ALONG U.S. ROUTE 1 – You can find almost anything on U.S. Route 1. Need a tattoo? Chocolate body paint? Fire fighting equipment? Moon Pies? It’s all tucked into the hodgepodge of strip malls, fast food restaurants and car dealerships on Route 1, between the District and Baltimore.
Route 1 was the first direct highway between these two cities, and although it was superseded by the Baltimore- Washington Parkway in the 1950s, it still retains its traffic- oriented character.
Gas stations, car dealerships and body shops line the road.
Cheap hotels are strung out like fake diamonds.
And traffic, the grinding, wheezing, whining, creaking, rushing hum of traffic, is never far away.
There is no perceptible change when Route 1 crosses from Northeast Washington into Maryland. Across the border of Eastern Avenue, the grimy grocery stores, pawn shops and take-out restaurants of the city continue.
Four blocks down at 38th Avenue, however, lies the heart of old Mount Rainier, where several of the businesses have been replaced by New Age boutiques.
On one corner sits Entre Nois, “A Spiritual Church Boutique” that advertises pyramid power and a church pew sale in its front window.
Across the street, a natural food store called Glut sits next to the W.W.C.G. Nutritional Clinic, where patrons can acquire information on a “colon tissue cleansing program.”
A little further down the road, past a stretch of auto body shops and the gleaming Hyattsville District Court, the store fronts of old Hyattsville loom.
On the corner of Gallatin and Route 1, students from the TESST Electronics and Computer Institute pick up lunch at Dee’s Deli or window shop at Kung Fu Martial Arts Equipment and Antiques, where the window display includes Japanese lanterns, blue ceramic dogs and fluorescent plastic dioramas.
In the 1940s, Hyattsville was the local shopping district, says Bobbi Follin-Sigworth, owner of Follin’s Guest Home in College Park. “You got on the street car and took it down to Hyattsville. You did all your shopping there,” she said. “There wasn’t anything in College Park.”
Now it is a mixture of antique shops and renovated businesses. The old Hyattsville Hardware Co. has been transformed into Franklin’s General Store, a gift shop and deli that carries toys, gifts, candy and gourmet foods.
Employee Gloria Sharrar said the store’s most popular item is chocolate body paint. “Just the name sells it,” she said. “People eat it right out of the jar.”
Lustine’s car dealership, which takes up much of the next several blocks with car lots and show rooms, is a throwback to the 1950s. White and blue tinsel snaps in the wind behind a 1950s sign of a man in a blue suit stretching his arms out to the world.
The gleaming silver and glass Chevrolet showcase across the street must have looked modern in the 1950s. Now the glass has the yellow lustre of age.
“Lustine’s was founded in 1920,” says sales manager Stan Holmes, a hefty man with slick grey curls and a gravelly voice. “Before that it was countryside around here.”
The next town, Riverdale, is a jumble of gas stations, fast food restaurants and office buildings that give way to the wooded hills of University Park.
The first strip mall on Route 1 appears in downtown College Park. Beneath the fluted blue metal roof students stock up on alcohol, pizza, videos and party supplies. A second strip mall on the other side of the University of Maryland campus contains restaurants with Hunan, Mongolian, Mexican and Middle Eastern food, as well as New York style pizza.
The road zigzags out of College Park toward the Capital Beltway, past Madam Flora, palmist, Charley and Sandy’s Great Southern Tattoo Co. and dozens of car dealerships.
On the corner of Route 1 and Lackawana is the Glenn D. Culbert Fire Fighting Equipment Co. Here prospective fire fighters can stock up on jackets, reflective gear, lights, sirens, pumps, repair parts and hoses. A spindle on the counter displays a gleaming collection of gold, silver and enamel fire fighter buttons.
The road passes over the Beltway and skirts the grounds of the National Agricultural Research Library, where scholars can research topics such as small-scale chicken production, chinchilla breeding, fig culture and pygmy goats.
In Beltsville, the stores and strip malls begin to pile up in a dizzying succession: auto sales, auto parts, auto body, transmissions; motors, mufflers, brakes and windshields. Furniture, mattresses, wall paper and ladders.
Past the strip, the road stretches out for a rural patch between Beltsville and Laurel. There you can find the Wonder Hostess Bakery Thrift Shop, a white building with blue, yellow and red polka dots. Patrons can purchase donuts, Wonder buns and Moon Pies, all at a discount.
After Beltsville comes Laurel, home of the mega-malls. At the intersection of Route 1 and Main Street, however, an older aesthetic remains. A gleaming silver Tastee Diner sits across the street from a Little Tavern restaurant.
“The Little Taverns used to be all over the area,” said Jacquelyn Bateman, executive director of the Laurel Historic District Commission. “You could run in and get a bag of 10 cent hamburgers.”
Beyond Laurel, the traffic thins and the road widens. Houses give way to trailer parks and shopping malls are replaced by roadside shacks such as Hub Cap City, a small lean-to covered floor to roof with bright silver disks. But it’s still Route 1, the road described by Riverdale funeral director Thomas Chambers as a slum of “junk cars, traffic and noise.” And that’s what makes it worth the trip. -30-