It is dusk in Takoma Park and the new, old-fashioned lampposts on Laurel Avenue give off a soft, pinkish glow. The leaves on the spindly trees in the just-built median rustle faintly in the evening breeze. An elderly woman with a cane disappears into the bright interior of Doc Fishbein's drugstore.
For years, nothing worth mentioning changed on the eastern side of the street, the commercial heart of this folksy and eclectic town located where the District converges with Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Jack Kazanjian sold carpet. Doc Fishbein filled prescriptions. Roland Moore managed the six apartments above Park Pharmacy and fiercely watched his street for suspicious-looking cars.
Now, however, change has come to Laurel Avenue. Citizens Bank of Maryland, the longtime, hands-off landlord, recently sold the property to the Takoma Metro Partnership, a group of young owners with many plans.
The new owners see themselves as rescuers who will save the street from a quarter century of neglect, decay and stagnation. They plan to spend more than $2 million during the next several years to clean up and renovate the area. Eventually, they hope to attract a cafe, a delicatessen, a children's dance studio, various small offices and boutiques, and that growing symbol of 1980s vogue, a video store.
"We want to recreate the town center, the village of Takoma," said Travis Price, a partner and the architect responsible for the lampposts, the brick median and the town gazebo, a pink-and-blue Victorian confection.
The result is that Laurel Avenue is quickly reshuffling. A bank branch, a florist's shop and a laundry will stay. But others are going or have already gone, including the TV repair shop, the tile store and an upholsterer.
The residents above the pharmacy, who paid only $125 to $165 a month in rent, were the first to leave, beginning in February.
Financially, their situation is not terrible; Montgomery County will subsidize their new rents for two years since they were evicted because of community development. But emotionally, it is a different story.
For example, Apt. 1 was inhabited by an elderly Filipino couple -- Vicenta DeGuia, 70, and her ailing husband, Geronimo, also 70. They chose the area two years ago because it was close to a Takoma Park medical clinic where Geronimo DeGuia receives kidney dialysis treatments twice a week.
"We were worried," Vicenta DeGuia said recently. "It was the coldest month of the year when they said we had to get out. It has been a hardship."
Currently, the couple is not living together. Geronimo stays with their son and daughter-in-law in Beltsville. Vicenta has a small apartment in Northwest Washington.
"My husband is a little weak, and he feels safer with my daughter-in-law because she is a nurse and can take him to the hospital for his treatments," Vicenta said. "I see him as much as I can, but I do get lonely."
The family who lived in Apt. 5 -- Enok Basal, his wife Aleyda and their newborn son -- also are temporarily separated.
Enok Basal, a carpet layer, had lived in the building 4 1/2 years.
Although Enok Basal is in the process of buying a town house, it will not be ready until summer. No rental agencies would agree to a short-term lease, and so his wife and son are temporarily living in the basement of a house where she works as a maid. Basal stays with friends.
"I'm a private guy, and I didn't want to live in the house of my wife's employer like that," Basal said recently. "I go to see them every night after work. Right now, we're all kind of suspended in the air. People say, 'Well, at least you don't have to pay rent.' But I'd rather be paying rent than living like this."
For 25 years, Apt. 3 was home to Roland Moore, the vigilant resident manager and unofficial "Mayor of Laurel Avenue." He and his wife, Ethel, raised their daughter there. She married and promptly moved across the hallway into Apt. 2, where she raised her three children. The children are now teen-agers who had never lived elsewhere until their recent move.
"Mr. Moore didn't miss a thing," recalled Vance Garnett, 48, a law clerk who lived in Apt. 4 for 10 years. "He was not only in charge of keeping the place immaculate, which he did, but he also kept watch over everything. If he heard a car motor down in the parking lot and nobody got out, he'd call the police to see why they were sitting there."
Every day, Moore and his dog Candy walked to the post office, trailed by Moore's granddaughter and two grandsons. It was a family ritual of sorts.
"They were very close," Garnett said. "They wore a path in the hallway between the two apartments."
The two families moved to separate residences in Rockville. For the first time, they are no longer neighbors.
The residents' departure created some negative feelings toward the new owners who want to convert the space to offices.
"I don't think [the owners] were very sensitive to the tenants upstairs," said Jude Garrett, who runs a vintage-clothing store on the block.
But John Urciolo, 38, a Takoma Park attorney, said he and his partners were in "a Catch-22" situation regarding the residents. Because the partnership plans renovations costing $450,000 on the Park Pharmacy building, they had to get a Montgomery County building permit. And since the area is now zoned exclusively for commercial use, no one could live in the renovated building.
"Park Pharmacy is structurally and electrically a time bomb," said Price. "There could be a fire there any day."
Added Urciolo, "We would have liked to keep one apartment for Mr. Moore and his wife. But we were caught between fire regulations and county codes and costs of renovation."
Urciolo said the buildings along the block were in disrepair. It cost $65,000, he said, just to clean up the back entrances of the stores, replacing doors and rotted windows and cleaning up the lots.
"Nine out of 10 investors would have walked in there and called for the wrecking ball," he said.
The street has long had an unretouched, if deteriorating, 1950s sort of quality.
In his cluttered drugstore, packed with everything from color television sets to frying pans, Fishbein still keeps a small metal box filled with his credit accounts. Some date back 25 years. Before the tile store recently moved, a spirited card game could usually be found in the front room. And the television repair shop, which just closed down, was operated by an elderly man "who didn't know computers, so he still worked with picture tubes," said Urciolo.
In the past few weeks, commercial rents along the block have doubled, tripled and, in some cases, quadrupled. Merchants knew, however, that the rents they had been paying were of another era.
For example, Mel De Guzman was formerly paying $235 a month for 3,200 square feet of space at the upholstery and drapery shop he opened 15 years ago. The rent went up to $700, and De Guzman is moving out at the end of the month to a new location on Georgia Avenue.
"I would have paid $500," De Guzman said. "I would have paid double. I know I was paying very, very low rent. But I can get a better deal with better parking."
"Some could say that upping the rent is another way of forcing the tenants out," said Alan Kazanjian, who with his father Jack owns Jack Alan Carpet, a fixture for 22 years on Laurel Avenue.
But Urciolo said that the existing tenants, even with the increases, are paying far less rent than the expected charge to new tenants -- $1,000 to $1,200 a month.
"Tenants might say, 'It was great in the old days . . . ,' " said Urciolo. "And I certainly understand the bad feelings, but it's for the common good."
To illustrate what he wants for Laurel Avenue, Urciolo reaches back into his boyhood.
"I grew up near Walter Reed Hospital," he said, "but Takoma Park was really my neighborhood. I'd ride over on my bike and Tony the barber would cut my hair. I knew Doc at the drugstore, everybody around here . . . . "
"I remember when the streets were very active in Takoma Park," he said. "I'd like to see it again."