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As summer ends, so does a decade-long car show in Prince George’s

For owners of vintage vehicles, being forced out of their weekly meeting spot eliminated a community lifeline

Scores of car buffs show up on Aug. 24 to show off their wheels in Upper Marlboro, Md. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The drivers eased onto the dry asphalt parking lot in candy-apple-red and ocean-blue custom-paint rides with steel bodies and chrome finishes.

On a Wednesday evening in August, a little after 5 p.m., the temperature hit 89 degrees, with blue skies and no sign of storms. The cruisers were ready for a night like this one. The weekly meeting in the far corner of a strip mall parking lot in Upper Marlboro, Md., had been rained out for the previous two weeks.

“When we have these cars, we want to bring them out. If they sit all the time, it’s just like the blood in your body. You gotta keep it flowing,” said Beverly Curry, a 76-year-old with cropped hair and glasses known as “Mustang Sally,” who owns a ’66 bright red six-cylinder Ford Mustang.

People have traveled nearly every Wednesday to Marlboro Square for the evening car meet that runs from early April to late October. The parking lot adjacent to Advance Auto Parts transforms into “Hump Day Car Meet and Cruise-In,” a four-hour event meant to bring together the coolest rides and connect others who bond over a love of cars. This year marked the group’s 10-year anniversary.

Many of the men and women who attend have invested years’ worth of effort and money into buying and restoring classic cars to their former glory. Some connections date back to childhoods spent at neighboring race tracks or meetups at other car shows. Week after week at Hump Day Wednesdays, they’ve exclaimed over each other’s wheels while building a community.

“I like cars, but the cars are secondary,” said Terry Daye, a 72-year-old retiree who has been bringing his ’68 Plymouth GTX since the meet started. “I love running my mouth with people.”

But in recent months, with many pandemic restrictions lifted and shopping center businesses trying to ramp back up, property managers at Marlboro Square said the group can no longer meet in the parking lot and weren’t given permission to do so in the first place. On one of the last Wednesdays in August, a security guard patrolled the lot and warned the car fans to leave.

“It’s disruptive for the tenants, and those tenants are rent-paying,” said Adam Steuer, an official with Marlboro Square.

The shopping center, on busy Crain Highway in Prince George’s County, is home to a beauty supply store, liquor store, grocery market, Advance Auto Parts, Dollar Tree and Nipsey’s, a local bar and restaurant, among other businesses. Jauhar Abraham, a member of the family-owned Nipsey’s, said the business had received complaints starting in June about drinking, card-playing and trash during the car meet. He said he was worried Nipsey’s would have to close on Wednesdays and brought his concerns to the car group founders and property managers.

“I don’t support non-sanctioned meetups anywhere,” Abraham, 50, said. “As soon as there’s an incident or accident, we’re going to be the people who are going to have to defend ourselves, and we weren’t a part of it.”

The car enthusiasts, mostly older men and women from Prince George’s County and surrounding areas, contend that the weekly meet has gone on largely without incident. The show is meant to provide car owners with camaraderie and a place for a midweek reprieve to appreciate the classic cars, not to cause trouble, said Van Newman, creator of Hump Day Wednesdays. They also patronize the center’s businesses, such as a local Chinese food carryout and a chicken wing restaurant.

The clash pits a business trying to recover from the pandemic against classic-car owners for whom the weekly car meets have become a lifeline.

Property managers seemed to see the group as more of a liability than a commodity. Steuer, the Marlboro Square official, said the gathering is not allowed at Marlboro Square because it’s a “public safety concern” and that the group never got the permits or license to have an event — not that it would have been approved, he added.

Newman, a man of 70 with light-gray facial hair from Brandywine, Md., sat in the shade underneath the canopy of the beauty supply store in a blue lawn chair next to other seniors in lawn chairs. His long-sleeve white shirt read, “I’m not old, I’m a classic.”

Newman said he started the midweek car meet a decade ago after retiring from a 38-year career at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, first as a bus driver, then a train operator and finally a station manager. Car shows take place throughout the week in parking lots across Prince George’s, but there wasn’t one on Wednesdays, he said.

So, with his cousin David Proctor and friend Leroy Proctor, he talked to Advance Auto Parts in Marlboro Square about bringing their cars to their lot on Wednesdays. The location provided a central spot to many of the participants who travel from Charles County and across Prince George’s.

For 10 years, a group of car enthusiasts in Upper Marlboro, Md., have gathered weekly. (Video: Sidney Thomas)

Rickey Sampson, assistant manager of Advance Auto Parts, began working at the store four years ago. The car enthusiasts buy their carwash, wax and towels there. The store even allowed Newman to pin fliers of the car show on the Coke machine.

“We’ve never had to tell them, ‘Hey, you’re bringing riffraff.’ It’s not that type of thing,” Sampson said.

By nightfall on this night in late August, at least 50 cars would cruise in and out of the lot. Many drivers assembled in rows with popped car hoods like a candy-store aisle on display. Onlookers visiting the nearby Dollar Tree would stop to get a look at the vintage models, which ranged from the 1940s to the ’70s.

Marcus Boykin, 50, and Deshawn Clarkson, 62, sat appreciating the scene. Boykin got into old-school cars because of the ’72 Pontiac GTO his grandfather gave him in high school. Clarkson said he remembers riding in the back seat with his four brothers while his father drove, shouting “There goes my car!” as they passed other vehicles. His father would say, “One day, boys,” said Clarkson, who now owns eight cars.

“You think about a simpler time and age,” Boykin said. “When you think about society and everything that we’re going through on a day-to-day basis, when you’re able to go back to a simpler time, it makes you feel better about what’s going on now.”

Newman said the group hadn’t received backlash from community members, businesses or property managers. As the years went on, its popularity and influence grew, with up to 60 cars filling the lot on a good Wednesday.

Abraham, of Nipsey’s, said that some of Nipsey’s employees and customers couldn’t get in and out of the parking lot because of the amount of traffic.

“A few years ago, the car show wasn’t so big. Some older cars, older people. I never paid much attention to it,” Abraham said. But the meet also attracted some younger people, who sped through the lot, he said.

“Once you create this atmosphere, it gets out of control,” he added. “They couldn’t control what it grew to became.”

Prince George’s County police have received only one call this year for trespassing and drag racing at the location of the car meet, 5775 Crain Highway, on Aug. 31, a Wednesday. Officers responded and could not “verify any criminal behavior,” Christina Cotterman, a spokeswoman for Prince George’s County police, said in a statement. On three other Wednesdays — July 20, Aug. 3 and Aug. 24 — police received calls for trespassing at the address of Marlboro Square and also could not “verify any criminal behavior,” Cotterman said.

Officers have known about the car meet for years, without any issues reported to county police until recent weeks, Cotterman said.

Avis Thomas-Lester, a spokeswoman for the county’s Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement, said a special event permit is required for organizers that sell tickets, set up stages or sell food or alcohol. There are also requirements to ensure safety.

“People have the right to assembly peacefully, but the management would be responsible for deciding if a gathering, such as a car enthusiasts’ meeting, would be allowed on their property,” Thomas-Lester said in a statement.

Newman said the group tried to reason with Abraham and management. Over the years, participants have cleaned up during and after the meet, even bringing their own trash bins to collect garbage thrown in the woods bordering the parking lot, he said. They also encouraged people who brought motorcycles and dirt bikes to behave responsibly.

Early in September, Newman was back in the lot. He had gotten a call from a property manager saying the meet wasn’t allowed and that police had been notified. But he arrived in his Ford pickup anyway, just to see if anyone showed up and to let them know it was over. As rain fell, he sat in the driver’s seat with the windows up.

Hump Day Wednesdays were on the calendar until Nov. 2, and it might take a while for people to get used to them ending, he said.

“We had a good 10 years,” Newman said. “It’s a shame that we couldn’t ride it to the end.”

Only one driver showed up for the meet that evening. Newman told him to spread the word that the group is looking for a new spot.

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