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On Edge

By Todd Shields
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 16, 1997
The Washington Post Magazine

Thousands are flocking to the outer suburbs in search of quality of life. But their migration inevitably changes the landscape that attracted them in the first place.

Deen's Little Store sits just down the road from the pawnbroker and the state police barracks on Route 925, in the heart of old Waldorf. To go in you walk past a rusty fuel oil tank and a kerosene pump and pull open the swinging glass door and step onto a cement floor covered with worn red linoleum that's a couple of shades darker than the clay earth of the nearby fields. Over to the left you're likely to find Wayne Deen behind the counter. Marland Deen, Wayne's older brother and a county commissioner, might also be there holding court.

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Waldorf is the commercial capital of Charles County and, for that matter, the retail center for all of Southern Maryland. It's growing -- rapidly -- as the region becomes the latest in the Washington area's concentric circles of development. But for many who live out here it remains a small place, one almost antique in its air of intimacy, retaining a sense of community that many nearer suburbs have surrendered.

In a town like this, a store like Deen's is less a museum piece than a sanctuary for a way of life that persists alongside the new society growing all around it. The county's future may belong to the people who buy Hondas and Volvos and live in colonial-style homes distinguished only by their ubiquity and the fact that their owners don't really know one another. But at their store, the Deen brothers cater to people who buy domestic cars and live in the ranch-style homes that were popular 20 years ago and enjoy friendships unbroken from high school through retirement.

Deen's Little Store, a local hangout, evokes simpler times in Waldorf.
Photo by Micheal McLaughlin
Deen's is a comfortable place, one little changed in the 32 years the brothers have owned it. A place where you can buy lottery tickets or pick up a rough denim work jacket or get lids and seals for your Mason jars. Where three folding banquet tables take up space near the far wall that could go to merchandise, but instead harbor the crew that shows up just to sit around and chat, and watch the Keno screen, and maybe have a morning beer straight out of the can. Nearer the front door, men stand around between the Hostess pastries rack and the ice cream freezer (the one with a couple of frozen turkeys in it), smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee from styrofoam cups and talking.

The local store as social center is a timeless scene, even a cliche, but it's not one that usually survives rampant suburbanization. Throughout Southern Maryland people are watching, some with apprehension, as change cascades to their door. Planners expect the region -- which includes Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties -- to account for two-fifths of Maryland's growth in coming decades. For now, living out here is different from living closer in, where people ride the Metro and buy coffee at Starbucks and don't get charged long-distance rates when they call downtown Washington.

Southern Maryland until recently was defined by agriculture, isolation and poverty.

Charles County, for instance, had fewer people on the eve of World War II than it did at the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790. But in recent years, stasis has yielded to growth. In Charles County they've been putting up nearly a thousand homes a year, year in and year out, for more than a decade. Young men who grew up here tell of riding motorbikes though forests and fields where housing developments now stand. As a recent arrival, I'm less astonished, but even I can be startled:

Breaking ground in Charles County.
Photo by Micheal McLaughlin
The bulldozers came one day and flattened a couple of acres of pine trees in Waldorf. As I drove home one evening, I was suddenly disoriented. Where did I miss a turn? Then the lack of trees registered. I realized it was simply that the picture had been altered, as if someone had pulled down a new backdrop on a movie set.

So later, when I once again heard people elsewhere in Southern Maryland say, "We don't want to be another Waldorf," I understood a little better what they meant. It's not so much that anybody mourns the scrubby pines that gave way to yet another retail store (in particular) or that anybody objects to more and better shopping (in general). What they mean is, they don't want to lose their sense of place. They don't want to be gobbled up by suburbia.

The process is well under way. Waldorf, where I live, is the regional epicenter. Along the main highway the big boxes are crowding in. Target, Wal-Mart, B.J.'s, Sam's Club -- they're all out here, 20 miles from the city. We have the more specialized chains, like Staples and Circuit City. We have our shopping mall. We've got our Blockbuster. We've even achieved a kind of middlebrow critical mass, enough to support our own Restaurant Row, where Applebee's and the Ground Round and the Olive Garden all thrive.

All these places are barely worth mentioning, except for two things. One is that a few years ago, none of this was out here. Charles County made do with the low-volume, small shop, mom-and-pop retailing of another era. The other thing is, with each new store or restaurant, the city recedes a bit more. Locals used to drive to Alexandria or the District for dinner. Now they don't have to. They used to go inside the Beltway to shop. Now they don't. Our parents lived in the suburbs and kept alive the urban department store. Now Woodies and Garfinckel's are gone from downtown Washington and Waldorf's St. Charles Town Center draws more than 11 million visitors a year. With each generation we live farther away, and now it's the city that's on our periphery.

Each Saturday, early, developers plant the roadsides with waist-high signs that tell us why this is happening.

In neon shades of orange and green, the ads stand in thickets by tobacco barns and produce stands: "From the 180s," "$5,000 Closing Help," "From the 150s," "$107,995," "Free Basement."

You can afford a new home out here, and you can choose the colors of the walls and carpeting, and you can leave certain troubles behind. One of my neighbors moved down from Oxon Hill with a bullet hole in the driver-side door of his van. Another came from Tantallon, and told how his car was twice broken into, a window shattered each time, once for some golf clubs and once for small change left on the dash. He spent the first couple of weeks marveling at how quiet it is here.

Land for sale in Charles County.
Photo by Micheal McLaughlin
We all know that the more of us who move out here, the less quiet it will be. Last winter it seemed as if another business was getting robbed every week. Eventually, somebody shot a pizza parlor worker through the head right after closing time. This had never happened before, at least not in the memory of merchants and police. Security guards at the shopping center near my house started carrying pistols. This was disquieting, an indication that big-city insecurity had arrived in a community where the sheriff still finds it necessary to remind locals to lock their cars. I talked about the new pistols with the white-haired guy behind the counter at the liquor store, and said I hoped things didn't get any worse. "I hope so, too," he said. "I don't want to have to move again."

He might well be poised to go, extending to regions even farther afield the flight that brought thousands to Southern Maryland from Prince George's County in the 1960s and 1970s. But for each one like him, another is ready to move in . The newcomers are likely to be married and to have children (Charles County residents are younger than those in most other Maryland counties) and to want services, which can be spotty. Take, for instance, parks. The county has more than 150 miles of tidal shoreline, much of it on the Potomac River, but no regular public access to any beach on the river.

My wife and two children and I nevertheless set off for the Potomac one hot day last spring. We were looking for a patch of state land that is called a park on maps but is monumentally unimproved, to the point of not even having signs to tell visitors where it might be. We eventually found a dirt road blocked by a cable stretched knee-high from one side to another. We parked and set off on foot for the river, presumed to be somewhere over the next rise. It was, more than half a mile past the next rise. There we found a rudimentary wooden dock, and rotting fish by the bank, and stacks of worn crates, their staves splintering with age and bleached by the sun. We'd blundered onto (and trespassed upon) a commercial waterman's private pier.

We spent a lovely hour or so anyway, on a narrow beach of gravelly stones, plucking tiny fossilized sharks' teeth from the water's edge. But the long hike in and out, with a 3-year-old who soon insisted on being carried, reminded us pointedly of the area's relative lack of amenities. It's possible to make a fairly comprehensive list of things the county doesn't have at this stage in its evolution: A public library that's open on Sundays. An outdoor public pool. Bicycle trails that reach beyond a neighborhood. A high school that teaches Chinese or Russian, or even Italian. A park with groomed walking trails. A Cajun or French or Vietnamese or Lebanese restaurant.

Amenities, however, are not the point of being out here. The point is low taxes and large lots, and more than either of those, that sense of community. Here, you get asked which church you attend. The American Legion and the VFW and the Kiwanis and the Rotary Club and the Jaycees all remain prominent. The community is still small enough that groups of several dozen people constitute an important voice.

A picturesque view of a Charles County tobacco farm.
Photo by Micheal McLaughlin
That, in turn, is because of the same history that left land values low enough to ignite the housing boom. It bears repeating: fewer people in 1940 -- about 18,000 -- than in 1790 -- about 21,000. Those figures describe a century and a half of mainly downward trajectory. Heavy on tobacco farms and the slaves who worked them, the county backed the losing side in the Civil War. Later, while the rest of the country was growing up and greeting the Industrial Age, Charles County marched in place, beholden to tobacco monoculture. People labored on farms and hunted or trapped or fished the Potomac. Widespread electrification arrived only in the late 1930s. Late into the following decade, most of the county's children attended one-room schoolhouses. Into the 1960s stores in Waldorf kept ledger books, routinely extending credit until the fall, after the harvest was in.

In 1939, the government opened a two-lane bridge across the Potomac on the county's southern border. For the first time since railroads and automobiles had supplanted river travel, Charles County was on the way to somewhere else. America's post-World War II economic boom got underway. Even a poor agricultural county couldn't help sharing in the prosperity, especially with the capital of the swelling federal bureaucracy just 15 miles from its northern border.

We're over 110,000 people now in Charles County, and working our way into something of an identity crisis. Longtime residents watch the newcomers pouring in, and suspect that the influx will eventually cause higher taxes and more traffic. Newcomers wake up after that first blush of home ownership passes, and look around, and ask whether services can't be improved. This can rankle. "They come down here and they start to complain about the library and not enough parks," says one native whose job brings her into daily contact with people new to the county. "I just want to say, 'Where did you think you were moving? If you want that you can live in Montgomery County."

That theme, of newcomers wanting what they left behind, plays out across Southern Maryland. In neighboring Calvert County, Commissioner Mary Krug sees it all the time. Krug recalls the 1940s and 1950s as a time of unpaved roads, outdoor plumbing and trips to Annapolis for doctors or shopping. She views the newcomers' lament with wry resignation. "The first thing they do when they move out here is buy a 'Calvert Country' bumper sticker for their car," Krug says. "The second thing they do is ask for street lights on their road." She summarizes the locals' response: "We don't want to be another Waldorf."

That's what they say. But what do people really want? In Calvert County, a high school band marched around the Wal-Mart parking lot on the day it opened in 1991. Residents loved the prospect of convenient shopping. But they apparently don't want too much of it. Local land use regulations leave room for the county to grow from its current population of 66,000 to about 150,000 by the time it's built out in the year 2030. According to 77 percent of those responding to a recent countywide survey, that target growth figure is too high.

A sign of rapid commercial growth.
Photo by Micheal McLaughlin
There is in this a whiff of pulling up the drawbridge once you're across it.

Growth is fine if it means you get the house you want. It's bad if it brings more traffic, more crime and more suburbia than you bargained for when you moved into a place dominated by fields and pastures. In Charles County, an infant citizens' group is fighting a proposal for a six-lane bypass around the main commercial strip in Waldorf. Its members muster the usual arguments against large development proposals, which in the end boil down to: The project will bring unwanted sprawl. The county is straining to provide roads, schools and police protection for the people already here; against this backdrop the anti-road activists have struck a chord, generating scores of letters and faxes, even as their group was forming, and forcing extra hearings on the bypass proposal. Local politicians say the fight will be the most heated since county residents rejected a commercial airport in the 1980s.

Ernie Wallace, who is helping to organize the anti-bypass campaign, says he decided to move to Charles County from Prince George's only after Charles citizens showed the good sense to reject an earlier proposal for another large road. He wants to stay in the county after he retires in a couple of years, but he's worried. "A lot of people want Charles County to continue to exist in the way it is now, with a lot of woodlands and a lot of open space," he says. "I moved down here to enjoy a way of life that the politicians and the developers are trying to kill. The county is going to change and their children are not going to enjoy the life they came to live."

That's Wallace from the heart, speaking to fellow anti-bypass activists at a strategy session one recent night. He was one of seven people sitting around a dining room table in Waldorf, in a home in a subdivision that is still being built.

Todd Shields is a reporter in The Post's Southern Maryland bureau.

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