If poise is grace under pressure, White Flint is imperturbable. For more than two centuries, history has careened through the neighborhood without splintering its communal calm.
Redcoats, and later Rebels, tramped through; taverns outlasted temperance. Society ladies immortalized slaves, and tobacco puffed the farmers into gentlemen planters. There was an amusement park in the neighborhood once, a genteel Gay Nineties carousel along the trolley route that cut out the coming subway line.
In the din of White Flint traffic, the days of leisure seem far away. The great estates are turned to golf courses, the air park to a parking lot. The homes of the rich are now the haunts of the idle -- White Flint Mall has made shopping a spectator sport.
Yet the North Bethesda neighborhood has maintained an aura of upward mobility. There are only two major changes, vernacular and vehicular: The locals are known as Yuppies; and the private conveyances -- horses, carriages and cars -- are giving way to public conveniences -- the Metro.
"We'll take the subway," said a teen-aged girl, consulting recently in Bloomingdale's with her friend. And, stopping at a pay phone, she called the local cab company. "We'd like a cab at the I. Magnin entrance; we're going to the Grosvenor subway station." White Flint's own Metro subway station -- a half mile north of the fashionable shopping center -- opens Saturday.
The White Flint neighborhood, named for a golf course built on the former Flack estate, ranges from the B&O tracks east of Rockville Pike to Nicholson Lane and Old Georgetown Road. (The renaming of what was originally the "Nicholson Lane" Metro stop has confused some shoppers, who associate the phrase with the mall a half-mile to the south. Starting in January, the two will be linked by a 25-cent shuttle service, every 30 minutes during shopping hours, Monday through Saturday.)
The sparse development along the slope of Rockville Pike north of Bethesda, and the lingering expansiveness of the transformed estates like Georgetown Prep and Holy Cross, has partially disguised the buy-it-here buildup above Montrose Road.
Within a couple of years, however, the skyline of the White Flint corridor will take on a loftiness transforming that approach. Designs for the 200-acre area include two luxury hotels, high-rise offices and a massive mixed retail and residential development laid out around the watery amenities -- waterfalls, streams, ice rink, even a lagoon -- that have become the hallmark of the county's urban designers.
Among the proposed commercial developments is a design for an 18-story obelisk of black granite and glass, a towering marker over a reflecting pool like a darker, more sensuous echo of the Washington Monument. "It would make Nicholson Lane a landmark," according to a county planner, "the gateway to Montgomery County."
The impetus for such a transformation is, of course, the subway. Along its western leg, the Red Line has already been dubbed the "Yuppie Express," because its northwestern progression -- Dupont Circle, Cleveland Park, Friendship Heights, Bethesda -- reflects an old line of prosperity.
White Flint Shopping Mall has long been a haven for prosperous shoppers; and with the advent this weekend of the extension of the subway from the Grosvenor station, it could become the heart of the growing pre-Yuppie movement, whose members already account for a large percentage of mallflowers.
Some are school-aged second-wavers, who have grown up in the area and who earn holiday money by demonstrating Armani perfume to shoppers. ("But it's so expensive! How can you call it tacky?" asked one rebuffed purveyor.)
The others, in their twenties destined for middle-level authority in their middle age, are the new professionals of data processing and merchandising based more often in Bethesda than in the downtown business district.
These are the coffee-bean connoisseurs, like Josh Thompson, a 27-year-old systems designer who described himself as a "software doctor"; or the "vinyl freaks" like Diane, a receptionist who carries her wristcuffs in her purse because "they're too punk for my boss."
They may well be the spiritual descendants of the neighborhood, because beneath White Flint's genteel status quo lies a rather endearing streak of eccentricity.
Bluestocking Harriet Beecher Stowe became, in Abraham Lincoln's words, "the little lady who started this big war" when she remodeled the one-room cabin of Josiah Henson, a slave on the Riley plantation, into "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Confederate cavalier Jeb Stuart took a swipe at Gen. George Meade, bivouaking on the Pike, by dashing around Washington to steal supplies and, more painfully, their payroll.
When the old Offutt's Tavern (now Hank Dietle's) on Rockville Pike was the only spot for miles that could be used for Sunday services, patrons showed an admirable ecumenism. According to manager John Hovde, the preacher traditionally passed both the collection and the first round.
The neighborhood that is now a shopping byword has a long commercial history as well. It was a trading route in the 18th century; carried the stage to Frederick in the early 1800s, and was chartered as a toll road, with a booth near Strathmore Avenue, through much of the 19th century.
The gateway looked the other way then: The pike was "the Western Gateway to the Nation's Capital." Nowdays, said one official, pointing to the mixture of expensive and discount services, Rockville Pike is "both the front door and the back door" of the county, both Main Street and back alley.
Caught on the rise between Bethesda and Rockville, looking west to Potomac and east only as far as Rock Creek Park, White Flint is the last refuge of the label-conscious. No one-stop shopping here: White Flint is a throwback to the age of specialty stores.
Clothes are sold by aspiration -- Alcott & Andrews for the preppy, Bloomie's for the prosperous, I. Magnin for Park Avenue. The deft buy designer bolts at G Street Fabrics; the fast buy Porsche and Jaguar at Manhattan Auto.
Even Syms, the depot-sized dispenser of discount clothing, gives price-cutting a couturier touch by casting for "the educated consumer."
If there is a symbol of the White Flint style, it's the Holiday Spa, where the self-assured (and well-salaried) can meet, mix and muscle in a single strenuous happy hour.
The ESPRE Center (for Experimental/Social/Psychological Recreation and Exercise) is the "Fantasy Island" of physical fitness -- 43,000 square feet of neon, chrome and Nautilus. Slung between the running track, the steam room, the aerobics alcoves and the handball courts is a franchised bar -- complete with ferns, Michael Jackson videos and an overview of the pool.
This is modern romance in the Me Decade -- sweat and swing. The couple that presses together, dresses together. "It's not a meat market," said Gary Mackler, a company manager sent out earlier this year to get the spa rolling. "People come here to improve."
"It has to come from within," Mackler said. "You have to gain control of the body and mind. It's a question of discipline. I'm totally opposed to the decadence technology forces us to." NEXT: Twinbrook, convenience stop