The sidewalk was garden variety. There was nothing fancy or unique about its 300 feet of concrete along Martin Luther King Jr. Highway in Prince George's County. Nothing, that is, except this, etched by someone unknown when the concrete was still wet:
"Took 30 years to get. 1968-1998."
Seat Pleasant Mayor Eugene F. Kennedy, one of those who fought to get it, thinks it just might help resuscitate the city. "It may not be long," said Kennedy, standing on the sidewalk in a straw hat and starched white shirt, "but it makes a difference."
In some suburban neighborhoods, a sidewalk is a matter of contention. Something to be for or against. But not in Seat Pleasant. Or in Kensington. Or in Mount Rainier.
In these and other older Washington suburbs, sidewalks have come to represent revitalization and an antidote to sprawl. Perhaps, so goes the theory, fewer people will wind up living in outer suburbs and commuting great distances if the inner ones can be revived. And sidewalks may be crucial to their revival.
With them, residents can stroll to restaurants. They can patronize mom and pop businesses long forgotten in favor of the large commercial strips on busy highways that dot suburbia. On foot, residents may bump into neighbors and swap gossip. They may come to feel that they belong to a place with character, rather than an anonymous development.
"People are pouring millions of dollars into sidewalks," said William Hudnut, author of "Cities on the Rebound" and senior fellow at the D.C.-based Urban Land Institute. "It's part of what you might call the return to urban life. . . . Part of that is trees and front porches and curbs and sidewalks."
Government leaders across the country are scrambling to fill in the gaps of pedestrian networks that fell victim to cost-cutting measures and to the social revolution that made the automobile king in the last half-century. To walk was to be left behind.
"It used to be when you dealt with highway, you were only dealing with what was between those white lines," said Dennis German, assistant chief of highway design for the Maryland State Highway Administration. "Now we've gone beyond that. We see that sidewalks are absolutely essential to our revitalization efforts."
In St. Petersburg, Fla., city officials have embarked on a decade-long odyssey to build 170 miles of pedestrian pathways along the city's busiest streets. In Illinois, a $12 billion, five-year public works effort includes the repair and expansion of sidewalks.
Virginia has no designated sidewalk program. But in Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has initiated two programs since 1996 to provide state funds to build them.
Before Glendening took office in 1994, he said in an interview, communities were told that the state "didn't do sidewalks." That's what he was told, Glendening said, when he asked the state to help build a sidewalk on Maryland Route 202 when he was county executive in Prince George's.
Glendening said sidewalks are essential to the state's effort to control sprawl and to encourage development and redevelopment in established communities. Last month, he announced that he would ask the legislature to triple funding--to $150 million from $50 million--for one of the sidewalk initiatives, the neighborhood conservation program.
"I know it sounds strange, but I'm really excited about this," Glendening said. "If we are serious about people living in close . . . then we must make it convenient and safe for people to move around."
When Kensington town officials developed a revitalization plan for their Montgomery County community, they focused on building a much-needed sidewalk on Metropolitan Avenue between St. Paul Street and Kensington Parkway. The $1.3 million project is being financed through the neighborhood conservation program.
"I can't believe there's anything more important than sidewalks," Kensington Mayor Lynn Raufaste said.
Although every Maryland community can compete for the $2 million in sidewalk construction and maintenance funds the state hands out annually, the conservation money is specifically earmarked for older communities, such as those found inside the Capital Beltway in Prince George's and Montgomery.
Sam Parker, a planner with Prince George's County's neighborhood revitalization division, said the goal is to re-create town centers.
"How do you create centers of activity? You need pedestrian movement," he said. "Without the sidewalk, it hurts what we are trying to do with revitalization."
Mount Rainier Mayor Fred Sissine said that his community's revitalization efforts are hindered by the lack of sidewalks on Eastern Avenue at the border with the District. The street, which Sissine said technically belongs to the District, "looks blighted and messy."
Although Eastern is beyond Mount Rainier's control, the city is, like Kensington, receiving $1.3 million in state neighborhood conservation funds to build pedestrian pathways elsewhere and make other improvements. Sissine hopes that the rehabilitation will bring in new residents and businesses to downtown.
And there is proof that it can.
When Hyattsville built a sidewalk two years ago on Hamilton Street in front of the Queens Chapel Shopping Center, the strip mall attracted a new owner who told city and county officials that the sidewalk was the deal-maker.
"Developers are looking for the government to make these kinds of infrastructure improvements," said Prince George's County Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "It's a sign that the government is putting its money where its mouth is and making a commitment to revitalization."
In Seat Pleasant, the new stretch of sidewalk begins at the front door of the Seat Pleasant Barber Shop, passes an open grassy lot owned by the city and winds up in front of a building that houses a liquor store, sandwich shop and grocery store. Kennedy, the mayor, hopes the sidewalk will show developers that the city is on the rebound and lead to a new shopping complex in the grassy lot.
"You've got to have the sidewalk and then make it attractive so people feel good," he said. "This will be our new downtown."