The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two documentaries 50 years apart look at Bowie, Md., through competing lenses

Jeff Krulik and his younger brother Michael play at their house on Bartlett Lane in Bowie, Md. Krulik's documentary about the planned Levitt and Sons community is called “Tales of Belair at Bowie.”
Jeff Krulik and his younger brother Michael play at their house on Bartlett Lane in Bowie, Md. Krulik's documentary about the planned Levitt and Sons community is called “Tales of Belair at Bowie.” (Family photo)
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Jeff Krulik wasn’t sure he was going to make a documentary about Bowie, Md., and the suburban subdivision that Levitt and Sons — the Johnny Appleseeds of postwar American housing — built there in the 1960s. But when he stumbled across a 1965 West German documentary about his hometown, he knew he had to.

That German film, “Suburbia USA,” opens with an aerial view of cookie-cutter houses and the strains of the biting Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes,” with its lyrics:

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes made of ticky tacky

Little boxes on the hillside

Little boxes all the same

Krulik’s new documentary — “Tales of Belair at Bowie” — isn’t an attack on the Germans or a homer’s defense of Bowie. Said Krulik: “The bottom line is I was motivated by an interest in Bowie’s history and wanting to preserve it, the Levitt history especially.”

His hour-long documentary will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Saturday on Maryland Public Television and available starting Sunday at video.mpt.tv.

Levitt and Sons had already built Long Island’s Levittown when the company set its sights on Maryland in 1960. The planned community — called Belair at Bowie — grew to 7,500 homes.

The Kruliks moved there in 1962 from Langley Park, Md. Jeff’s parents — Steve and Helen — still live in the same house, on Bartlett Lane in the Buckingham section.

“In Bowie, ‘What section are you from?’ is a common question, like ‘What exit are you from?’ in New Jersey,” Krulik said.

Krulik is behind such films as “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” “The Legend of Merv Conn” and “Led Zeppelin Played Here.” As the 30th reunion of Bowie High’s Class of 1979 approached in 2009, he thought he’d put together a little DVD for his classmates.

Then he discovered the Germans. While looking through a scrapbook at the town’s museum, he came across a 1965 clipping from the Bowie Post-Times about how a Bavarian TV crew was in town gathering material for a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

“That was just red meat,” Krulik said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to find this.’ ”

With the help of colleague Elisabeth Hartjens, he connected with the archive that holds a copy of “Suburbia USA.”

Watching the black-and-white footage was entertaining enough — here were families Krulik recognized, including the Golatos, with whom the German filmmakers spent two weeks — but then Hartjens translated it into English.

Even adjusting for the 1960s time frame, it’s a trip.

“At home the big magnet is the refrigerator, with its endless treasures of soda and ice cream,” says the narrator in German. “Barbecue is ritual in suburbia. In suburbia the capability to cook steaks over the charcoal is a part of manlyhood.”

There’s a fascination with the American housewife: “In developments like Belair, the woman is the center of everyday life. . . . Outside of school all the adults that kids come into contact with during the day are most likely to be women. Some sociologists think that this could be detrimental for an adult life.”

The filmmakers note the lack of theaters and concert halls, declaring: “In suburbia the intellectual life is at its lowest level.”

It’s impossible to read the subtitles in anything other than a Werner Herzog accent.

Said Krulik: “I couldn’t have scripted this. It works on a lot of levels. It’s humorous. It’s a little biting. It’s harsh.”

But in a way, it’s spot-on, too, Krulik decided. Here were Europeans trying to understand a uniquely American creation: a homogeneous community conjured instantly from farmland. At Belair, you bought a house the way you bought a car: with options depending on which trim model you could afford, down to how many saplings would be planted.

But Krulik’s film is not all barbecues and bridge clubs. It also includes home movies shot in 1963 by Belair resident Edward Paul Flaherty of civil rights activists picketing outside a model home. They were protesting Levitt’s racial restrictions. African Americans weren’t allowed to buy homes at Belair until after the passage of LBJ’s housing reforms.

Krulik’s film begins with scenes from a “vernacular architecture” tour he tagged along with in 2009. He hoists his video camera and presses “Record” as history buffs walk through the living rooms, kitchens and garages. Original Belair homeowners answer questions about the paint colors and bathroom furnishings.

It’s like visiting Colonial Williamsburg and interacting with actual colonists.

So what does this actual son of Bowie think of the place?

Krulik reminded me of a scene in his film where original resident Mary Conroy says she loves Bowie. It’s a great place to raise kids, she says. It’s a great place for kids to grow up, a place full of friendly people.

Said Krulik: “Ultimately, that’s the sentiment I support and endorse.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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