Cristine Squires loved being a kid in Colmar Manor. So it's no surprise that when she grew up and left the tiny Prince George's County community, it was not forever.
"All this was a dirt road," she recalled from her front yard in her tidy neighborhood, thick with houses of varying sizes and styles. "We rode our bikes and roller skated. At one time, the street was a lot darker. They added streetlights last summer."
Her neighbors, she added, "are wonderful people. Many have been here since we were little kids."
Squires, 44, lived with her parents and three siblings on 42nd Avenue, across the street from a tiny church. Later in her childhood, the family moved to a two-bedroom place a few blocks away on Monroe Street. The caretakers at adjacent Fort Lincoln Cemetery originally used that home in the 1940s, she noted.
"Monroe was my favorite house," she declared, before rethinking her reply. "No, 42nd was great, too. We had equally good times at both houses," she finally decided.
When they married, Squires and her husband, Roland, moved north to Greenbelt. However, three years later, they found themselves back in Colmar Manor, in the house on Monroe Street where she had lived with her parents.
The powerful urge to return to her roots, Squires said, came in part because of the community's close bonds. "We have a lot of good things for the youth," said Squires, whose daughter is in her senior year at the newly rebuilt Bladensburg High School.
The town of Colmar Manor sits just outside Washington -- the "Col" in its name is for Columbia, as in the District of, and the "mar" is for Maryland. It is tucked south of Bladensburg Road, between the Fort Lincoln Cemetery and a community park that runs along the bank of the Anacostia River. At the time of the 2000 Census, there were about 1,200 residents in its 440 homes, about half of them African American, the rest a mix of Hispanics, Asians and whites.
As older residents die or move, the renovation of existing properties is gaining popularity, reported Al Parada, an agent with Re/Max Sails in Brentwood. Many of the buyers are investors who are "taking eyesores" and repackaging them. "I'm guessing that a lot of younger people are renovating," Parada said.
Law enforcement, said public works boss Mike Goroum, is provided by six off-duty Prince George's County police officers working under contract. "They come in for us, there's more visibility. They are here," he said. "They don't drive around other towns but ours."
While police and residents know how to get in and out of the community, it can prove confusing to outsiders. Former mayor Michael Garrett, who served from 1989 to 2000, laughed as he recalled an incident.
"A stolen car came out of D.C. a few years ago and the driver made a mistake of turning into Colmar Manor. The police just laughed," he said, because there are so few ways in and out of the neighborhood that the thieves got lost. "Colmar Manor is so close to D.C., yet it's a cul-de-sac type town."
Garrett, 62, a real estate agent who last year moved to Culpeper, still returns to Colmar Manor to show properties. The town, he said, is solidly blue-collar, with an average income of $45,000 to $55,000 a year. "Ninety-four percent of the houses in town are owned by the people who live there," he noted. "That is highly unusual."
Colmar Manor town is quiet. In the evenings, entire families stroll together up the steep hill leading to the town hall.
Cristine Squires, who works across Bladensburg Road in a warehouse, said she walks to her job and isn't afraid to walk the neighborhood after dark.
In the early days of the nation, when Colmar Manor was considered part of Bladensburg, it had a violent reputation. In the meadow below the steel footbridge, more than 50 duels took place during the first half of the 19th century, according to the historical marker placed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The spot, known as the "dark and bloody grounds," would attract "gentlemen from Washington" who crossed into Maryland to "settle their political and personal differences."
The best-known combatants were naval hero Stephen Decatur and James Barron. On March 20, 1820, Barron mortally wounded Decatur, who had risen to fame as the conqueror of the Barbary Pirates off North Africa. Decatur died 12 hours later in his home on what is now Jackson Place, near the White House. Although Congress outlawed duels in 1839, they continued on the grounds until just before the Civil War.
On a sultry Sunday afternoon, in the gazebo installed in 2004 marking the site of the dueling grounds, Stevie Clark sat, pen and paper in hand. A resident of nearby Mount Rainier, Clark said he visits his mother's grave at Fort Lincoln and then uses the shortcut through the fence and walks to the gazebo. "It's quiet, and I can come over here and see my mother and reminisce," said Clark, 41.
The 178-acre Fort Lincoln Cemetery has its own rich history. The property was named for a fort that protected the District during the Civil War. Near the site, in 1814, Marines and flotilla men under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney waged a valiant but losing fight against the British in the Battle of Bladensburg, even as the bulk of the U.S. militia fled.
Squires was not the only member of her family who could not stay away from Colmar Manor. Her younger sister, Waverly Pollitt, 43, married and lived elsewhere for several years before returning to Colmar Manor. Pollitt bought a house around the corner from her sister, next to the entrance to the lush, rolling athletic fields.
"We all know each other," said Pollitt, a stay-at-home mom and 1980 graduate of Bladensburg High School. "We look out for each other's children."
Pollitt's husband, Donald, who does home improvements, stood by the boat he keeps in his front yard, just off Bladensburg Road. He said he enjoys the town for its peaceful surroundings; serious crimes are rare, he said.
Roland Squires, who operates a forklift at a Capitol Heights firm, said people take good care of their lawns and gardens, and stolen cars and gang activity are on the wane. The police "are doing a lot of things to get things right around here. Years ago, people would say, 'I ain't going to Colmar Manor.' You can go anywhere now."
In the midst of the small, tidy homes along Newton Street sits Colmar Manor Bible Church. The church, which has undergone several name changes, has been serving congregants and the larger community since 1936 at the same location, according to Kenneth Burge, the pastor. His is one of three churches in town. "It's a very warm and caring community," said Burge, who counts around 50 individual members at the nondenominational church.
Most worshipers, he added, live in town. "We're really happy about that, because our main focus is to really serve the people in that community."
Burge and his wife operate several ministries. His wife oversees the tutoring ministry during the school year. The town's mayor, Diana Fennell, who attends Burge's church, has assisted in opening the town hall for a Friday night basketball ministry run by Burge's son, Joshua, 19.
"It's a safe community," said Burge. "We're tucked in here, which is really nice."
Stevie Clark writes and reflects in the gazebo at the dueling grounds.
Roland and Cristine Squires moved to the house on Monroe Street where she grew up.