In Greenbelt, the New Deal's planned community for the working class, the grassy parks and shade trees still draw residents to the old town core. But the real center of activity is a concrete wedge of high-tech office buildings with an apt nickname -- "The Golden Triangle."
In the southern third of Prince George's County, the sparsely settled area that could become tomorrow's residential haven, the signs along the roadside are slowly changing. "Live Bait" and "Deer Crossing" are rivaled by the telling "Land for Sale."
And in Capitol Heights, where little is new and much is old and crowded, where the crime rate is high and the jobless rate exceeds 10 percent, the hope for the future is focused on a special area -- an "enterprise zone."
An economic upsurge has begun in Prince George's County, the most populous, most diverse -- and perhaps most misunderstood -- of Washington area jurisdictions.
At the same time, Prince George's leaders are energetically promoting the county -- trying to erase its stubborn image as the District's least glamorous and prosperous neighbor.
The boosters speak grandly of a "new Prince George's County," but they acknowledge the realities behind the old image -- the struggling inner Beltway areas such as Capitol Heights; few blacks in positions of influence in a county that is 40 percent black, and the need for the kinds of social and political development that may not automatically follow the economic gains.
County leaders realize that a glossier image and robust growth are mutually dependent. They are hoping to create an economic renaissance that will cause the county's tax base to swell with money for programs and improvements.
It is a plan calculated to undo the damage of the past -- the past of zoning scandals and shoddy, fast-buck development, of increased crime and forced desegregation, of slashed government services and bleak economic forecasts. It's a plan aimed at finally shucking the disrespect behind that flip old nickname, "P.G."
The boosters are quick to point to the signs of the county's economic awakening. Commercial construction more than tripled in 1985 over 1984, from about $104 million to $365 million. In Laurel, developers are planning Konterra, a controversial mini-city of 2,000 acres. In Bowie, more than $1 billion in new projects has been announced, including an up-scale shopping mall and a science and technology center. On the banks of the Potomac River, the $1 billion PortAmerica project includes plans for a hotly debated 52-story glass tower, which would be one of the tallest buildings between New York and Atlanta.
"Thrive talk" is in the air. The county chamber of commerce has adopted a new logo -- an arrow streaking skyward. The annual county performance report, a glossy booklet mailed to 200,000 residents, was subtitled "The Excitement Grows." School officials, on a recent teacher-recruiting trip to Boston, took along signs that said, "Prince George's County, One Nice Thing After Another."
And, in unveiling a 10 percent budget increase without a tax rate increase, County Executive Parris Glendening declared the existence of "a new era."
"The image is changing; the image is important," said Glendening, a tenured government professor at the University of Maryland who is viewed by some as both architect and symbol of the changes. "Our image really wasn't good. We were considered to be the poor sister of the jurisdictions around here, and we were considered to be very controversial, not the place you'd want to put your business or personal investments.
"But image often does reflect a certain reality, and you change image by doing good things," he said. "The larger problems will take years to solve, and we don't intend to go in with the quick fix, the Band-Aid."Developer's Dream
Lori Beaird sat on a sun-dappled bench in the square of old downtown Greenbelt, her head bent over a crossword puzzle.
Around her stood the town's brick Depression-era buildings with their graceful Art Deco curves -- the public library, a bank, a variety store, the cooperative grocery, the post office. A granite memorial paid tribute to "the men of this community who made the ultimate sacrifice."
This is one view of Greenbelt. Quiet, peaceful, small-town Greenbelt.
Not far away, near the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Capital Beltway, is the other Greenbelt.
The developer's dream.
In six years, this Greenbelt Road-Kenilworth Avenue corridor has become a booming commercial and retail center. And Greenbelt, population 17,332, has become a widely heralded symbol of the dramatic changes that have come to certain areas of the county.
There are towering office buildings, the 17-story Hilton and Martin's Crosswinds, a peach-and-mauve banquet hall favored by politicians and prom queens. There are 14 movie theaters and a 2,000-unit apartment complex that bills itself as the largest collection of garden apartments on the East Coast. And there are trendy restaurants serving warm brie, fried zucchini and blackened redfish -- so many that Greenbelt has developed a reputation as the place for eating out in restaurant-poor Prince George's County.
When Lori Beaird and her husband, John, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration employe at the Goddard Space Center, moved to Greenbelt from Cape Canaveral 25 years ago, "There was nothing on Greenbelt Road," she said. "We used to cry for food, and there was no place to eat out. Now old Greenbelt is a little town within a megalopolis."
What is happening in Greenbelt is also happening, in varying degrees, in the other predominantly white, middle-income towns of Bowie, Lanham, Landover and Laurel. These communities, once largely residential, are the prime development areas in the county. They represent the outside-the-Beltway boom; of 48 major projects under way in the county, all but two are near or beyond that dividing highway, a spokesman with the Prince George's Economic Development Corp. said.
The developers are attracted to Prince George's for practical reasons: The land is plentiful and relatively cheap, with 60 percent of the county's 500 square miles undeveloped and land prices often 30 to 50 percent lower than in neighboring areas.
Location is also a major asset, with much of the county convenient to Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis as well as two major airports. In addition, the county's highways are well developed and, unlike those in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, relatively uncongested. A dozen major routes lead into the District.
"I think what we like most about the area is the great access to the Beltway and downtown, unlike Bethesda where it takes forever," said Dave Essig, general manager of real estate development for Prudential Insurance Co. of America, the firm that is developing the Golden Triangle. "Here, you're right on the Beltway. You can zip to the airports. The leaders are also very prodevelopment in Prince George's, much more so than in Montgomery, where we also have projects."
Essig said his firm plans to double the amount of office space available in the Golden Triangle, which already has two office buildings built at a total cost of $21 million. Eventually, nearby Capital Office Park, home of the Hilton, will expand from four to eight office buildings. And, if the Metro Green Line extends into Greenbelt, as planned in 1994, the area may well experience a second, and even bigger, boom.
But with the growth comes concern about the negative side of development. Sixty thousand cars now jam Greenbelt Road each day, most of them apparently headed in the same direction at the same time. There are also worries that the belt of greenery that gave the town its name is rapidly becoming a concrete belt.
Greenbelt is an example of the county's present plan to promote "compact development." Planners say that channeling growth into already developed areas will yield three results: By limiting the extension of county services, it will minimize costs; by limiting the areas of development, it will protect the environment and, by setting an up-scale trend, it will encourage renovation in those areas that suffered from poor development.
Said Glendening, "We must preserve the strengths that were the traditional Greenbelt -- the open space, the small-town atmosphere, the ease of transportation -- at the same time we accommodate and take advantage of development."
The traditional Greenbelt, founded 27 years before there was a Beltway, was conceived as a "walking town" of parks and pathways. In 1937, George Eshbaugh and his family were among the first Greenbelt settlers.
"My wife thought it was out in the woods," said Eshbaugh, 81, a retired postal worker. "She didn't want to move out to the country."
These days, Eshbaugh still shops at the cooperative grocery. He still suns on the benches in the downtown square and otherwise enjoys the serenity of old Greenbelt. But he and his wife Dorothy plan to take advantage soon of one of the new facilities on Greenbelt Road. They will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary at Martin's Crosswinds.
A Ring of Gloom
There are almost always a few people standing outside Central Avenue Liquors in Capitol Heights, an old two-story establishment with striped awnings and a door that clatters shut. They stand, they sip surreptitiously, they watch the cars go by. They offer their sometimes-resentful philosophy about the rest of the world.
"Everybody just wants poor people out of sight," said Stanley Waddy, 29, a father of two who sometimes works as a truck driver. "If you can't see them, you can't worry about them."
Capitol Heights is not very different from other Prince George's County towns -- Seat Pleasant, Mount Rainier, Fairmont Heights -- crowded close to the D.C. line. The population is 80 percent black. The houses are older, the average incomes lower, the expectations more modest.
In Bowie, developers talk of trying to lure a Bloomingdale's or a Lord & Taylor to the $400 million New Town Center. In Greenbelt, boosters point proudly to the $25 million Hilton Hotel, the first in suburban Maryland. In Capitol Heights, development success is measured in small graphics companies, tax preparation firms and beauty parlors.
Capitol Heights figures rarely, if at all, in the promoting of Prince George's County.
"We have to be honest. We're very anxious that some of the good times should spill over into Capitol Heights," said Al Lord, a planner for the Prince George's office of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. "But your average developer coming into Prince George's County is not looking at Capitol Heights first."
In many ways, Capitol Heights mirrors the old image of Prince George's County.
Built around 1900 as one of the first Prince George's subdivisions on the District border, the town reflected both the rural and blue-collar character of the county. Just as more affluent D.C. residents had moved west to the higher ground of Chevy Chase and Bethesda, blue-collar workers and others gravitated east to Capitol Heights and Prince George's County.
With the 1960s came Prince George's most explosive -- and ultimately most damaging -- period of growth. Low-cost rental garden apartments mushroomed around Capitol Heights and other areas. Seedy commercial strips popped up on county roads and beside quiet residential communities. Large, low-income families flocked to the suburbs, and the population of Prince George's soared from 357,000 in 1960 to 672,000 in 1970.
This reckless growth resulted in serious and enduring problems. Because the low-cost housing attracted low-income residents, the county's tax base did not grow enough to meet the rapidly escalating demand for government services. The building spree produced widely publicized zoning scandals that led to the indictment of the chairman of the county commissioners, the chairman of the planning commission and several developers.
The "nation's fastest growing county," as Prince George's was known in the 1960s, became one of the slowest growing of the 1970s -- partly because of its declining image, but also because of a radical shift in the population. More than 150,000 blacks moved into the county during the 1970s, but roughly the same number of whites moved out. The county's percentage of blacks rose from 13.9 percent to 37.3 percent -- making Prince George's first among the nation's suburban counties in percentage of blacks.
While the higher-income blacks generally moved to communities outside the Beltway, the poorer black families were largely confined to the aging, inner Beltway neighborhoods. Each census area in the county with a median household income 25 percent below the overall county median ($25,525) is now inside the Beltway.
The county's problems deepened in 1978, when county voters approved a tax-freeze amendment called TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), which slashed county services to the bone before it was finally eased in 1984.
Today, Prince George's has an overall jobless rate of less than 3 percent, but the unemployment rate in Capitol Heights is the county's highest at 10 to 12 percent. The town is included in a larger police district that consistently records the highest incidence of crime in the county.
For the present, town leaders must pin their hopes on the Metrorail station that opened in December 1980 and is generally viewed as an open door to more development. In 1982, the state of Maryland designated a 70-acre tract surrounding the station as an enterprise zone -- the only one in the Washington area. Aimed at stimulating development in disadvantaged areas, the state program offers tax breaks to businesses that locate there and provide jobs.
"We're really rebounding," said Lawrence Pierce, Capitol Heights' enthusiastic 28-year-old town manager. "We're interested in mirroring what the county is doing: Bring in single-family homes, town houses and light industrial businesses."
Recently, a nursery school became the first new venture on Central Avenue in 15 years. Since last year, six other small businesses have moved into Capitol Heights, Pierce said.
One of those businesses is Wamo Welding, which opened in February 1985 in a two-tone blue building on Chamber Avenue in the enterprise zone. Owner Winston Marshall employs three people.
"This is an area that was down, and now it's on the way up," said Marshall, 39, a native of Trinidad. "I think a business can be good anywhere. It depends on how much you put into it."
Paul Fleury and his wife Della live on their boat "Never Enough" at the Tantallon Yacht Club, "the working man's yacht club." Their home on the Swan Creek Inlet of the Potomac River is surrounded by lush green country -- tangles of honeysuckles and woods threaded with creeks.
"It's secluded out here, real country," said Paul Fleury, who owns a marine electrical business and holds the elected, unpaid post as commodore of the yacht club. "You've got a two-mile drive to a 7-Eleven."
The yacht club bills itself as one of the best-kept secrets in Prince George's County. The same could be said about the rest of the south county, a section of rolling wooded land stretching from the country club living of Tantallon on the Potomac to the faded black vacation community of Eagle Harbor on the Patuxent.
It is an area of $800,000 yachts and old John Deere tractors. It includes some of the highest median housing values in the county ($92,704 in Tantallon, 44 percent above the 1980 county median) as well as a large number of homes lacking complete indoor plumbing.
It is a place of the past, with remnants of the tobacco culture that once dominated the county, and a place of the future. Because much of the south county is now zoned into residential lots of two and five acres, the area may eventually become a prime location for the high-income families the county is trying so hard to attract.
Without these families, county leaders say, Prince George's may have a business boom but not well-rounded social and economic development. The wooing of such families is inextricably linked with another of the county's problems -- improving the image of its school system.
Glendening and progressive school Superintendent John A. Murphy have made improving the schools a priority. A brighter future is indicated by recent successes -- an innovative desegregation plan, rising test scores and, most recently, a large increase in starting salaries that raised the county pay level from among the lowest to the highest in the area.
"It's certainly come home to Prince George's County that you can't get the kinds of industries you want without offering an adequate education," said Alvin Thornton, a Howard University government professor and a member of the county Rainbow Coalition. "If you want test scores to parade around the nation, you have to educate the children, especially the black children inside the Beltway."
While many poor blacks moved into the inner Beltway area during the 1970s, the influx to the county was largely middle class. Forty-five percent of the black families who moved to Prince George's during the late 1970s had annual incomes above $25,000.
Many middle-class black families were drawn to the comfortable homes in south county communities such as Fort Washington and Tantallon. Although some residents say that Tantallon had its beginnings in the mid-1960s as a "white flight area," its population today is an equal mix of blacks and whites.
"You're talking about $170,000 homes," Glendening said. "You're talking about families in which both the husband and wife are professionals and there are two or three degrees in that home. Other than the fact that they are black, you're talking about the same upper echelon that exists throughout the county and that has been the major movement into the county in the last decade."
In Aquasco, on the other side of the south county, the atmosphere is more decidedly rural. There are few new houses and only a sprinkling of small family-owned businesses.
"Our plan is to keep it exactly that way," said Glendening. "While I support economic development, I don't believe for a moment that we've got to develop everywhere in the county."
Lena's Grocery on Aquasco Road seems far removed from Greenbelt, the Beltway boom town, or Capitol Heights, the older town with the inner-Beltway problems.
The two-story frame store, built more than 100 years ago, is cool and dark inside. Rose Summers, who took over its operation from her mother, sells mostly milk, soft drinks and beer. Regulars linger to play pool or watch the black-and-white television.
Eventually, Summers may pass the operation to her son Joey, 21, now a tobacco, corn and soybean farmer. Joey Summers is not sure if farming will be his lifelong occupation, and county farming trends only add to his uncertainty. Development has contributed to the loss of about 50,000 acres of cropland, pasture and woodland since 1960.
"It used to be that everybody around here farmed," said Rose Summers. "And every mile or so there was a little store. It used to be that I knew everybody who came in here."