Gwynn Park is an island amid the heavy traffic of U.S. Route 301 in southern Prince George's County, a whole community that lives its life in the median strip.
The subdivision of 40 homes on half-acre lots didn't start out as just a wide spot in the road. After World War II, the tiny Cape Cods were built along the east side of the highway, then a two-lane, two-way road also known as Crain Highway. In 1960, the road was "dualized," with the new northbound lanes following a right of way to the east, leaving Gwynn Park in the middle. That's the good news, and the bad news.
"It's very accessible to wherever you'd want to go, being right there on the highway," real estate agent Connie Stommel said. "You can go up Route 5 to the [Capital] Beltway, you can go to Waldorf, you can take 301 into Baltimore."
On the other hand, said Elizabeth Beaton, whose front door faces the highway, the traffic noise is "something you have to get used to."
She hasn't. "I keep the storm windows closed in the summer; it cuts down on the noise," she said.
Other residents say the noise doesn't bother them, and things calm down at night. "It's a quiet community," said Mark Jenkins, 36, a nine-year resident, referring to more than the noise level. "Nobody bothers anything" or anybody, he said.
No sign heralds the community, the name of which appears on deeds and detailed maps. But driving south on 301 just before the light at Route 381, the unlikely line-up of small look-alike homes is hard to miss.
The community takes its name, more commonly associated with the nearby Gwynn Park High School, from an antebellum plantation owned by the Gwynn family. The Gwynns go back to about 1700 in Prince George's County, according to Upper Marlboro lawyer David Gwynn. They had extensive holdings of land and slaves.
The Civil War put an end to that. William Henry Gwynn couldn't farm his 500 acres without slaves, great-grandson David Gwynn said, and went deep into debt to local merchant Eli Hunt, eventually turning his property over to the store owner. The brick mansion still stands, visible from Route 301 across a field south of modest Gwynn Park.
The post-World War II subdivision arose, starting in 1947, on a small piece of the original plantation, with half the homes facing now-southbound 301 and half on Williams Drive, named after the first developer.
A newspaper advertisement in 1952 described them as "well-planned Cape Cods" on "beautiful wooded lots" with "exceptionally fine artesian water." Homes could be had then for as little as $9,650--with a $482.50 down payment for veterans.
The Anne Arundel County firm of Hopkins & Wayson built most of the 1,206-square-foot houses, each with two bedrooms, one bath and an unfinished attic.
Over the years, the attics have been finished, most of them converted into two more bedrooms, and additions and garages have been built. At the end of Williams Drive, a dead-end (cul-de-sac sounds a bit too snooty for this working-class enclave), are three more recent modular homes, and in the middle of the drive, where once a water tower stood, is a larger house built in 1985.
"It's a unique little neighborhood," said Stommel, sales agent for a property on Route 301. That house, listed at $134,900 is on the higher end of Gwynn Park prices, which start around $90,000. "It's a little neighborhood in the middle of the highway."
There is no civic association, which is fine with Mark Jenkins, 36, who replaced the old asbestos siding with vinyl, and the concrete front steps with a wooden porch. "What I like is there are no association covenants, telling you what color this and that can be," he said.
There were, however, covenant deeds that expired in 1992. They specified no chickens or livestock. Even without the covenants, there's no poultry, just dogs.
Over the years, almost all of the the original homeowners have moved on or died. The generational turnover has accelerated lately, a fact that unsettles some older residents. "It's not a big family anymore," said Elizabeth Beaton, 66, whose husband, Clyde, 85, bought their house in May 1950 for $7,500.
At the time, Clyde Beaton recalled, there were three members of the Walls clan, who own Walls Bakery in Waldorf. Two of them were married to German war brides, one of whom, recently widowed, still lives in the community.
But though there is turnover, neighbors seem to know, or know about, their neighbors. When you live in such a circumscribed neighborhood of two blocks, it's hard not to.
"People come and go; there's a lot of service people," said Lawrence Eckard, 49, who has lived in his house on Williams Drive for 20 years. Without hesitation, he ticked off the occupations of several neighbors: a welder (retired), an electrician whose wife works in a bank, a retired policeman, a man who works with modular furniture, four carpenters.
"It's a nice neighborhood," said his daughter Laurie, 17, a senior at Gwynn Park High School. "We all know each other." Even the Beatons, who decry the turnover, pretty much know who lives where in the small community, and they are especially close to the neighbors in back, a retired Prince George's County policeman and his family.
The neighbor, Keith Watts, 40, echoes the Gwynn Park mantra: "It's quiet."
Of course, there are times that the highway intrudes. Joe Moore, who moved from the community into a larger home 13 years ago but still owns two of the houses, recalled the time when a driver fell asleep at the wheel and ran into his front yard. Another time, a car ran off the road smack into a neighbor's house, he said.
Then again, getting out of Gwynn Park during peak hours can be treacherous and time-consuming.
"Trying to get out onto 301 is like getting out onto the runway at an airport," said Orval Colbough, 76, a retired military man who has lived in the neighborhood since 1965. "And the traffic's gonna get worse."
Or perhaps better. State highway plans call for expanding Route 301, slicing off just a sliver of woods for the new southbound lanes and creating new northbound lanes. All of this is to happen to the east of Gwynn Park, sometime before 2020.
The present southbound lanes of 301 will then become a mere service road, practically a country lane providing easy access to and from the subdivision of Gwynn Park, no longer living life in the median.
WHERE WE LIVE
BOUNDARIES: Northbound and southbound lanes of Route 301, about 11 miles south of Upper Marlboro and five miles north of Waldorf.
PROPERTY SALES: One house sold in September for $139,900. Three other homes were recently listed for $89,900, $95,000 and $134,900.
SCHOOLS: Brandywine Elementary, Gwynn Park Middle and Gwynn Park High.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: The entire two-block subdivision, but crossing Route 301 can be treacherous. There are no sidewalks along 301 and no traffic light in the community.
WITHIN 10-15 MINUTES BY CAR: The malls, restaurants and shops of Waldorf; Upper Marlboro; Clinton.
WITHIN 25-35 MINUTES BY CAR: The Capital Beltway, FedEx Field, Bowie, Washington (off-peak).