The Maryland lottery machine has caused business to pick up at Wallace's Market in North Brentwood. But even so, 56-year-old Clarence Wallace has put the little store up for sale. He decided that after 27 years, he's tired of long hours and the responsibility of managing the place where neighbors gather to chat and buy beer and sandwiches, where children come for bread and bubblegum.
"I really hope a black buys it," the soft-spoken storekeeper said. He wants the new owner to be a part of the little black town. But so far, he says, the only interested buyers are a Korean and an East Indian. A foreign storekeeper could be a major change for this sleepy town, where content residents sit on the porches of their wood frame homes and watch time creep by.
Wallace, a widower, said that he and his wife, both government employes, moved across the District line to North Brentwood because they wanted to raise their children in a close-knit community. To have more time to be together as a family, Wallace said that he and his wife bought the store and lived in the apartment above it.
North Brentwood is just six miles northeast of the U.S. Capitol. If you manage to find the turn for Webster Street, which leads you behind the liquor stores and body shops strung along busy Rhode Island Avenue, your entrance into North Brentwood is rather like stepping off a Greyhound bus into a dusty South Carolina community.
It is a place where dogs nap lazily beneath the bumpers of aging cars while old men work in their gardens or sit around picnic benches drinking beer and playing cards.
It is also the home of Ralph Nash, who has lived on the streets of North Brentwood longer than most residents can remember. Most any time that it's not raining or snowing, Nash can be found by the tennis courts or behind the 4400 Club, a Korean-run liquor store on Rhode Island Avenue. Nash says residents look out for him, give him food or let him sleep in their basements when it gets cold.
Lately Nash has taken a liking to John Collins' porch. Collins, a financial analyst for U.S. News and World Report and one of the two or three white residents, chuckles "I'm the only gringo in town." Collins says the little black town has received him well.
North Brentwood hasn't always been so peaceful, recalls Albert Johnson, 70, a former town councilman and the town's last police commissioner. In the 1930's, he said, there was a beer garden called "The Bucket of Blood, where you could get your head picked bald." The other noteworthy spot, according to residents, was Sis' Tavern on Rhode Island Avenue, noted for Saturday night brawls, complete with cuttings and shootings--especially if unwanted outsiders wandered in.
Sis' closed in 1969 or 1970, about the same time that the town's part-time, four-man police department folded, said Johnson, an outspoken man who is president of the North Brentwood Senior Citizens Club. County police have enforced the law since then.
According to long-time residents, the area was settled in the late 1800s by black farmers who called it Randallstown. Most of that land was owned by Capt. W.A. Bartlett, commander of a Negro regiment in the Civil War. As the story goes, Bartlett was so impressed with his black troops that in 1905 he deeded this tract of land to several of the soldiers' families. The name was later changed to North Brentwood and it was incorporated in 1924.
The one-tenth-of-a-square-mile town is sandwiched between Mount Rainier and Hyattsville. The town's only assets are the municipal building and a truck. Most of the $60,000 annual budget goes to a private garbage collection firm, modest salaries to five town officials and for repair of the streets and the truck.
Once, about 35 years ago, when the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River still flooded the town regularly, North Brentwood boasted a doctor, a dentist, a lawyer, two churches, a school, a lumberyard, a barbershop, three beauty parlors, three taverns and a restaurant.
Today a levy holds back the river, but there are no schools and no doctors. One prospering enterprise is the First Baptist Church, whose pastor, the Rev. Perry A. Smith, is an aspiring politician, having been a candidate for Congress last year. But except for the liquor stores and repair shops on Rhode Island Avenue, which residents don't really count as theirs, the only businesses left are Wallace's store and the barber shop.
After putting years of hard work into the store, and with business picking up, Wallace would like to see another black benefit from his labors. His 30-year-old son, Gregory, who also works at the store, fears that both black and white customers might resent the store being taken over by immigrants. "There are old prejudices that linger around here," Gregory Wallace said.
The size of the town has declined from 864 residents in 1960 to 580 in 1980. Most of them are retired government or University of Maryland workers whose families have lived there for decades. "The youngsters don't stay here, they grow up and move into apartments," Johnson said.
Much to the consternation of many residents in both towns, North Brentwood and adjoining Brentwood are often lumped together. There are no physical boundaries separating them, but the differences are marked. Predominantly white Brentwood has more than three times the population of its neighbor and except for sending their children to the same schools, residents of the towns rarely mingle.
"I first walked into this town in 1929," recalls 69-year-old Raymond A. Hall, who was reelected to his ninth term as mayor in early May. The thin, energetic, gray-haired man recalled that "when I first came here, the streetcar to Hyattsville from D.C. used to run by here. You jumped off and walked through some bushes to get here."
There have been changes in North Brentwood, the mayor insists. In 1969, the old elementary school was torn down and children of North Brentwood entered the era of integration by attending school in Brentwood. In the mid-1970s, North Brentwood received its first federal community development grants for repaving streets, fixing up old houses and for building, at long last, sidewalks! But according to Hall, the big coup was in 1975 when the town convinced the Park and Planning Commission to replace the old school with a $400,000 recreation center and tennis courts.
Wallace got rid of the lottery machine a few weeks ago because he was overwhelmed by the steady flow of customers. But being civic minded and soft hearted, he brought the lottery back, yielding to public pressure from residents who didn't want to leave North Brentwood to play their numbers.
Though Wallace wants to sell the store, he says this is home. "I'll stay in the area. I'm not going far."