Gaithersburg thirty years later

The Thinker by Rodin

Some places where you live will haunt you. Some you will cherish nostalgically. Some places will leave only vague memories. Some places you will live in for a long time and still never feel attached to it. Gaithersburg, a city on the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Montgomery County was a place I called home for six years (1978-1984), five in the same apartment shared principally with a guy called Randy who kept his distance.

Gaithersburg was my transition place. It is where I transitioned from college graduate to someone with a career. It was a place where I pondered my single status and eventually left to live with the woman who would become my wife. It was a place that felt sort of comfortable because it was suburban and up north. It was also uncomfortable, because for a few years at least I was among the working poor there.

I had visited Gaithersburg briefly about ten years ago with my friend Tim. Tim and I had shared a year or so as retail drones at the local Montgomery Ward. Last Friday, I visited it again. As I toured the city and my old neighborhood, I had the not terribly upsetting feeling that I was visiting this “home” for the last time.

Maybe that’s the way it goes with places you live while in transition. By definition transition is transient, even if you stay there six years. Transition by its nature is also uncomfortable, and I was uncomfortable in Gaithersburg. It was a largely lonely and friendless time. It would not last forever. My brother Mike moved in and out of the area as he tried to complete school without quite the resources to do so. DC’s strong job market allowed him to accumulate some cash to buy more semesters in Blacksburg, Virginia. Once I had moved to Reston, Virginia across the Potomac my sister Mary and her husband came to the area. Much later my parents would also arrive too. None of them chose to live anywhere near Gaithersburg.

It’s good not to get too attached to place, because the apartment I lived in is gone. Apartments are ephemeral housing. It got the wrecking ball to put in upscale apartments and condos along East Diamond Avenue instead. The new apartments look terrific, and something I would not have been able to afford back then. They are also mostly not rented yet, but doubtless will be rented in time. Across the street is a MARC commuter train station. Likely there are convenient buses that will take residents to the Shady Grove metro station a couple of miles away too. It’s thus gotten easier to live carless in Gaithersburg, but most residents will still want one. The Sam’s Club, next to what was my old Montgomery Ward store, is a couple of miles away. The nearest Giant is probably too far to walk to.

Downtown Gaithersburg is trying to blend the tired with the new urban chic. Historic building includes many of the storefronts along Diamond Avenue that I remember, including the Diamond Drugs at the corner of East Diamond and Summit Avenues. New urban chic includes many three or four story apartments/condos with brick facades, and small businesses like Subway on the street level that now are prominent in this “downtown”. It’s not quite like Paris, but it is something of a third-rate imitation. Missing for now are some of the other urban amenities typically found in these places: a theater and upscale dining. Perhaps they will come in time.

Patches of this new urban chic don’t really blend in well with the tired and fading suburban houses just blocks away. It’s probably a step in the right direction for keeping the city’s coffers full. It was not needed to color up the town. Thirty years ago of course it was principally white. Since then, Asians have discovered Montgomery County in large numbers, and they are much in evidence in Gaithersburg. It’s not just the well-educated Asians that also have discovered the city, but the less educated ones as well. I found them inside my old Montgomery Ward store at the corner of Perry Parkway and North Frederick Avenue, looking like they were probably mostly from Pakistan.

Returning to my old store, where I survived at just above the minimum wage, was not in the least bit nostalgic, just sad. Tim and I were newly minted college-educated men without better prospects at the time. We were appalled by the low pay, high turnover and bad working conditions. We surreptitiously sounded out fellow disgruntled employees about unionizing the place. We never got too far. Management kept an eye on us. Tim went for other opportunities and I eventually followed him. I’m not sure I would be a federal employee without Tim’s help. He figured out how to do it.

In any event the same haunted and basically impoverished faces were still there, just with no Montgomery Ward logo facing North Frederick Avenue and the faces of its employees were almost all colored now. The store is now mostly split between a Toys ‘R Us and a Burlington Coat Factory. A Ford Dealership is renting the old auto bay. At least that still retains its original use. And you can rent trucks there now too. The lot of retail workers looked as shoddy and ephemeral as they were thirty years earlier, if not worse. In real dollars, the minimum wage buys even less today.

I wandered both stores, remembering what was, not really mourning it (Wards had its demise coming) but sad that these new retailers were no better than the Montgomery Ward that preceded it. In one sense they were better: they had more customers on a Friday afternoon than I remembered. The interior of my old store was mostly unrecognizable. The snack bar windows had been bricked up. Only two things inside looked familiar: the creaky escalators and the dropped ceiling tiles, many absent, laid some forty years earlier and that the owners couldn’t bother to replace.

You would think some stores would have survived thirty years. Except for the Diamond Drugs, not much remained. Retail comes and goes. You would think that McDonald’s might still be across the street, but it was now a Boston Market. The McDonald’s relocated across the street. The People’s Drug Store had long ago been converted into the ubiquitous CVS. Suburban Bank, where I had an account, is now a Bank of America. Only at Lakeforest Mall to the east did I find two retailers that had survived thirty years largely intact: a JC Penny and Sears. Sears though isn’t doing too well. It may not be there in a couple more years.

The Sam’s Club just to the north of my old store was new to me, but simply made me feel more depressed. The chain is Walmart’s answer to Costco; it doubtless had most of its employees surviving on second or third jobs, plus likely food stamps too. Fortunately, Costco has also come to Gaithersburg, and could be found a bit past Montgomery Village Avenue to the north. Doubtless the dour faced employees in the Burlington Coat Factory I noted were hoping Costco would hire them. Costco pays employees a living wage.

But the cost of housing certainly had to be more in real dollars in Gaithersburg than I remembered. I could rent a cheap apartment for $380 a month in 1979, and shared with two people it was sort of affordable, even though it still took nearly two paychecks just to pay my half of the rent. I had no idea where these workers lived now. It was probably best not to know.

Gaithersburg still felt transient. I chose to live in Reston because it at least felt like a destination. There were bike paths, ponds, lakes and woods. Gaithersburg was just more unevenly dense, a city by charter, but a place lacking a soul. The city appears to be hoping it can build one downtown. Perhaps it will spread up and down North Frederick Avenue, but it seems unlikely. Route 355 seems destined to remain forever a forty-mile long strip mall.

Feeling melancholy, I decided not to dwell there too long. Soon I was high tailing it down the interstate and across the Potomac toward home.

There goes the ‘hood

The Thinker by Rodin

Wasting a couple of hours on Google Earth is usually a lot of fun. I check out the street views on places I am going, so I know what to expect. I go back and look at places where I have been. I toggle layers on and off to see where the precipitation or cloud cover is occurring. And I check my placemarks: memorable places I have been over the years. Occasionally Google will update the imagery and I will see something new.

What fun it is to zoom in on my old college dorm and trace that familiar path to the student union, or look at the pool at the off campus apartment where I ogled women in shapely bikinis. I can zoom in on our old family house in Ormond Beach, Florida where I finished my teenage years. It’s all virtually there in Google Earth, including the house in Scotia, New York where I spent my infancy. Many of my old haunts come with very welcome street views.

Over the weekend, I used Google Earth to revisit my old apartment complex across the Potomac River in Gaithersburg, Maryland. I can drive there in about an hour, but in the quarter century since I moved out I have actually revisited the place only a couple of times. The nice thing about Old Town Gaithersburg is that it hardly ever changes. There is the train depot and Winkler Automotive across the street. There is the Diamond Drug on the corner of East Diamond Avenue and Summit Avenue. The only thing missing is the Ty Gwyn Apartment Complex, on 330-334 East Diamond Avenue, where I spent five years. It’s gone. Demolished. Bulldozed over sometime last year. My heart sank. My home was gone!

I lived at 332 East Diamond Avenue, Apartment 13 for five years, from 1979 to 1984. It was my first real home out of college. It was my bachelor pad, of sorts. I say “of sorts” because while I was a bachelor, I was not one of the moneyed kinds. I was more like the nearly impoverished kind. From 1979 to 1981, I worked at a Montgomery Ward in Gaithersburg selling lawn and garden equipment. Wards of course went out of business, finally succumbing to total liquidation in 2000. (It still has an online catalog store, when the brand was purchased.) So while in the Ty Gwyn Apartments, I had always had a roommate, principally Randy, a guy about my age with long curly blond locks, who did carpentry and ran marathons in his spare time. This kept my share of the rent to around two hundred bucks a month. I didn’t need a vacuum. Rose, the chain-smoking landlady with the flaming red hair was glad to loan me hers when the need arose. I might have stayed in the Ty Gwyn Apartments forever except I met my wife while living there, and we eventually decided to cohabitate across the river in Reston, Virginia. I left but sort of assumed the old ’hood would always be there largely unchanged, much like the Triple Cities where I spent my formative years.

Ty Gwyn Apartments in Gaithersburg, Maryland
Ty Gwyn Apartments in Gaithersburg, Maryland

Spending five years anywhere, particularly as a young adult, is a long time. Gaithersburg became my adopted home. My garden apartment was in fact nothing terribly special, but it was reasonably clean and functional. The balcony overlooked a much less attractive set of brick apartments next door. During the day you could hear the squeals of school children from the elementary school that boarded the property. When there were not squeals, there were the much louder whistles of locomotives hustling through town. You got inured to it after a while, but the noise was always deafening, even living across the street in an apartment with the doors and windows shut. Windows shook and floorboards rattled.

Old Town Gaithersburg was convenient. A Ride On bus stop was right on the street. There were times I needed it as I started out without a usable car, but I could easily walk or bike most places. A MARC commuter train could take me easily into D.C. There was a small grocery down the street, and Lake Forest Mall was about a mile away. Being of modest means, I often commuted by bike. If I wasn’t working, I looked forward to a fresh and hot pizza from Angelo’s on Friday night. It was always delicious. If I needed milk, it was a short walk to the High’s where I often bought a box of Entenmann’s as well. I was poor and mostly loveless, but those days in Gaithersburg were pretty good in retrospect. At least life was uncomplicated. Some part of me wants to return to Gaithersburg and live there again, in spite of the prostitute who I learned later catered to a discreet clientele in a room above the drugstore.

But, I won’t be able to go back to the Ty Gwyn Apartments. It is history and now exists only in my mind and in some ephemeral Google Earth street views. It and the apartments next door have been demolished to make room for a new, more yuppified Old Town Gaithersburg. The city no longer wants a real old town; it wants the image of an old town. You know what that means: new and upscale apartments and condos, with wide sidewalks full of eateries, and parking decks. The new buildings have HUD approval, but I’m betting not one of these new fancy apartment buildings would actually be affordable to someone who made as little as I did when I was living there in my early twenties. Frankly, it’s too nice for the looks of people like me back then.

For I was one of the working class, East Diamond Avenue was our neighborhood, and the living was unsophisticated but enough. It was a neighborhood without pretensions, where you got by, where you did not offend your neighbors, and where geniality reigned. This included a retired couple on a government pension one floor below me who (set your watch to it) made love every Wednesday night at nine o’clock. I never heard the husband but the oversized moans from the wife always culminated in loud ecstasy. They then remained quiet until the following Wednesday night.

Until recently, I could visit the old ’hood. Now it’s gone. It’s going to be newer and shinier while somehow also looking sort of quaint and oldish. There will be virtually no working class people living there but there will be more people there: the upwardly mobile and more-moneyed kind, who won’t park in the lot but in the parking deck, who won’t buy a gallon of milk at High’s (it’s gone) but will buy an overpriced Iced Coffee with Milk at the Starbucks on the street level. The neighborhood’s independently owned Angelo’s Pizza is long gone but there is a Vocelli’s franchise down the street. The new Old Town Gaithersburg thus will look a lot like new Old Towns everywhere, with its character largely squeezed out and young urban professionals squeezed into new loft apartments instead. However, their higher income levels will fill the city’s coffers with doubtless desperately needed funds.

For me, I just sort of grieve. It’s gone. All that remains is some rubble and a fading Google Earth street view. Perhaps the Diamond Drug will still be there and independently owned, but I am betting CVS will soon buy it out.