Are suburbs really the dull gray they've been painted? Home of The Blahs?
Perhaps the metropolitan suburb is a dry-land counterpart of the Navy cargo ship in the novel "Mister Roberts," cruising from Tedium to Apathy to Ennui, its crew snoozing until Ensign Pulver stirs things up. Somewhere beneath the crabgrass and under the outdoor barbecue, perhaps there also lurks a latent looniness.
A historian's forthcoming study of Lake Hills, a Bellevue 'burb that burgeoned after World War II, awakens memories of a suburb where I grew up: Takoma Park, Maryland, part of an earlier wave of rim-town development that followed the first rather than the second World War.
BLAME THE AUTOMOBILE
My hometown originally was founded around the turn of the century, as evidenced by some three-story Victorian heaps that might have inspired Charles Addams. But Takoma Park's great expansion, like that of Lake Hills, came in response to a war's end and sudden availability of the automobile.
Developed before anybody invented winding boulevards or the cul-de-sac, Takoma Park's predominant home styles run to bauhaus and bungalow, more akin to the Monopoly-board blocks of Wallingford and Ballard than to the 1950s-era ranches, split foyers and nouveau colonials of Lake Hills.
But my parents puttered their Model T out to Takoma Park for many of the same reasons families in the 1950s sought out Lake Hills: mainly, a better life for their children. They fled the city's mean streets and overcrowded schools, out to where they could own a home with a yard, in which they could plant flowers and shrubs and trees. They wanted to walk out their doorway onto green grass and look up at the sky, rather than a tenement corridor.
Most of the criticism later leveled at post-World War II Levittowns also applied to Takoma Park, for we saw it as square, conformist, narrow-minded, sterile and Philistine.
As teenagers in the 1930s, my friends and I envied people who lived in "real" small towns for their sense of community. Yet we coveted great cities for their cultural opportunities and ethnic diversity. We whined that "a suburb is caught in between. It just isn't anyplace."
When I left Takoma Park in the late 1940s, the place was on the skids. Within a couple more decades, my old home had boards on the windows and paint was peeling off the shingles. The neighborhood was showing its age: 40 years and more.
But recently, friends have been sending me newspaper clippings heralding a Takoma Park renaissance. And civic improvement apparently brought a change in character.
Once home mostly to lower-middle-class white and blue-collar workers, Takoma Park now tends toward young professionals, writers, artists, musicians, actors. Its reputation grows as home to crafts persons and a center for cottage industry.
Supplanting the all-white Protestant population are settlers from all over the globe, probably some from countries that weren't even on the map when I was a kid.
Today's residents, like those of my parents' generation, are seeking affordable living, and they have their forebears to thank for building on the cheap. While those $4,000 Craftsman bungalows probably are selling for more than $100,000 today, that's better than the half-million you need to settle in D.C.'s tonier suburbs such as nearby Bethesda and Chevy Chase.
Curiosity got the better of me last fall, and I went home again - to find a Takoma Park reborn, its vintage homes beautifully refurbished and the hardwood trees grown tall and wide enough to form a canopy over the narrow streets and sidewalks. The town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
ORGANIC YULE WREATHS
Takoma Park has also become "a delightfully dippy, other-worldly place filled with granola liberals," according to a syndicated columnist named Donald Kaul writing in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
Kaul describes Takoma Park as a town "where people eat vegetables, often exclusively, wear funny-looking sandals and take up causes . . . where one can buy a Christmas wreath advertised as `organically grown' and obtain both "regular and holistic medical care" for a pet. He notes a restaurant where vegetarian waiters will set a sign saying "dead meat" next to plates containing chicken.
Also according to Kaul, Takoma Parkers recently tried to stop the poisoning of rats by capturing them for release in a nearby rural area. The plan fell through when they couldn't find any place, no matter how rural, that wanted to become a rat preserve.
But the clincher for Kaul was the cat in the helmet, riding like a hood ornament on the front of a motorbike.
Kaul suggests Takoma Park should be on a National Register of Strange Places.
I think we'd better keep an eye on Lake Hills. When we see cats with helmets . . . well, goodbye to The Blahs!