Wednesday, September 06, 2006

There’s a “there” here, Part 2

I wish the buildings in Buckingham, my own included, were better looking.

I thought of this because I ate lunch in Gaithersburg the other day with friends from work. Gaithersburg has a pretty little downtown. They have a nice looking train station, with red brick and broad eaves to keep the rain off. The streets are narrow, walkable, with pretty store fronts. It’s not Utopia, it’s just cute.

And it got me thinking of Gertrude Stein’s quote: “There’s no there there.” Bartleby tells me she was referring to her own Oakland, Calif. There really is a “there” in Gaithersburg, and for a moment I was thinking that Buckingham has no “there” here in terms of architecture. Does the architecture in the neighborhood offer anything unique? The neighborhood has a pocket or two of architectural derring-do. The George Mason Apartments have gauged archways over windows, and a spire atop one building, for instance. But it's tough to find any flourish.

This isn’t to say Buckingham has nothing to offer.

I had back surgery a few years ago and wasn’t allowed to drive or even ride a bike, so I was happy to live here. Everything from great food (restaurants to groceries), to toiletries, to hair cutting to postal services was just a five minute walk away. It’s a pleasant walk under the trees of Buckingham, and the people are nice.

Yet our economic center, the Buckingham Plaza, is divided by Glebe “Take Your Life in Your Hands” Road. The center itself, like its residential brethren, isn’t much to look at. Most of the buildings now share the same black, green, red and white signs in an attempt to bring some cohesion to the area, and their retro style, a little history. But some of the buildings are painted (or need paint), and others are concrete-gray. The strip has no particular look. Rectangular boxes with different roof lines, columns at one end and smooth concrete at another means the place doesn’t fall into any sort of style, or time period. They’re just brick boxes.

Yet for all its warts, the center still has good restaurants, groceries and other amenities.

It’s just not that pretty. And that’s important, because prettier places are easier to save. Paradigm Companies are now beginning to renovate Buckingham Village 2—townhouses starting in the $700s are coming. Part of me likes the idea of change. I don’t look at the buildings to be destroyed and think the architecture is that impressive, or historical.

In the Arlington Oaks Community Center we have old advertisements for the area, asking “King Everyman” and “Queen Everywoman” to move into these garden-style apartments. They were made for the middle class, inexpensive and quick to build, functional and sturdy. I look at them and think “efficient”—put them up quick and use the fewest bricks possible.

There is a “there” here, it’s just less in the buildings than in the people, the open space, and the amenities. That’s what needs to be saved. The county board, in their negotiations with Paradigm to determine what sort of change will come next, needs to keep this in mind.

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