Six acres, two schools, a park and suburban continuity in Silver Spring

1958-bulletinjpgSuburbia has many critics and defenders. The former excoriate the space as wasteful sprawl and the latter defend its place in architectural and social history. Somewhere between the two extremes lie stories originating in suburbia’s mythically sterile origins and which celebrate the adaptations residents and entrepreneurs made to newly created residential spaces.

Silver Spring’s Alexander School and camp — the place where Bird Legs dwelled in underground caves — is one of those stories.

When developers finished platting residential subdivisions and building physical infrastructure and houses, they turned the spaces over to new residents: homeowners. These residents needed stores, schools, and other services to complete their new communities. Sometimes the builders provided these; other times it was up to the public sector and entrepreneurs. Continue reading

Regentrification in Atlanta’s former meatpacking district

When [Anne Quatrano] and her husband, Clifford, first moved Bacchanalia from its original location in Buckhead to the Westside in 1999, the neighborhood was hardly a neighborhood at all. “It was desolate,” Quatrano says. Seventeen years later, Howell Mill Road is prime real estate, hot with new apartment complexes, boutique clothing stores, and hip coffee shops — Atlanta Magazine on the relocation of first-wave gentrifiers in Atlanta’s Westside Provisions District.

Atlanta's Westside Provision District, 2014.

Atlanta’s Westside Provisions District, 2014.

Once the heart of Atlanta’s stockyards and meatpacking district, the Howell Mill Road area  west of the city’s midtown suffered from disinvestment and abandonment until the 1990s when upscale restaurants and boutiques began moving in. Many of the new businesses drew heavily on the area’s history. New businesses incorporated meat industry names into their titles. Establishments like the Abattoir restaurant, White Provisions, and Star Provisions anchored the district, which was rebranded the Westside Provisions District.

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Westside Provisions District, 2014.

Now, as Atlanta Magazine recently reported, a pair of the first-wave gentrifiers, Star Provisions and Bacchanalia (owned by the same company) are relocating. Reasons given include parking pressures (new developments have private decks) and the business owner’s inability to reach a new rent deal with the landlord.

Star Provisions and Bachhanalia, 2014.

Star Provisions and Bacchanalia, 2014.

Gentrified meatpacking districts are one of the phenomenon’s ironies. Whether it’s New York’s Meatpacking District or Washington’s changing Benning Road area or Pittsburgh’s Northside, there’s something about places where animals were converted into dollars that now are spaces where neighborhoods are being cut up, repackaged, and sold to new types of consumers.

Washington Square, New York City.

Meatpacking District, New York City.

© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein

That infamous villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant, comes to Silver Spring

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New York political boss William Tweed blasts Carolan O’Brien Bryant in the New York Times, July 20, 1877.

Four Corners was a sleepy Montgomery County, Maryland, crossroads hamlet in the late 1880s when Carolan O’Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant’s Gilded Age effort to build a large estate marks a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs. Though nothing remains of Bryant’s sprawling estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.

“That Infamous Villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant”

"Boss Tweed in Court." Credit: New York Pulbic Libbrary.

“Boss Tweed in Court.” Credit: New York Public Library.

Born Carl Bryant sometime in the 1830s, his entire family changed their names in 1859 adding the O’Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of Tammany’s Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William “Boss” Tweed.

Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people wondered whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Even his appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. “He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance,” wrote the New York Times in Bryant’s obituary. “He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders.” A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, “He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again.”

Though Bryant had friends and relatives among New York’s elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest and untrustworthy cad. In Bryant’s obituary, the New York Times did concede,

Although some men said harsh and unpleasant things about him, the relations between father and daughters always appeared to be of the most tender nature. Continue reading

Bird Legs Park

Camp-BulletinSometime after World War II a creature moved into tunnels beneath a nursery school and summer camp in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The children who attended the Alexander Camp called it “Bird Legs.”

“There was a legend about a monster called Bird Legs,” said Kaye Giuliani. “Scared the hell out of everybody.” Giuliani is Ernest Kendall’s granddaughter. He founded the camp and nursery school in 1947 after nearly 20 years as the principal of the Capitol Page School in neighboring Washington. I was interviewing Giuliani in her Maryland home about the school and camp’s history when she mentioned Bird Legs.

The Alexander Camp occupied a six-acre tract in Silver Spring, Maryland’s, Four Corners neighborhood. For much of the last half of the 20th century, the site had been used as a private school and camp. In 1997 its last private owner sold the property to the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission which had plans to redevelop it by expanding the neighboring North Four Corners Park.

Like much of the property’s storied past, the Bird Legs legend quickly faded once Montgomery County razed the school buildings and allowed the grounds to lie fallow for 20 years before completing the park expansion. But to former campers and students, the story lives on in personal narratives and in posts to social media sites.

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Former Alexander School and Camp site. The entrance to North Four Corners Park is where the school building originally was located.

“[My] memories are packed with stories about the summer overnight jambories [sic.] and the counselors story telling (birdlegs) around the night firepit,” wrote one alum in 2011. Continue reading

The curious history of Bladensburg’s Spa Spring

Open spaces are important parts of the cultural landscape. The Washington region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings with which they are associated. The National Mall and Rock Creek Park are two notable examples. Other metro area parks have lesser-known histories or have been overtaken by development and erased from the landscape. Bladensburg, Maryland’s, Spa Spring is one example with close ties to Washington’s history.

Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George’s County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Adjacent to the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission’s Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg’s light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph “H.J.” Stier’s 729-acre Riversdale plantation. Continue reading