To commuters and weekend antique collectors, the five-block stretch of Rte. 564 in Bowie appears to be little more than a row of shabby storefronts wedged between the railroad bridge and Maple Avenue.

But in the 1930s, the area, known as Huntington and part of the original town of Bowie, was a bustling hub of community activity. It thrived with hotels, restaurants, grocery and dry goods stores, banks and a post office until the 1950s, when they were squeezed out in the wake of land annexation and development of such communities as Belair and Whitehall in the south.

To the delight of loyal Old Bowie merchants and residents, city and county officials are trying to revitalize Huntington, in the northern section of the city. The area will soon get a face lift with a $105,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Approved by the Prince George's County Council in September, the funding was reviewed last month by the county planning board. On Monday, the Bowie City Council approved the plan to build brick and concrete sidewalks, and new curbs and gutters, and dot the landscape with benches and decorative wastebaskets and planters to create an old-fashioned ambiance.

The improvements are estimated to cost $90,000, said Cathy Green, a county park and planning employe working on the plan. But the cost could be as much as 25 percent higher depending on the construction bids, she said, in explaining why the federal grant is higher than the estimated cost.

The work will be done by April, according to Stephen Penn, the public services coordinator for Bowie.

Local merchants said the renovations will attract restaurants and convenience stores to the area, which is now dominated by antique shops open only on weekends.

"We need a lot of things here, but it has to start somewhere," said Tony Abell, owner of the Chesapeake Frame Shop and Gallery. The changes will give people "the impression that the north is a desirable part of town. Until improvements are made, other merchants won't come and we won't keep a concerned {clientele} in the area," Abell said.

"Saturday and Sunday you may have 20 or 30 people wandering the block," he said. "There are no restaurants or public facilities for them, so they ask to use mine.

"A historic look is important, too. People will flock to places they think are quaint," he added. "People love it."

Michael DeNardo, manager of A&M Cycle Shop, said he would like to see Old Bowie have the "classic feel" of Old Town Alexandria.

The improvements would mean "the rebirth of the area," he said. Bowie's semiannual antique festivals, held in the area being restored, would be enhanced by Old Bowie appearing "not broken down, but a generally nice place to be," he said.

Abell said he will welcome the new curbs and storm drains from a practical standpoint. Currently when it rains, he said, water runs down the hill, collecting dirt and debris along the way, and forms large puddles on the cracked concrete in front of his store. "I can't even cross it myself," he said.

"Now we'll have a little something to work with," Abell said, adding that the city's effort to spruce up the area might be further incentive for the building owners to paint, put up window boxes and trim their hedges.

Green said other embellishments are being considered to tie in to the history of the area. Gaslight-style street lamps and uniform signs that follow an old railroad style would be designed to match a new bridge that city officials hope will replace the current structure. Bridge construction is slated for 1992, pending allocation of state funds, Penn said.

The improvements would not be installed until after the bridge is completed, Green said. "We want to . . . complement the architecture and character of a future historical area," she said.

The 80-member Huntington Heritage Society supports the changes and is seeking community support to lobby the County Council to grant local historic district status to the area, said Claudette Pelsor, president of the society.

"We feel there is a certain charm to Old Bowie and we are trying not to lose it," Pelsor said.