Road Diary: Driving College Park
Observations and recollections in a deeply settled early suburb
Unlike my little college town in New Jersey, College Park, Maryland, where I went to grad school, gives me a feeling of returning to an important place in my life. I go back often to shop, or eat, or meet friends, or work on this newsletter, and I always enjoy it.
A lot has changed there just since I graduated, as the old roadside landscape gets built up to accommodate the university. But all in all, compared to my home in Northern Virginia, this part of Maryland was built up according to an older settlement pattern, and it was settled a longer time ago, which is not quite a distinction without a difference. Things feel more granular, more packed together, more variegated.
People sometimes ask me if I preferred Maryland or Virginia; they expect me to say Virginia, and that was what I used to think. But there’s a subtle energy and texture in much of Maryland’s D.C. suburbs that I miss, and which I didn’t fully see when I lived there. You’re gonna miss me when you’re gone.
This visit in particular yielded a few pieces here: on the closure of an urban-format Target in town, a meandering bit on a classic Chinese buffet, an entry in the “What Do You Think You’re Looking At?” series on an auto garage-turned-Rita’s Italian ice shop, and another “What Do You Think You’re Looking At?” on a really neat early 20th-century building in town.
So this piece is the bits and pieces that didn’t fit those more defined pieces.
In downtown College Park, there’s a cool contrast—at least for now—between the older buildings and newer ones. I do hope that contrast remains.
I parked along the street in a neat neighborhood full of large fraternity and sorority houses, which may once have been mansions or multifamily structures.
The texture, the interest, the messiness—it’s not designed or even intended. It’s the result of time, layers, people coming and going and doing. My only real reservation with new development is that it will be in a pattern and at a scale which forecloses that. And that’s why, in addition to beating the drum for housing and zoning reform, I write so much about things like scale and design. And it’s why I keep coming back to this question of what exactly “traditional urbanism” is or was.
In the Berwyn neighborhood of College Park, where the streetcar used to run—now a walking and biking trail—I visited my old church, which occupies a little square, with a tiny downtown on one side and small midcentury houses on the other sides. It’s quiet, peaceful, lovely, idyllic.
I think we got a lot of things right in this early, almost pre-suburban suburbia. This image below—a church in a sort of town square, surrounded by modest homes and within a minute’s walk of a few local businesses—lodged itself in my brain the first time I came here for Mass in 2015. This is a thing we can be, because we were.
The church design of this era, before the spaceships and washing machine agitators, was simple and lovely too.
These solid, heavy wooden doors, creaking open or closed, really do close off the outside, and make the church feel like a different sort of place.
There’s a very similar church of this vintage in neighboring Greenbelt. These are buildings from a time when the scale of things was smaller and more local, even though they are fully suburban. It’s subtle and hard to put into words. I tried doing it here, talking about an early suburban supermarket and an old motel. I think about it a lot.
I also stopped at College Park’s record store (in an aging building next to a Chinese buffet, where I had my first restaurant meal after moving for grad school).
It’s an absolute mess of a store that I hope never goes out of business. When I lived here, they still had a dial-up connection hooked up to their credit card machine, meaning authentication took almost a minute. That was modernized, but nothing else was. Thank God.
There’s also the faded sign in this sushi place’s window, which looked about this faded in 2015:
And one of these cool road signs, the U.S. Route 11 version of which, of course, is the logo for this newsletter.
I’ll leave you with that!
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