I've seen Springfield from both sides now, and I really don't know it at all. (with apologies to Joni Mitchell)

I've seen Springfield from the side of being 15 in 1970, walking around the Burger Chef and the gas station while skipping school, seeing the rows of new mock-colonial homes on quarter-acre lots and thinking, "I hate you. I hate you because you're a Pentagon suburb, you're starting to eat up the Burke countryside near where I live and you're boring." This was at a time when a visit to Georgetown, resplendent with incense, panhandlers, organic muesli, batik wear, rock clubs and general funkery, seemed as exotic as boarding the Marrakesh Express.

I've seen Springfield from the side of being 20. Then it looked like a collection of parking lots. I wondered if it qualified as a place at all. Shouldn't a place have history, uniqueness and some permanence? Well, I couldn't see anything old, the businesses were mostly franchises, like Kentucky Fried Chicken, and most of my friends had moved away.

I've also seen Springfield from the curbside, as a pedestrian. One day, trying to negotiate a series of shopping plazas on the way to the library (and after taking a couple of wrong turns into supermarket dumpsters), I actually found a sidewalk. But I wonder about the old, the young, the poor and the disabled. A good Greyhound bus service runs locally, so perhaps these groups do get around or at least out of town.

I've seen Springfield, most recently, after a long trip through Mexico. I had to admit that it looked good. The Beltway, when compared to narrow, two-lane, shoulderless roads, seemed a masterpiece of engineering. An overpass -- have you ever considered what an achievement that is? And the stores -- ease, abundance, cleanliness, air-conditioning.

It begins to sink in now, just what the pioneers of the modern Springfield were after. Many of my friends came from military families, the children of second-generation Europeans. Springfield represented the safe, all-American suburb of their dreams. It was built around the automobile -- and no Volkswagon Beetle, either. The planners thought of Olds 98s and El Dorados, big, quiet monsters greedy for gas.

I used to be afraid that the world would become one huge Springfield. Now I don't think so. There are other, more ecological models of town planning, and a new appreciation in the United States of ethnic diversity, of "real" food, of nature to counter the long-flowing tide of kitsch. In Springfield itself, a plethora of foreign accents is enriching, sometimes complicating, the routine of the shopping malls. The era of the Big Mac may be a phase like any other.

Will we one day be nostalgic for all this? Probably. Meanwhile, middle age has taught me that is it's all right to like Dunkin' Donuts and that Dairy Queen makes a delicious banana split. -- Anne Rouse