GLEN BURNIE, MD. -- Croissants, seafood salad and quiche in Glen Burnie?
Come off it. Ken and Rhonda Brannan serve such fare to lawyers and Junior Leaguers at their Annapolis Crate Cafe, but when they were invited to open a second Crate in beef-eating, working-class Glen Burnie, they laughed.
"I gave the same raised eyebrows and smirk that you get from Annapolitans whenever you mention Glen Burnie," Ken Brannan recalled the other day. His elbows were resting on the clean white linen table cloth at the new Crate Cafe in downtown Glen Burnie. "The change in my attitude has been dramatic."
Anne Arundel County's most densely populated area, a suburb of 40,000 southeast of Baltimore, is perhaps best known to Washingtonians as an exit sign off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But to longtime county travelers Glen Burnie's insignia is a seemingly endless string of car dealerships and auto repair shops, which is part of the reason that it remains the subject of snide remarks from people in the quaint, upscale county seat of Annapolis, just 15 miles south.
But like Brannan's opinion, the heart of Glen Burnie has changed dramatically.
A decade ago, downtown Glen Burnie was a collection of abandoned buildings and run-down stores, many of which specialized in pornography. "If you think there's joking now, you should have seen us before," said H. Erle Schafer, a former state senator who runs a Glen Burnie pest control business and is the circuit court clerk in Annapolis. "The town was crumbling around us. We had so many X-rated bookstores. All the theaters were X-rated. We had a series of 21 or 22 arsons. We were really the joke of the century."
Since then, however, the county has spent more than $28 million to buy and redevelop large chunks of the unincorporated town center, while private landowners have spent about $8 million. Businesses, with the benefit of low-interest loans from the county, have revitalized shops.
Now, where porn stores once prevailed, are a parking garage, hair salon, travel agency and a carpet shop, with a state court building at one end of the strip and a new county office building at the other. Small shops sport colorful awnings, and flowers adorn a fountain in the middle of a new brick plaza.
Two weeks ago, the County Council gave the town's urban renewal board the power to overrule the design of new buildings if their colors are too garish or if their garbage dumpsters would be exposed to public view. The county is about to start developing the one last large block of property it owns -- now containing several parking lots and an abandoned tire business -- as a complex of offices and shops.
City boosters acknowledge Glen Burnie still has a long way to go, and its redevelopment lags far behind that of Annapolis, which 30 years ago was also run down but has firmly established itself as a tony shopping and residential district.
According to 1980 census figures, Glen Burnie's median household income was $20,668, compared with $24,513 for Annapolis and $22,676 countywide. The average selling price for a single-family house in Glen Burnie last year was $81,200, compared with $161,400 for a house in Annapolis.
If they don't work in the car dealerships or repair shops, many Glen Burnie residents work in Baltimore or Fort Meade or have technical jobs at the National Security Agency adjacent to the Army post at the western edge of the county.
Many people in Glen Burnie say the smirks about them reflect the elitism of wealthier Annapolitans as much as they do the appearance of the town.
Glen Burnie doesn't have the lure of historic buildings and a colorful waterfront that Annapolis enjoys, said Alfred Lipin, president of the Glen Burnie Improvement Association. Glen Burnie, after all, was founded in the 1700s on the pig-iron industry. When the iron deposits ran out in the mid-1800s, the Curtis Creek Mining, Furnace and Manufacturing Co. had a lot of land to sell to workers from Baltimore seeking homes in the countryside.
"A lot of people joke about Glen Burnie and all," said Michael Gilligan, a Glen Burnie lawyer who represents the area on the County Council. "But it's mainly a blue-collar area. And the people I've met here may not have a $300,000 house, but they are very comfortable in their $100,000 house and they don't have a worry about it . . . . There's a lot of pride in Glen Burnie."
Glen Burnie was the commercial hub of northern Anne Arundel and was still booming when World War II ended.
It was a big event when the big Harundale Mall opened in 1958, just south of town on Rte. 2, the main road connecting Glen Burnie and Annapolis; it was the first covered mall built east of the Mississippi. But many say it marked the beginning of the town's decline. In the first year alone, seven businesses closed and moved into the mall. More left, as a succession of other malls opened farther south on Rte. 2, and the city center decayed.
What thrived were the car dealerships and auto repair shops along Rte. 2 and Crain Highway, and they are still going strong. A one-minute drive passes Lee Olds, Parkway Glass, JBA Chevrolet, Musselman's Auto Glass, Tate Used Cars, Rent-A-Wreck, Car Wash, Ritchie AMC/Jeep, Cross Auto Supply, Ritchie American/Nissan, Brushless Car Wash, Staffords Radiator Welding and Service, and RPS Auto Parts.
"We used to be called Chrome City," Schafer said. "Automobiles have been an important business in our county, but I wish we didn't put them all on Ritchie Highway. I wish there was some way we could put the cars in the back of the buildings . . . . But I have no problem with the car industry. They have been enormously good to us."
Anne Arundel's first car dealership opened in Glen Burnie in 1924, but it is unclear why so many car businesses have accumulated here since. Roland Musselman, who has run a body shop bearing his name in Glen Burnie since 1947, said the town had many auto businesses when he started and the number keeps growing. Until recently, one of his brothers ran a nearby auto glass and radiator shop while another brother ran an auto body shop. Now his son runs a competing auto body shop, also in Glen Burnie.
Musselman said he believes the businesses have succeeded because they feed off one another, and because customers as far away as Columbia know they can find auto shops of all description if they come to Glen Burnie.
Victor Sulin, a Glen Burnie resident and administrator of the county's Urban Renewal Administration, agreed that the auto businesses are not pretty but believes they are there to stay.
"It's a very curious area," he said. "It's an area that survives and seems to do very well. I don't know of anything that's ever failed there. Yet it doesn't seem to want to upgrade itself."
Nevertheless, several people working in the auto business in Glen Burnie said they were happy to see the downtown improved. "I think everything's an improvement downtown," Musselman said. "They've done a good job for Glen Burnie when they tore that sex row out of there. Before, they didn't care what went in there. Glen Burnie just started to run down."
Schafer says hardly a day passes in Annapolis when somebody doesn't tease him about Glen Burnie, but things are looking up.
"We are taken a little more seriously now," he said. " . . . There's no question this town was on its knees. It's standing up now."