseball. Now half the B teams in age groups 10 to 16 are missing from the roster. The number of baseball teams in the intramural program has dropped from 12 to six.
Burt Oliver said this situation can be turned around only by attracting new business to Bowie, which can provide new jobs and attract more young people. This would encourage the building of apartments, he added.
But in the meantime, he said, "the business community may be helped" by Bowie's older residents. "People are less mobile," he said, and will shop closer to home. Already, he said, local business shows signs of orienting itself to its older customers by providing more conveniences. He cites as an example the absence of even one completely self-serve gas station in Bowie.
Community activity and politics also have been affected, he said. "Volunteer groups don't have many of the old standard causes," Oliver said, having won the fights for libaries, a health center, park space. And the citizens of Bowie, he said, are "more conservative."
For a staunch Democrat like delegate Devlin, Bowie's growing conservatism is distressing. Unlike Prince George's as a whole, Bowie voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and it elected Republican Scott as its mayor. "Bowie used to be very active, liberal, aggressive," Devlin said. "Now it's a bit stand-firm."
But he said this is the natural consequence of a community where "everyone is aging at once. It's not particularly healthy."
"It is a problem," Scott agreed. "Bowie is unique: We're all approximately the same age. . . . We have all one strata. It's kind of artificial."