Rockville. The name could hardly be more uninspiring. It connotes boring. It sounds average. It invites no curiosity.
But in the past 20 years, Rockville's history has been more interesting than its name. Once a quaint county seat that seemed to Washingtonians like it was north of nowhere, Rockville is now Montgomery County's capital of high-tech industry and excruciating traffic jams. Its once endless open spaces have given way to shopping malls and fast food restaurants and discount stores. Once affordable housing has become less affordable to the sort of young professional families that moved to Rockville in droves in the 1950's to escape the high prices of downtown Washington.
Rockville's once neighborly city government has spawned political factions and reform movements and urban task forces.
The story of Rockville's rapid growth since 1950 is the story of Main Street, U.S.A.: It is the story of suburbia's urbanization, of the melding of small town values and big city problems, a story repeated in thousands of small towns across the nation whose profiles changed dramatically during the post-war development boom.
In many ways, Rockville has grown from town to city in ways appropriate to its uninspiring label: Although it is now the second largest city in Maryland, 44,000 residents crammed into 11.5 square miles, it lacks the charm of the smaller state capital, Annapolis, or the picturesque beauty of Frederick, or the ethnicity of Takoma Park, or the industrial character of Hagerstown and Cumberland.
Rockville is the archetypal All-American city--it has been given the All-American city award four times in the past 30 years (more than Philadelphia or Baltimore)--a city with no particular identity (although it is struggling to create one), but with what residents and city officials often refer to as a "balanced community" and a "model government."
Like other model cities, Rockville in 1983 boasts of twice weekly trash pickups (and a computerized trash collection route), special leaf and newspaper pick-ups, an historic preservation society, a resident theater company, and a sister city in Germany.
Even today, its biggest claim to fame is that it is the site of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave (located at St. Mary's church, now on a busy intersection of Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike), and the film site for a Hollywood movie ("Lilith") in the 1960s.
In 1983, Rockville, in essence, is a big-time small town.
"Nobody would ever dream of going up there voluntarily," county official Edmond F. Rovner says of Rockville in the 1950's. "There was nothing near Rockville. Once you got there you knew you had arrived. North of Rockville you could fall off the end of the earth."
Rockville in 1950 was quiet and tame, a remnant of its prerevolutionary and Southern ancestry: It had quaint Victorian homes that had been used as getaways from "the miasmic swamps of Washington," as one 1890's advertisement put it; the post office; the court house; the only movie theater north of Bethesda (the Villa); Radford's bakery; Irv Schwartz' Colony Shop; Marian's Restaurant; Millie's Tavern; and the Chestnut Lodge Hotel.
Its 7,000 residents were mostly county and federal workers who car-pooled to Washington and went to Richard Montgomery High School every Saturday afternoon to cheer on the "town" football team.
There was an indigenous black commmunity, descended from slaves and freemen who came to Rockville before the Civil War, many of whom lived in shacks on streets that were still unpaved. They lived in neighborhoods such as Lincoln Park and Martin's Lane and were strictly Republican (that was party of Abraham Lincoln and Rockville was in many ways still a Southern town).
In the early 1950's, the city's pump house had segregated drinking fountains and public toilets.
Rockville started to outgrow its small-town status in the mid-1950's because of two special things: water and sewers.
"Because the town had its own water and sewer system, it was able to expand," says Alexander Greene, the city's mayor from 1958 to 1962. "In effect, this assured utilities and thus development." With water, sewers, and low- priced housing attracting new residents, Rockville had exploded to a population of 26,000 by 1960. With the expansion came unforseen social problems.
"We had constant deterioration in the guts of the town. There were vagrants and derelicts. There was a great fear of the new overriding the old," recalls Greene, one of the original leaders of the Citizens for Good Government, a reform group that was created during a water shortage in the mid 1950's and that controlled Rockville politics for nearly 20 years.
"We looked at urban renewal as a way to spur investment and make a viable central city."
The struggle over urban renewal was Rockville's adolescence: It was an awkward period of trying to cope with growing pains. The city expanded its commercial tax base to bring in more revenues and planned a highly successful business strip along Rockville Pike. But the centerpiece of Rockville's urban renewal, a shopping mall in the town center, was a disaster from the start. There were inadequate roads leading to the site and an absentee developer. Interested department stores lost enthusiasm, partly because of delays at the federal level, and ultimately located at Montgomery Mall and White Flint south of Rockville's borders.
"The mall became a joke," says former mayor William Hanna, who by 1974 had ousted the Citizens for Good Government with a newer movement called Independents for Rockville. "What made it irritating was that everything else in the city was thriving. It's been a real sad thing for all of us."
Says former city council member Phyllis Fordham, echoing many civic activists: "There are some people in Rockville today who want to tear down the mall. It's not a terribly practical idea . But it's a wonderful thought. An absolutely wonderful thought."
For awhile the city's focus shifted almost entirely to attracting business and development and fortifying its already healthy economy. An endless string of businesses opened on Rockville Pike, and with the completion of Interstate 270, high-tech firms moved in. By 1970 Rockville had 42,000 residents and would be home to companies such as Hewlett Packard, Calculon, Honeywell Information, Litton Bionetics, and many others.
But the shuffle over urban renewal and development left some casualties. The average cost of a new home in Rockville is now $132,000, too costly for many young families to afford. User fees already have been established for some recreational facilities and for some health services that used to be provided free. To make room for new development, the idea of historic preservation faded into the background for several years, only to blossom fully again in the mid-1970s.
Perhaps most disturbing was a conflict between the City Council and the black community in Lincoln Park--one of the most stable and rooted communities in the county--over road access to the planned Rockville Metro stop. The wound of this battle still has not healed, and many prominent black leaders say that as a result of the metro controversy they feel isolated from the city and its government.
In the past few years Rockville officials have tried to strike a better balance between old and new, to learn from the mistakes of the boom era. Historic buildings have been restored throughout the town, and the civic center is housed in a beautiful old mansion. The blemished town center is undergoing a facelift. The new high-rise county office buildings are complete--solidifying Rockville's identity as the county seat--and plans are underway for a hotel and more office spaces in the downtown area. The Metro station is due to open in 1984.
"Basically years ago the attitude was that the city should be a residential area only, an overgrown recreation center or summer camp, if you will," says the city's new mayor, John Freeland, an Air Force colonel who moved to Rockville in 1961."But if we didn't have an industrial base we couldn't provide the services to our people. We do things differently than the county. We are closest to the people and we feel we can be helpful."
For the privilege of living there, Rockville residents today pay about 18 percent more in property tax than other county residents. In return, city officials say, Rockville's $20 million annual budget provides its residents with the advantages of a water and sewer system, various trash collections, efficient snow removal, a city police force of 29 officers that supplements the regular county police, and a responsive local government.
And there are other extras: a city ordinance that requires that 1 percent of all public spaces be devoted to works of art; special orientation meetings for new Rockville residents; a variety of recreational facilities and activities, and numerous programs for the elderly.
"It works because there is a lot less red tape," says city manager Larry Blick, who is credited by many city officials for the city's smooth operations. "And there is a very active citizenry here."
Despite its 30-year boom, Rockville, in many ways, is still the small town that it was in 1950, and many residents cling to the feeling of living in a small community. The mayor, who is paid $4,800 a year, and four council members, who make $2,400, are elected in nonpartisan elections for two-year terms. They preside over 350 city employes and volunteer citizen commissions of every sort.
City activists always talk about "the mural," a wall-size depiction of Rockville's Memorial Day parade that is being painted in city hall, and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theater, and sidewalks that are inventoried annually and repaved every four to seven years.
"There is a definite community spirit here, although there is a tendency to slip into being another part of suburbia," says Phyllis Fordham, who is now active in the city's historic preservation society.
"I think there is a Rockville identity. The question is, does everybody who lives here know about it?"