A FRIEND offered some time ago to take me on a tour of the distant and far-flung land in which he was raised. When we had arranged a Saturday that was convenient to us both, he was true to his word. He collected me at 10 a.m., with his wife and another friend, and for the next eight hours, on the magic carpet that he had thoughtfully provided, we swooped and darted through his unsung but exotice country, stopping here and there for a closer look.
No sooner had we crossed the frontier than he glided our carpet into a place that seemed to be reserved for it marked by two strips of ivory on either side. I could already hear the bustle and the haggling of any country town on market day. It was run by what be affectionately and admiringly called "some cantankerous old women" who sold there the produce of the countryside. I wandered through the stalls which seemed to me to be piled with nectarines and pomegranates, wild honeys of the deepest hues, herbs and spices, flowers that flushed red or flashed the brightest orange, cheeses and delectable wafers.
A little later, we visited a bazaar. Its narrow aisles, in which two people cannot pass each other, were hung on each side with gowns and fabrics, such as I had not expected to come across again outside the Travels of Marco Polo. Shelves and cabinets, every nook and cranny, were crammed as in the Orient with jars and bottles and boxes, especially with boxes with strange lettering on their lids, and inside them all were long-forgotten treasures. Not far away, we stopped at what was not just a timber yard, but the kind of emporium which used to rise wherever Solomon built one of his palaces or temples, smelling of redwood and cedar, and where my ear seemed to hear them measuring the wood in cubits.
And we visited a castle, of such fantasy that my eyes opened wide, which must have been built long ago by some proud janissary who had traveled far and wide into the Orient, for here was a pagoda near its great arched gateway, and the rest of the buildings and out-houses were a medley of design from far-away provinces. From there we swooped through lanes where the rich merchants live in grand houses and where young maidens play in great courts with tall eunuchs from the sultan's court.
We ate where the daughters of peasants brought us the strange dishes of their land, and then glided deeper and deeper into the countryside, where the corn was growing high on every side, until we turned back at a small town where the offices of the local functionary were housed in a beautiful building, such as our age seems to have forgotten how to construct. But none of this tells it all: of the depot with its single building of quaint design, where people can hire camels (I presume) to take them to the great city, or of the wooden bridge where, if my eyes did not deceive, a long caravan of the laden beasts moved slowly beneath us . . . and what other wonders!
WE HAD SPENT the day, the four of us, touring a part - a part only, as my friend insisted - of the County of Montgomery, in the State of Maryland, in the territory of the United States of America. We are to continue the exploration in the fall, in a 1931 Model A Ford, when I will view the land from the rumble seat.
Everything should now be recognizable to those who know Montgomery County as my friend knows it: the Women's Farm Market on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda: the old-fashioned haberdashery and general store, where one is still served by a Novick and the lumberyard and hardware store, still kept by the Mizells, both in Kensington: the spectacularly absurd castle in Forest Glen, once a girls' school and now an annex of Walter Reed Hospital; the lush homes of Chevy Chase and the tennis courts of its country club, the Bob's Big Boy restaurant on Rockville Pike, where the waitress said that our order was the most peculiar she had ever taken: the lovely town hall at Poolesville, which sits in rather than on its main street; the late Gothic Revival building of the Kensington railroad station, which commuters still use; and the freight train hauling its serpentine length beneath the wooden bridge into Ken-Gar.
There was much more that we saw, and much that we did not have time to see. But most sadly of all, there was much that we could not see, because it has been pulled down. My friend is still in his mid-twenties, yet he could point to site after site, corner after corner, block after block, mentioning the buildings of characterless architecture which commerce inflicts on American suburbs.
"We are making some effort now to save the buildings of the 1890s," he said to me, "but we are making no effort to save the buildings of the 1920s and the 1930s. When we get round to wanting to save them, in 10 or 20 years, there will simply be none left to save." His point is penetrating. If there are still some buildings of the 1890s to save, it is only because in the first half of this century the demolition and rebuilding was not so fast. In other words, if we want to save some of the architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, and some of it deserves to be saved, we must begin now.
For what he was showing me, of course, from his boyhood knowledge of Montgomery County, was that a suburb can develop a real character if it is allowed, like a small town or a city, to keep something of its history in its buildings. He was not showing me monuments or churches, but stores that were like stores, depots that were like depots, town halls that were like town halls; and when he talked of those that have now vanished, he was talking of banks that were like banks, or movie theaters that were like movie theaters, and even bridges over a creek that were like bridges over a creek. These are the buildings worth keeping, which can give a suburb a history like a city.
The 1920s and the 1930s were the great years of Hollywood's reign, and that reign is a part of America's history. We look fondly at the movies of the time, make folk-heroes and folk-heroines of its stars, are camp or nostalgic about the time. But we pull down its movie houses, which had an architecture and decoration that was all their own and vividly reflected the whole period. The only things that seemed really permanent on our day's tour were the two cemeteries which sit opposite each other in Rockville. At least, Americans preserve the places where their ancestors were buried - I spotted a gravestone that dated from 1752 - even if not the places where they lived.
We ended our tour by turning into White Flint - the first and probably the last visit for three of us - and I will not talk here about the last stores, or even about the women's sweater which I picked out in Bloomingdale's to find that it cost $200 (so I looked at it again and it still was only a sweater). But, as we walked about, and then sat down for a drink, I looked at the place itself: at its malls, the architecture, the design, the decoration.
Let us put aside questions of aesthetics and taste. My overwhelming impression is of how tacky it is: peeling here already, cracking there; with a tawdry glitter which can only become lackluster with the years. I suddenly realized that it is not meant to last. A vast temple is built, where the citizens go to venerate their only god, pouring their money into his lap, and yet it is less substantial than Novick's general store or the Mizells' lumber yard.
I did not expect to feel so frustrated, and even so angry, after my tour of Montgomery County. There is much to be said for the American suburbs; they have often been praised by Europeans. It is usually said they lack character. It is no wonder, since their history is pulled down. So one drives through the center of Rockville and asks where it is; and a finger points to an empty shopping mall, where once the stores were alive on actual streets.