Every Labor Day, while many folks stalk one last laze in the shade or the season's final bake in the sun, a few Washington area neighborhoods try something more bold, celebrating their roots from dawn to dusk along with the promise of summers to come.
Yesterday, in a swelter suited to summer's traditional finale, thousands of people jammed small communities in Maryland and the District for lively feasts of parades, carnivals, arts and crafts exhibitions and concerts.
In the historic center of Greenbelt in Prince George's County, onlookers stood four deep along Crescent Road for the city's 31st annual Labor Day parade, an event appropriate to a community built in the 1930s by the largesse of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
In the Montgomery County town of Kensington, a local population of about 2,000 people was dwarfed by throngs attending its 18th annual Labor Day parade, a boon to merchants, craftsmen and jewelers along Howard Avenue's famous Antique Row.
And in Anacostia Park in Southeast Washington, nearly 3,000 people rocked to the music of three gospel choirs and the "go-go" sounds of Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, one of the most popular bands in the District.
"I saw this as a good opportunity to bring people together on a family day," said the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of the Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia which sponsored the event. Wilson described the concert, which attracted young and old alike, as "sort of a family fling to show the kind of support and commitment that can come from people and families working together."
Greenbelt's festival was "not effortless, but since it really gives us a sense of community, it's worth it," said Sandy Smith, 40, one of many volunteers who helped with that city's Labor Day celebration.
The annual three-day festival was launched in 1954 to help pay for a local youth center. It gives Greenbelters, as some residents call themselves, a chance to boast publicly about a city whose Art Deco architecture and Depression-era housing offer a kind of refuge in a sea of high-technology parks and shopping malls.
"When we first moved here, Greenbelt was kind of a showplace, with all the landscaping manicured to the ninth inch," said Annie W. Halley, one of Greenbelt's first residents. "That's not so true today, and I kind of miss that. Greenbelt is like everything: it has progressed and changed."
One thing about the parade that hasn't changed much in 31 years is the way it draws relatives and old friends together. Four generations of Halleys watched the parade yesterday from route-side seats in front of the town house where Annie and her husband Edward have lived since October 1937. And Sandy Smith's aunt, Helen Johnson of Temple Hills, sat a couple of blocks down Crescent Road in a comfortable lawn chair -- for the ninth year in a row.
"This is a homecoming for a lot of people," said Lt. James R. Craze, a 13-year veteran of the city police force. "Days like this remind me a lot of my own home town of Frostburg. It's a chance to see a very deep community spirit."
And spirits of another kind, as police found out about 3:30 a.m. yesterday when they broke up what they described as a fight in Spring Hill Lake, an apartment complex that is home to about 10,000 people, Craze said.
Five persons were arrested, most of them on assault charges, Craze added.
"Greenbelt used to be a 'country club,' very laid-back, almost farm-like," said Craze. "But we're changing now. The crime rate has gone through the roof, mostly because of nonresidents passing through. And the population seems more transient. It's not a country club anymore."
Still, Greenbelt remains the kind of place where carnival concessionaires donate 15 percent of their proceeds for next year's Labor Day festival, where neighbors reserve their loudest applause for the spit-and-polish performance of the U.S. Navy Drill Team and where a smiling mayor parades in a red convertible, saying "Hi, how ya doin'?" to as many of the assembled voters as he can. It's the kind of place that prompts Leta Mach, 38, who has lived in the city for 11 years, to count among her prized possessions a faded T-shirt that says in bold letters, "Greenbelt is great."