Category Archives: Misspent Youth

Misspent Youth: Robinson Nature Center

Robinson Nature CenterOne of my minor disappointments living in the planned town of Columbia, Maryland, is that while it’s an exceedingly nice place to live, it’s sort of… Characterless. Like, if you were writing a nondescript mid-atlantic medium-large semi-urban community to use as a setting for a TV show, and you didn’t want anything too distinctive or quirky that might make take your audience out of the vague sense of familiarity with the setting. You’d basically be writing Columbia, except for the fact that it might come off a little too generic without any specific named points of interest to send the characters to. I mean, we’ve got just about every chain restaurant you can think of, but hardly any non-chain restaurants. And we’ve got a Wal-Mart and a Target and multiple GameStops and a Pier One and Home Depot and a Lowes, but I can’t think of a single mom-n-pop store. The town was built with a deliberation that “normal” towns aren’t, so it largely lacks the character that comes from a long history of piecemeal development and redevelopment. And it’s only about ten years older than I am, so it doesn’t really have much history of any other sort either. I know this sounds like the whitest white guy complaint in the history of white guys complaining about things that aren’t coal mining jobs, but that’s part of the problem. Columbia is the khaki-wearing white guy of towns. Not that it isn’t a racially diverse community in the literal sense, but in the sense of being a projection of our dominant cultural image of what “generic normal entity with no distinctive features or rough edges” looks like (This is not an endorsement of “white guy in khakis” being or dominant cultural image of what “default human” looks like. Again, it’s part of the problem). Even the whimsy (there’s part of town where all the streets are named for things out of Tolkien) feels manufactured.You know how some cities have “Keep [city] Weird” bumper stickers? You’d never see a “Keep Columbia Weird” bumper sticker. I think the last Columbia-themed bumper sticker I saw bore the legend “Choose Civility”.

I should probably also moderate myself a bit by pointing out that Columbia does pretty well in terms of cultural events. Mostly at Symphony Woods. But there’s plenty of concerts and local theater and wine festivals and art festivals. And this is great, but it’s also very temporally bound, and that can be a big burden when you’re a parent with a full time job and basically have the time you have, and also kinda hate people as a class and are more interested in the experience of place rather than event. This is why I’m glad that a couple of weeks ago, the dad of one of Dylan’s friends tipped me off about the James and Anne Robinson Nature Center. “Nature Center” maybe isn’t something I’d naturally seek out on my own, having memories of boring field trips to the local wildlife refuge to see local trees and fauna which, being local, I could already see by going to my back yard.

That is, I think, part of what the Robinson Nature Center is about. It’s got nature trails and gardens and tree planting projects and scenic overlooks the Middle Patuxent River, and oyster shell recycling, and an area where they demonstrate compost. But in addition to all that, there’s also this big L-shaped building right at the center, and that’s the part that made this a thing I wanted to do with my son.

The indoor part of the Nature Center is essentially a small nature museum. It’s kinda like they just ripped the nature room out of a really good science center and plopped it down in the middle of a park. The indoor exhibition is small, but it’s really well done. As you enter, there’s a small gift shop on your left next to the admissions desk. We didn’t stop at the gift shop on this trip because I was pretty much letting Dylan drive and he didn’t notice it. To the left is a sort of small reading room, cozy and softly lit, lined with bookshelves, with a fireplace and comfy chairs. Reminds me of the first floor lounge in the Humanities building back at Loyola, in the part of the building that still retains its original Tudor stylings from when it was the Jesuit residences half a century ago.

Robinson Nature Center

He’s in the middle of making a new friend out-of-frame to the right.

The temporary exhibits are beyond. Currently, they’re exhibiting some mixed media photographics by local artist Denée Barr. There’s also a large wooden tractor on loan from Port Discovery for the kids to climb on as part of the “Here We Grow” exhibit, running until July. The rest of that exhibit, downstairs, consists of a beanbag toss game based on Maryland agriculture, and a collection of wooden parts and plastic connectors with which children can try to invent their own novel piece of farm equipment. Other agriculture-themed displays line the downstairs hallway.

Robinson Nature CenterThe first permanent exhibit you come to is on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The main feature is one of those tilt-table displays where you tilt the table to control a helicopter as it flies around the Chesapeake Bay area, hovering over points of historical and ecological interest to bring up little information screens. I think this maybe could have used an audio component for younger visitors, but Dylan had plenty of fun just flying the helicopter around even if he didn’t care to hold it still long enough for me to read him the text about the fate of watermen or the dangers of agricultural runoff.

An alcove to the left houses the “Changing Lives, Changing Landscapes” exhibit, showing, I think, the history of human inhabitants in the Howard County area. Dylan pulled me through too fast for me to get a good look. It’s pretty brief, close as I could tell, basically just one panel on Native Americans, and then a somewhat larger one about European settlers. A reproduction flintlock rifle and ax are mounted to the wall, but I didn’t get a chance to read the text. It was kinda similar to the first part of the Chester River room at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, but a lot more abbreviated. It also contains an animatronic model of an 18th century grist mill, which Dylan liked a lot, but not enough to stand still for the entire length of time it took me to explain the process of grinding wheat into flour. You turn a big wall-mounted wheel to set the thing off and watch elevators and archimedes screws and grinding stones all move and turn and it’s kinda cool and I wish I knew of a nearby museum that was all just this kind of exhibit.

Robinson Nature CenterThe real centerpiece of the collection is the “Life of the Forest” exhibit, though. This is a big section all about the various things that live in different parts of the forest environment. It’s subdivided into three distinct sections. The upper gallery is this large, open, naturally-lit room where images of forest life appear on leaf-shaped tiles hanging from display trees. Information panels describe life in the treetops, with buttons scattered about that activate birdsongs. Binoculars mounted in places give you a chance to look out into the surrounding woods to see the local inhabitants firsthand. Dylan grew increasingly excited as we proceeded through this section, almost enough that we didn’t really get to see much as his anticipation kept driving him onward.

Robinson Nature Center

No lie: I asked Dylan if what he could see in the forest, and he told me he couldn’t see anything because of all the trees in the way.

You descend down a long ramp to the lower gallery which focuses on the forest floor. This was probably my favorite part, and Dylan lingered here longer than anywhere else as well. The upper gallery is very beautiful, but the lower one is very dense and full of lots of individual things to look at. Dylan was, for reasons of his own, really excited by the sticks. Because there were sticks. I mean, duh.

Robinson Nature Center

I do not wish to show you the dead deer, so here is a gratuitous beaver shot instead.

One word of caution here: when you reach the bottom of the ramp, the very first thing you will see on entering the forest floor is a dead deer being eaten by buzzards. It’s under a sign bearing the legend, “Nature’s Recycling”, or words to that effect, explaining the whole circle of life thing, and it’s a good and important exhibit and very well-made, but I don’t know what they were thinking making it what they chose to lead off on. In this section, mounted flashlights illuminate messages carved into tree trunks about nature. Spring-loaded panels can be pulled out from below the displays to read information about the animals.

I was particularly impressed by the quality of the water displays. Lucite-filled cavities in the simulated forest floor give you a cross-sectional look into shallow pools and rivers. There’s a small pond prominently displaying stages of amphibian life, with frogs and salamanders frozen in various stages of development, and a larger section displaying beavers hard at work building a dam. There’s a hollowed out log in which one lizard protects its eggs as its mate loses a fight to a snake, and a hollow tree trunk you can step inside to see baby bats asleep on the ceiling. All the animals are models, just in case you were concerned. I’m sure a place like this would only have used ethically taxidermied animals if they were real, but the use of models removes any worries about that.

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Misspent Youth: The Centre at Glen Burnie, Part 2: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

20160401_144743

Fun fact: there was a Japanese live-action Spider-Man series in the ’70s where he had a race car that turned into a giant city-smashing robot. It is generally considered the direct inspiration for the Super Sentai franchise which eventually gave rise to Power Rangers

Right before that furniture store that used to be a Dick’s, I come to a section where the west side is recessed further back than the surrounding wall. And I am transported. It is December, probably. 1984 or maybe 1985. They’re doing an event at the mall. They’ve partitioned off the recessed section of the hallway and created this little holiday gift shopping area where parents could send little kids through and the attendants would help them buy Christmas presents for their parents in secret.

It was all too much for me. I was small, and I was overwhelmed. My parents had given me some money, but I didn’t really know how much, and I only really understood how money worked in an abstract sense. I had this idea in my head to be deathly afraid of breaking my budget. I had no idea how much money I actually had. I had no idea how much things cost. I couldn’t do the math. I don’t know if I didn’t know how to do the math or if it was just anxiety. I was scared I’d get to the end without finding anything. It was too much. I was over my head. I was afraid to touch things. I don’t think I even fully perceived the goods on offer. I saw a tiny little candle in a ceramic holder with a picture of Garfield on the lid. I liked Garfield. I pretty much grabbed it and booked, relieved that the ordeal was over. I payed my money and got my change and they gift wrapped it and I rejoined my parents.

Mostly I was relieved. There was maybe some little sense of pride in there at having bought a present for my parents “all by myself”, but it was tempered by a very secret shame that I’d failed in my task — that a tiny little Garfield candle wasn’t really good enough as a Christmas gift to my parents, that I’d cheaped out and chickened out, and that probably my parents knew this. Or worse, knew almost this: that a small child might feel overwhelmed in the face of being sent out all alone with a big responsibility like Christmas shopping all by himself was one thing, but I’d spend years quietly obsessing over the idea that what they really thought was that I’d simply been selfish. That I’d picked out something with Garfield on it because I liked Garfield, and I’d picked the cheapest thing I could find in hopes of pocketing the change. I couldn’t articulate the difference between how I felt I’d failed and how I assumed (And let me be clear here: these were the assumptions of child-me, not an evidence-based assessment of their actual feelings) they thought I’d failed.

Over the years, the details of what really happened faded in my memory, and my brain kept evolving so that the basic premises of my actual feelings and behaviors no longer made sense. I forgot how to imagine panicking at the inability to do basic arithmetic, or at being on the other side of a partition wall from my parents, so I edited my memories to say that maybe my hypothetically-judgmental parents were right and it had really been about me being selfish. I only came to really understand and articulate how I’d felt back then last Christmas, when I took Dylan to a dollar store to pick out a present for his mother. He was excited by the idea of picking out a present all by himself, but faced with the reality of it, he tried immediately to convince me that she’d really like a rawhide dog treat, because it was literally the first thing he saw, and he just desperately wanted this to be over so he could get on with the fun part where he got to pick out a toy for himself. It wasn’t that he was being selfish: “What would mommy like for Christmas out of this collection of ALL THE THINGS IN THE UNIVERSE UNDER FIVE DOLLARS?” was too big a concept. We went home and ordered her a mom-themed mug from Amazon instead. Dylan got a dinosaur hat.

Keep walking north through the mall. You pass the Permanently Closing Furniture Store that used to be a Dick’s that used to be a Murphy’s. Not too far past that is a kiosk that serves coffee drinks and light fare, the only inward-facing food place in the mall. There’s also a video game place. Google Maps tells me it’s called “Power Gamer II”. It looks and feels basically like a GameStop, but with a lot of counter space devoted to very old used games. Like fourth and fifth-gen stuff. There seemed to be a whole lot of nonstandard Playstation controllers on sale. There’s also a shoe store, and I think one of those places where they pluck your eyebrows using dental floss.

I should point out that although the mall feels very abandoned and lonely, I don’t actually think there were many shuttered storefronts. The mall may actually be way less empty than it seems. Because they basically turned it inside out, it can be hard to tell if you’re looking at an unoccupied space or just the back of an outward-facing one. In any case, the place seems hauntingly out-of-time. If anything, the fact that it’s well-maintained somehow adds to that: it doesn’t feel like you’re wandering into a long-abandoned mall so much as a freshly abandoned one. The paint is fresh, the plants are still alive, there’s no cobwebs or dust, but somehow, in here, it’s still the ’80s.

If I was struck by dredged-up childhood memories at the south end of the mall, it’s nothing compared to the north end. There is no memory involved here: the Toys “R” Us end of the mall has simply been lifted out of my childhood and dropped in 2016. It is unchanged in every substantive detail. There have undoubtedly been some minor changes to the trim and facade in other parts of the mall, but not here. Rather than the sort of large, open entryway standard for shopping malls, the entrance is similar to old grocery stores, a row of standard-height (rather than floor-length) windows flanked on either side by a single automatic sliding door. It’s got to be an artifact of its origins as a Topps. Above the sliding doors are illuminated signs which raise the door arch to the level of the top of the windows. It’s the kind of sign that’s made from a translucent plastic rectangle in the front of a deep frame, behind which are fluorescent tube lights (It turns out these are called “lightboxes”, and there’s a bunch of places that make them, which surprises me just a little because it feels like I never see them any more. Maybe it’s just that modern ones mostly use a dark background and old ones used a light one). Used to be a really common form of business signage when I was young, but they’re uncommon enough today that the “Welcome” sign feels ancient, despite the fact that it shows the post-2007 version of Geoffery the Giraffe.

FIGHT FOR MY AMUSEMENT, ANIMAL MASCOTS!

FIGHT FOR MY AMUSEMENT, ANIMAL MASCOTS!

The entire facade is outlined by four rows of ceramic tile — men’s room tile, essentially, blue, green, yellow, red. The large marquee above is the modern Toys “R” Us logo, the version with a large blue “R” with a star for its loop. There’s also a hanging sign orthogonal to the storefront, for the benefit of anyone on the cross-hallway. That one shows the “classic” 20th-century version of the logo, the one with a yellow R in scare quotes. I didn’t check if it was still there, but Google Street View shows the transitional version of the logo, a yellow R in a blue star, on the outside of the mall in the front.

I Don't Wanna Grow Up

I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

Inside, the Toys “R” Us is also largely unchanged. In the picture, you can maybe sorta see that even the light indicating where the checkout counters are is very retro. I mean, obviously, the toys are different and the displays are different, but the store hasn’t had a major refit in a long time. It seems weirdly small. It’s just not as big as the enormous big-box stores that dominate retail these days. It seemed bigger back when I was smaller. There was somewhere around here that you could get an Icee when I was a kid. Maybe a cart in the front of the store?

Even the light fixtures are the same.

Even the light fixtures are the same.

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Misspent Youth: The Centre at Glen Burnie, Part 1: The Octonauts and the Inside-Out Mall

Previously…

  1. They knocked down the Severna Park Mall and the Jumpers Mall.
  2. Marley Station is creepy.
  3. They knocked down the Harundale Mall.
Charmingly Optimistic.

Charmingly Optimistic.

It is April 1, 2016. In Mississippi, the final version of House Bill 1523 is passed by the House, granting broad protection against prosecution for open discrimination against LBGT individuals based on religious beliefs. The governor will sign it next Wednesday. The law, a pretty brazen end-run around Obgerfell v. Hodges, singles out the specific religious beliefs that marriage is between one man and one woman, that sex is only permissible within marriage, and that gender is fixed at birth. It is on the basis of the privileging of three specific religious beliefs to the exclusion of all others (For example, the law noticeably does not allow discrimination against divorced people, those with tattoos, or cotton-poly blends) that US District Judge Carlton Reeves would issue an injunction against the bill at the end of June. Hope Solo and four other US women’s Soccer players file a lawsuit against US Soccer for wage discrimination, on account of they’re paid way less than the men. Google releases, then quickly withdraws, a “Mic drop” feature in Gmail, after the April Fools’ Day joke enrages users by tricking them into mistakenly attaching clever GIFs to important emails.

There is jack-all on TV tonight. Syfy airs an original movie, Dead 7, an inexplicable Zombie Boy-Band Western. Written by Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, it stars members of 98 Degrees, O-Town, ‘N Sync and All-4-One, and I can’t imagine I even have to tell you who produced it. Harold Cronk’s latest, God’s Not Dead 2, is released. Cheap Trick releases Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello, their first album since 2009’s Sgt. Pepper Live. Axl Rose performs live at the Troubadour with Slash and Duff McKagan for the first time in 23 years. There is an excessive amount of Justin Beiber on the Billboard Charts. Patty Duke died this past Tuesday.

But why are we here — or rather, now [Not where, Constable. When?]? These meanders of mine are all about nostalgia, and April of the current year is not the sort of time period one normally gets nostalgic about. See, it’s like this: we’d had a potluck lunch at work the day before. And we also had one today, so it’s got me thinking back. Not that this is really here nor there, but I remember it because half of the tray of chicken and swiss wraps I’d brought in were left over the next day, and I was taking them home with me to feed my family over the weekend.

Anyway, it was Friday and it was a slow day, and people I needed to coordinate with had already left for the weekend, so I decided to knock off right before lunch. And since I had a few hours where I wasn’t expected to be anywhere in particular, I decided to tick off something from my list of not-especially-important things I wanted to do eventually.

Which is how I found myself driving up Ritchie Highway early in the afternoon on a Friday in April. This is when I got the pictures of the Harundale Rock that accompanied my last article in this series. Also a couple of pictures from the Marley article, though most of those were from an earlier trip. But this was hardly enough to justify the trip, so I reckoned I ought to hit up the remains of the one last mall of my youth. So I pulled out of the parking lot at Harundale Plaza and headed north.

I don’t recognize much of this stretch of Ritchie Highway. My dad, as I previously mentioned, soured on the road during the years when it was his daily commute, and once I-97 opened in the late ’80s, we avoided it like the plague. I preferred the southern part of Ritchie Highway from Annapolis up through Pasadena for my occasional drives to and from school as an undergraduate around the turn of the century, and when I was commuting to grad school for the first couple of months before I moved to Hampden — seemed like a safer place to be in case my ancient Subaru with enough miles to make it most of the way back from the moon broke down — but I always hopped over to route 10 just south of Marley.

I’m not at all sure how much has changed and how much has stayed the same and I’ve just forgotten. There’s a handful of landmarks I kinda-sorta recognize. The bowling alley where I bowled for the first time. A building right around 6th Avenue which isn’t really all that big, but is so much taller than the surrounding buildings that it seemed like a skyscraper. Keep going, and about two and a half miles north of Harundale, not too far south from the MVA headquarters and the ramps to the Baltimore beltway, you come to a quadrangle that was basically the old Big-Box district, back before Big Box stores were really a thing. The Best I mentioned last time was around here somewhere. For about three years, there was a place called Leedmark.

leedmarkLeedmark was a French-owned “Hypermarket”, an enormous, sprawling store that sold food and furniture and clothes and consumer electronics, and everyone thought it was utterly ridiculous back in 1992, because hur-dur, do eggs go on top of VCRs or underneath, and who wants to go food shopping and clothes shopping in the same place at the same time? It’ll never catch on. Also, you had to stick a quarter in the shopping cart to un-dock it from the cart corral, something I have only ever seen one other time. Dad suggested that a kid could make a decent living wandering the lot and offering to return the carts of shoppers whose time was worth more than getting their deposit back. We only went there once or twice. It closed in 1993 and the site is a Wal-Mart Supercenter now, which sounds more like a punchline than reality.

But what we’re here for is a place called the Centre at Glen Burnie. Up until a few years ago, its parking lot housed the last Bennigans I’m aware of (It’s an Italian place now). It’s a medium-big strip center anchored by a Target and an Office Depot and capital-letter-eschewing-palindrone-aspirant hhgregg.

Only, it’s not, really. A strip mall, I mean. You wouldn’t know to look at it, but the Centre at Glen Burnie is not a strip mall.

Seriously adorable.

Seriously adorable.

My son is starting to drift away from it a bit, but for the longest time, one of his favorite shows was The Octonauts. It’s a slightly fanciful, visually distinctive computer-animated series based on a series of picture books by someone named Meomi, about an aquatic animal rescue team. “Animal rescue team” in that they rescue animals, and also are animals themselves. Cute, round-headed animals with distinctive accents, mostly from the British Isles, each with a handful of cute catchphrases. And they go around helping injured sea creatures or cleaning up environmental catastrophes, or corralling invasive species in their octopus-themed underwater base, often using small, specialized submersible vehicles called Gups.

The reason I bring this up is that there’s an episode (3×04 “The Octonauts and the Artificial Reef”) where there’s a coral reef that gets damaged in a hurricane or something, and they also wreck one of their Gups, so they decide to use the wrecked Gup as the foundation for an artificial reef for the displaced sea creatures. It’s a somewhat romanticized version of the real-world practice of sinking decommissioned ships to create a new habitat for sea life.

I'll have to check with Dylan, but I believe it is the only Gup capable of sporting a jaunty moustache.

I’ll have to check with Dylan, but I believe it is the only Gup capable of sporting a jaunty moustache.

The Centre at Glen Burnie is kind of like that. As we’ve already seen, in Severna Park and Harundale, they simply bulldozed the old malls and built anew. At Jumper’s, they didn’t go quite that far, but they remodeled and in-filled until the only evidence of the old mall is the excessive number of exterior doors around the back. Something different happened in Glen Burnie. Rather than demolishing the Glen Burnie Mall when its Montgomery Ward anchor closed in 2002, they put up a Target and let a collection of medium and small storefronts accrete around the nearly-dead husk of the old mall. But underneath the barnacles and coral and Quiznos and Boater’s World, the old mall still exists, intact but buried, a little slice out of history that’s been preserved and encysted, less by choice and more by accident of history.

Actually, the other maritime TV show equivalence that strikes me is this old episode of seaQuest DSV, where they find a sunken cruise ship from the early 20th century. Somehow, the last guy on board when the ship was going down managed to seal off a big section of the ship before it flooded and rigged up some kind of seawater electrolysis device to generate air and electricity and lived out his life at the bottom of the ocean inside the sunken ship. Which sounds scientifically dicey but would make a really neat video game.

The mall does not call attention to itself, which is probably for the best, since they’d surely close it down if anyone noticed it was there. There are four entrances. The three on the front have been updated to match the style of the strip mall, but you could easily mistake them for storefronts. Their signs read “The Centre at Glen Burnie” and “A Great Collection of Specialty Shops” — probably an overstatement — with a much smaller “Mall Entrance” sign below. One of the mall entrances used to bear the marquee of the Dick’s Sporting Goods which was on the opposite side of the mall.

The Glen Burnie Mall opened in 1963, just five years after Harundale, with 30 retail spaces, anchored by a Montgomery Ward that continued to exist until the company’s collapse in 2000. There was also an A&P grocery store, which lasted until 1983, and a G C Murphy’s.

wards

This is pretty much exactly how I remember it. Except in color.

I’ve mentioned G C Murphy’s before, and the one at the Glen Burnie Mall apparently managed to eke out an existence until the early ’90s. Murhpy’s was apparently a big chain in this area, but I’ll be damned if I can point to a single concrete memory of the place. The closest memories I have is of the Murphy’s Mart in Parole that I mentioned before. I remember half of a conversation with my parents explaining the difference between a G C Murphy and a Murphy’s Mart, only I think my young brain conflated “Murphy” with “Montgomery” and I got it in my head that the Murphy’s Mart was owned by Montgomery Ward. I assume that the fact that there were both at the Glen Burnie mall fed into this confusion, the result being that I was until recently convinced that the discount department store in Parole must have been a Jefferson Ward. It’s possible that my dad namechecked the two “Ward” franchises during the conversation as a “see also”. But by extension, this probably means that I have, in fact, been to a G C Murphy at some point and my brain just tangled it up with one of the other stores.

Picture via cinematreasures.org

Picture via cinematreasures.org

There was also a movie theater, which I dimly remember going to. Must have been something we really wanted to see, since it was kind of a haul. Until Marley Station opened, we were more likely to wait for movies to come to Jumper’s. The major movie theaters in Annapolis wouldn’t open until the ’90s. The one at Glen Burnie closed around ’84 or ’85, and I think that space is roughly where the Boater’s World is now.

In 1969, Interstate Department Stores opened a Topps Discount City at the opposite end of the mall. Interstate went bankrupt in 1974, and the store closed. Interstate, a holding company that owned Topps, White Front and a handful of other smaller chains, emerged from bankruptcy with only one surviving chain, Toys “R” Us. Half of the Topps space at Glen Burnie reopened as a Toys “R” Us, while the other half housed an Epsteins’, another one of those local department stores like Hutzlers and Hochschild-Kohn that went under at the end of the ’80s.

The Toys “R” Us is the main thing I remember. Generally, if we went as far as the Glen Burnie Mall, it was because we wanted something from either Montgomery Ward or Toys “R” Us, and it was something they didn’t stock at the Annapolis Wards or the Kiddie City at Jumpers.

A week before Halloween in 1981, a fire broke out at the Toys “R” Us end of the mall. The entire place was closed for months, except for the Montgomery Ward. That would probably be the last time the place was completely refurbished. Although the shopping center was extensively remodeled around 2004, much of the 1981 mall interior remains unchanged.

In 1991, Epsteins’ closed. A Best Buy replaced it a few years later, but they moved to a bigger location across the street in 2010. The space now belongs to the hhgregg and Office Depot. After the G C Murphy closed in the ’90s, their space was rebuilt as a Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s closed in 2013. When I visited in April, the former Dick’s was occupied by a furniture discounter which was in the process of going out of business. The sort that always seems to be in the process of going out of business. Or maybe already had. The mall entrance was open, but there didn’t seem to be any staff and the lights were out. I’m fairly sure that if I were bolder and stronger, I probably coulda just strolled off with a sofa.

The south end of the mall was demolished after Montgomery Ward closed. The Ward space and the old A&P space were converted into a Target and a strip of 13 outward-facing stores. The Target is cater-corner to the mall and not attached to it.

The Glen Burnie Mall is, of all the malls we’ve considered in this meander, the only one I specifically remember as being “small”, which is weird on reflection because I don’t think it was actually any smaller than Jumper’s. I was disoriented when I parked at the south entrance to the mall on that April afternoon. My memories and the geography didn’t properly align: the handful of little flashbulb memories I had of my youth placed the mall to the left if you were facing the Toys “R” Us from the parking lot. In reality, the Toys “R” Us is at the north end and the mall extends to the right.

The south entrance is nestled between a Great Clips and a Lane Bryant. Both are attached to the mall but their entrances are on the outside. When you first enter, it looks pretty much like any modern mall. The main thing you might notice that hints something is up is the ceiling, which is corrugated metal painted black with a few small skylights, rather than the mostly-glass ceilings you see in normal malls. I’d never thought of it before, but as I looked up, the first of several powerful childhood memories struck me — not a memory of this mall, but of Marley Station. That first time there, decades ago, being awestruck by those huge skylights that took up so much of the ceiling. How much brighter the place was than I was used to in a mall.

ABANDON EVERY HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

ABANDON EVERY HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

The mall is clean and well-maintained, but the property management hasn’t gone the extra mile like Woodmont has at Marley to stop the place from feeling creepy and abandoned. There’s only a few shops inside the mall. Most of the retail bays are covered by panels optimistically promising great new stores someday, accompanied by stock photos of happy-looking shoppers from the 1990s. There’s a small performance stage at the corner where a hall branches off toward the Bonefish Grill. Nothing else is accessible from that hallway, and it’s creepily dark, enough that I was haunted by the fear that a mall cop was going to challenge me any minute. I did not actually see any mall cops during my visit.

The place gives off a weird vibe of accidentality. Like no one actually meant for there to be an arcade here, just, like, the movers left this stuff here when they went out for lunch and got lost on the way back

The place gives off a weird vibe of accidentality. Like no one actually meant for there to be an arcade here, just, like, the movers left this stuff here when they went out for lunch and got lost on the way back

Once you’re past that side hallway, things start to change a little. The hall widens, but the renovation doesn’t. While the center of the hallway features modern white and gray ceramic tile, a strip along either side is still tiled with 1980s terra cotta. I feel like I haven’t seen terra cotta floor tiles anywhere but Hardee’s in decades. There’s a women’s clothing store and a cell phone store. An unattended coin-op arcade. Since I was visiting at the beginning of April, there was one of those pop-up tax preparation places there, which I assume is gone now.

Near the middle of the mall, a narrow and very long hallway leads back to the security office and the public restrooms. Walking down the narrow hallway is like walking back in time as the floor tile changes from ceramic to terra cotta to linoleum and the ceilings change to drop-panels probably made of asbestos. Built-in ashtrays have been simply covered by painted plywood.

To Be Continued

Misspent Youth: It’s always la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging
And Previouslier 20160401_142902

Head a bit further up route 2, and you get to a part of history where I get to rely on research rather than my own wildly inaccurate memories. Jumpers and the Severna Park Mall and Marley Station all loom large in my memories, but it’s been very hard to research them (Researching Marley Station is easy enough because it still exists, but it’s hard to get a historical perspective on it). They weren’t important or historical and they both ceased to exist long before the internet was a thing, and defunct shopping malls of the 1980s doesn’t seem to have caught on as a nexus of internet-age nostalgia.

The weirdest thing is how it looks so far and distant here, set way back from the highway — just like in my memories. But when you go there today, the site feels like it's right up next to the road Picture via Pinterest

The weirdest thing is how it looks so far and distant here, set way back from the highway — just like in my memories. But when you go there today, the site feels like it’s right up next to the road
Picture via Pinterest

They're knocking down the mall. The mall? What is it? It's an enclosed shopping center with climate control, but that's not important right now. Picture via cinematreasures.org

They’re knocking down the mall.
The mall? What is it?
It’s an enclosed shopping center with climate control, but that’s not important right now.
Picture via cinematreasures.org

But as our weird and personal little history draws to a close, we get to intersect some actual history for a moment, because the next thing you’re going to come to, provided you are making this trip about twenty-five years in the past, is the Harundale Mall.

And… I don’t really remember much about it. To me, it was mostly just the sign on the roof that looked like a nineteenth century frontier army fort. I’m only consciously aware of having visited it once. This would have been back in 1987 or 1988, when I first started wearing glasses. My dad took me to the eyeglass place there, New Deal Optical, I think. It was where he’d always gotten his glasses ever since he was a kid (The chain, I assume, not the actual shop, since my dad grew up in Hamilton, and it’d be weird to go all the way to Glen Burnie to buy eyeglasses). I took a pair of frames off the shelf to look at them, possibly try them on, and the clerk yelled at me for being a kid and interacting with the merchandise. My dad got angry at the clerk for this treatment and vowed never to shop there again.If you’ve been reading this column from the beginning, you might notice that I seem to have a lot of stories involving my father getting angry in a mall off of Ritchie Highway. In the interest of defending my father’s reputation, I should explain that the reason I remember these stories is because it was so unusual for my normally mild-mannered father to make a public display of anger. My wife has cautioned me to remember this when I become frustrated in the presence of my own children. Also, I don’t know, it seems like driving up Route 2 tended to put him in a bad mood. I ended up getting my glasses at the Pearle across the street from Marley Station.

When the Harundale Mall opened in October, 1958, (for the first four months, it operated under the name “Arundeltown”, a fact that is missing from all but one of my sources) the only other mall in the US to bear the designation was Minnesota’s Southdale Center. Then-Senator John F. Kennedy cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony.

Built by James Rouse’s company, which would go on, rather famously, to build the town of Columbia, it offered around 20 retail spaces and a half-dozen kiosk spots. Parts of the mall had a second floor, but only Hochschild-Kohn had retail there. The rest was used for offices and storage, as well as a rentable public meeting room. It was a small mall by today’s standards, around 300,000 square feet, half of which was taken up by its three largest stores, originally Hochschild-Kohn, G.C. Murphy and S.S. Kresge.

hklogoHochschild-Kohn, which I mentioned very briefly before, was one of the famous Baltimore-regional department stores from the old days. They went defunct in 1983 and the store at Harundale was sold to another Baltimore chain, Hutzler’s. Hutzler’s didn’t last out the ’80s. The mall tried to attract J. C. Penney to replace them, but Penney had a new building constructed at Marley Station instead. The space went to Value City instead. In 2007, the Value City closed, replaced by the Burlington Coat Factory from Jumpers.

G. C. Murphy was a five-and-dime chain. Their Parole location (Actually their discount department store version, “Murphy’s Mart”: commercial Realtor documents still list it as “Murphy’s Mart Shopping Center”. Now a Shoppers or a Kohls. Or maybe both. I don’t remember which end of the building was theirs) has a bunch of little flashbulb-images stored away in my memory, mostly involving the capsule toy machines near the registers, but that’s a story for another day. Murphy’s had survived the Great Depression, but couldn’t survive the ’80s. They got sold to Ames in 1985, who sold the smaller stores to McCrory’s. The G. C. Murphy at Harundale became a McCrory’s in 1990. I don’t know when exactly it closed, but McCrory’s was bankrupt by ’92 and the last of their stores shuttered in ’01.

harundale_main_concourseS. S. Kresge was another five and dime, which seems mildly extravagant to me. You think you’ve never heard of them, but you’re wrong: Kresge is the “K” in “Kmart”. I’m not sure if the Kresge at Harundale was still there when they stopped using their original name in the late ’70s. Maybe they moved to become the Jumpers K-Mart.

The rest of the mall was mostly local chains and non-chains, most of which don’t exist any more. From the list of original tenants, I recognize Lerner, Thom McAn, and Baltimore Gas & Electric. Annapolis radio station WNAV (Fun fact: currently part-owned by Pat Sajak) had a broadcasting booth on the concourse. There was also a grocery store — first Food Fair, later Pantry Pride — and an Italian restaurant with a sunken seating area at the south end.

Awwwk, awwk, motherfuckers!

Awwwk, awwk, motherfuckers!

The court at the north end featured the mall’s architectural centerpiece, a large fountain in the center of which was displayed the Harundale Rock, a dedication stone engraved with the names of the builders, a list of architectural awards, and a brief history of the site. The stairs to the second floor wrapped around the fountain, so you could pitch coins from landing. Next to the fountain was a large birdcage where they kept talking birds, which turned out to be exactly as good an idea as it sounds, and the mall eventually became famous for its profanity-spouting Mynahs.

20160401_142850Harundale’s star had slowly waned over the years. None of the small malls up and down Ritchie Highway had posed serious competition, but the place was showing its age. It wasn’t positioned to survive when Marley Station opened. The well-known, upscale retailers who’d been among the early tenants fell on hard times: Kresge had become Kmart; Murphy was gone; Hochschild-Kohn was gone; Hutzler’s was gone; Oppenheim-Collins was gone; Read’s Drug Store was gone; Equitable Bank had been eaten by Maryland National, then by NationsBank, then Bank of America. Their replacements had been progressively less prestigious: Erol’s TV and Video Club; Record Town; Value City; Dollar Tree, etc. Horn & Horn briefly reenters our narrative, taking over the Severn Room restaurant and turning it into one of their cafeterias.

Continue reading

Misspent Youth: Marley’s Ghost

hutzlersPreviously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Trends in shopping were changing, as they basically had been for at least a decade by that point, probably forever. The recurring theme of my disappointing attempts at recovering childhood wonder is that since I was a little boy, more and more things have consolidated, combined, and homogenized. If I were older, I’d be complaining about the demise of Hothschild Kohn’s and Hutzler’s (Fun fact: Hutzler’s is credited with inventing the concept of “everything has its own standard price that every customer pays rather than haggling”). But I’m not, so instead, I’ll complain about the demise of shopping malls.

The overwhelming trend in retail during the tail end of the 20th century and the first seventh of the 21st has been toward larger names and larger stores in smaller numbers. This has two primary aspects: the rise of the big-box — supergiant warehouse-style stores selling middle-to-low-end everyday goods — and the rise of the “Festival Center”, where two or three high-end specialty retailers open large, opulent showrooms.

These developments are both intensely, inherently suburban. That is, they are based around the assumption that you are going to drive to them, spend a lot of money in one place, pack your purchases into the back of your SUV (It’s always an SUV) and go home. And if you intend to buy more than one sort of thing, you mean to drive between them.

Shopping malls aren’t exactly urban, what with the need to place ten acres of building and forty acres of parking somewhere. But I think their existence is a sort of historical accident. Because shopping malls evolved directly out of the downtown shopping districts in cities. In fact, the whole concept of a shopping mall started out as “Hey, let’s put a glass roof over this narrow, shop-lined street to improve business on rainy days”. The modern fully-enclosed shopping mall first appeared right smack in the middle of the 20th century, pretty much immediately after the big postwar White Flight to the Suburbs, and I think you can make a pretty solid argument that the whole point of shopping malls was to give middle-class suburban (predominately white) folks the breadth and variety of shopping experience without having to venture into the Big Scary City. Which probably means I should boycott malls on principle as being Part of the Problem, but thankfully, the point is moot because downtown shopping districts pretty much died out thirty years ago when they converted the old department stores into condos and all the little corner stores got turned into antique shops and comically expensive restaurants. (I dislike suburbs in principle, but having lived in the Big City for a decade, I just don’t have the temperament for it. And if my moral opposition were worth cutting my life short for the good of the planet, there’s more efficient ways to do it than moving to a place where the stress would kill me)

So in this view, the shopping mall is essentially a little chunk of the city, carved out, sanitized, and plopped down in suburbia. Its downfall (Insofar as a downfall has actually happened and isn’t just in my head) came because, sixty years on, the suburb has become the default cultural model of middle-America, not the city, so a controlled emulation of the city is no longer as appealing. On top of that, in 2016, if I want to buy, say, boxer shorts, the Bloggess’s latest book, a new battery for my watch, the third season of MacGyver, and a Voyager-class Optimus Prime, I can get it done in one trip by going to the mall… Or I can get it done in zero trips using this neat little gizmo in my pocket. And in a couple of years, I’ll be able to do that and have my purchases brought to me by a robot.

Marley Station

The weirdest thing is the “Free Wifi” sign on the window. It’s like “What are you doing here, it’s 1988?”

What I’m getting at is that the writing was probably on the wall for the tiny little malls of my youth. The nail in the coffin is a subject of some considerable irony. It was called Marley Station. Named for the neighborhood on the outskirts of Glen Burnie and Pasadena where it stands, Marley Station was “the new mall” when it opened in 1987. It was exciting. It was shiny, and new, with marble tile and blue neon accent lighting, and a big glass elevator. And a movie theater! In a mall! I’d never heard of such a thing (the Annapolis Mall wouldn’t get a movie theater until some time after I moved to Baltimore). And a Friendly’s. With a faux georgian facade inside the mall. Oh, how we’d demand to go to Friendly’s. I’m pretty sure my parents hated it (Mom liked the ice cream, but not the food), but me and Kate loved it. My primary memory of the Friendly’s at Marley Station is my dad getting mad at yelling at the manager one time because it took something like an hour to get our food, and his was the only meal that came out hot. He’d ordered a reuben.

Ironically, the most charming thing about Marley Station isn’t even in the mall. Ann’s Dari-Creme, a ’50s-style hot dog stand, predated the mall, and somehow managed to remain in-place, situated between the lanes of the mall’s entryway. I’ve never actually been there. I always think I’d like to, but in the heat of the moment, can’t work out how to get in. But that’s because I’m an idiot: they’re doing perfectly good business. They will almost certainly still be there when Marley Station finally, mercifully closes.Marley Station, when it opened, was anchored by a Hecht’s and a Macy’s. The mall is a sort of abstract letter-M shape (I don’t know if that’s intentional), clearly designed to accommodate four anchors. There were two places near the center of the mall where the major corridor would just end at a blank wall. Later, they added a J. C. Penney, and eventually a Sears.

It was new, it was fancy, it was exciting. It had all the usual things too, the Kay-Bee Toys, the two bookstores (Waldenbooks and B. Dalton), the Boardwalk Fries, the inexplicable shoe repair shop, the Arby’s, where mom would order a roast beef sandwich and throw two thirds of it away for not being well-done enough (Mom has an animal protein allergy and can only eat meat that’s been cooked enough to denature it. I was thirteen before I found out that it was actually okay to eat beef that had even a trace of pink to it). It was cool enough that we didn’t really notice or care that it was choking the life out of the other malls. It was more convenient than driving to four different places anyway.

But like I said, retail was changing. The traditional mall’s days were numbered, at least as the dominant retail force. The small malls had two anchors. The big malls had three. Marley Station had four department stores. When Arundel Mills opened in Hanover in the fall of 2000, its design included space for seventeen large anchor stores. Only one of them was a traditional department store (A T.J. Maxx that kinda looks like it may have been there already and the mall just grew around it). The money wasn’t in a mall with a hundred tiny shops; it was in a Power Center with a dozen high-end luxury retailers, flanked by a couple of warehouse stores. And a casino.

I don’t know when exactly Marley Station entered into its decline. Probably right after Arundel Mills opened. Macy’s sold their original location to Boscov’s in 2006 when they merged with Hecht’s. Boscov’s went bankrupt two years later and closed most of their stores. The location is now a data center owned by AiNET, who’ve indicated that they’d like to buy the rest of the mall. I realize that this would entail gutting the place, but I really like to imagine them just leaving the mall exactly like it is but filling all the individual little store bays with racks of servers.

Former Friendly's at Marley StationThe mall has sort of drawn itself inward, if you can imagine it. The core of the place, the center court, still looks perfectly healthy, with the usual array of clothing stores and jewelry stores and stores for every major cellular carrier. But as you move away from that center court, the mall shows signs of evolutionary divergence, like an animal that got stranded on an island somewhere and is slowly evolving flippers to suit its new niche. On the AiNET side, the mall is largely vestigial. Its lower level features only two stores on that wing, an anemic video arcade and a really rather nice dollar store. The upper floor has a fitness place. Most of the rest of the space in that wing was leased by the casino over at Arundel Mills for training spaces. The Friendly’s facade still remains, but what’s inside now is, near as I can tell, a private collector’s model railroad layout.

The Macy’s end of the mall is less empty, but the character of the place is very odd. A large section of what were once small shops have been consolidated into a two-story gym. Marley StationThere’s an As Seen On TV store, and a place that buys gold. A bounce-house place for children’s parties. An inordinate number of hair places — salons, braiding, beading, and plucking. The shoe repair place is gone, but there’s a tailor. There’s a tag and title place. I’m pretty sure a tag and title place was one of the last businesses to leave the Severna Park Mall before its demise. Probably the weirdest thing (aside from the model railroad) is a large shop catering to racing enthusiasts. A big chunk of the place is NASCAR licensed gear, but the bulk of the store is taken up by an enormous slot car track, and it looks like a lot of their trade is in high-end slot car stuff.

 

When you look at it, it's like one of those optical illusions, only instead of a rabbit and a duck, it flips back and forth between 1987 and 2016.

When you look at it, it’s like one of those optical illusions, only instead of a rabbit and a duck, it flips back and forth between 1987 and 2016.

Once it opened, back in 1987, it promptly drove the other malls out of business. I think maybe even Annapolis felt the strain as they became the boring pedestrian “old mall” compared to the new, exciting modern two-story mall fifteen minutes up Ritchie Highway. But time passed and wasn’t kind. The mall has expanded a bit, but never had a major renovation: the only change to the design and decor in almost thirty years is that they don’t have built-in ashtrays. In 2013, Bank of America began foreclosure proceedings against the Simon Property Group, owners of the mall. The Woodmont Company was appointed receivers of the mall, to take care of it until the bank and the owners settle. They’re largely responsible for the mall hanging on as well as it has — under their management, the mall’s vacancy rate dropped from 66% to 15%, and they’ve done a lot of work to keep the place clean, well-maintained and decorated, which has probably spared it from turning into a creepy dystopian horror movie set like most declining malls.

They still hold community events at the mall, most recently, a Halloween party for children with Trick-or-Treating. The management company has affirmed that they’re focused on retaining their current tenants and attracting new ones, denying any interest in closing down and selling the retail space to AiNET. I don’t really know what the future is for Marley Station. Since, unlike the other malls we’ve stopped at so far, Marley Station still exists, it’s a bit easier to get information about it, though historical information is obviously harder to come by. Maryland independent filmmaker Dan Bell has been doing a series of videos on the dead malls of the mid-atlantic, and Marley Station is one of the malls he visits. Check it out. The southern terminus of MD-10 is less than a mile south. Route 10 is essentially a bypass for Ritchie Highway from Pasadena to Baltimore, meaning that Marley Station isn’t really “on the way” anywhere any more. It’s sort of out-of-the-way, set well back from the road on a section of Route 2 that’s much more residential and less built-up than Severna Park or Glen Burnie. And, though Macy’s, Penney’s and Sears are basically burned in my mind as the archetypical mall anchors, none of them are doing especially well (Sears, in particular, somehow managed to completely fuck up the internet age, somehow deciding, after more-or-less inventing mail-ordering basically anything, that the future of retail was 1980s-style department stores, and completely gutted their catalog business), and frankly, it’s a matter of time before one of them pulls out. Without anything in particular to serve as a big draw, the only retail future that really makes sense for it is to serve as a direct replacement for the extinct local malls it helped to kill off: a place to gather small, lower-end or specialty shops that can’t afford the overhead of stand-alone site.

To Be Continued...

Misspent Youth: Mall-Hopping on Ritchie Highway

This week’s column is brought to you by the fact that having a small baby is tiring and I haven’t had time to watch the next episode of War of the Worlds, so I needed something I could write entirely from memory.

mallRecently — though he’s been getting better about it since his birthday — when it’s late, and we tell Dylan that he’ll have to wait until tomorrow to do something or watch something or eat something, he’ll have a minor little freak-out to the tune of, “But what if I don’t want to tomorrow?” All a-panic that he might not get to do something because he’ll have stopped wanting to.

This sounds, on the face of it, very silly. But I get it. I totally get it. I remember. I remember begging my mom to remind me tomorrow when I woke up about the thing I had really wanted to do the previous night. I remember being very young when I became conscious of morning amnesia, the strange phenomenon wherein your brain has a go at blanking itself out while you sleep, so that you wake up wondering who you are and what you’re doing here, rather than waking up horrified at knowing who you are and what you’re doing here. I remember being very young when I realized that, quite often, just as I was getting ready for bed, I’d suddenly remember that the previous night, I’d desperately wanted to do something, only to forget overnight, and only remember just now when it was too late to do anything about it.

Time works differently when you’re a child, that’s what I’m getting at here. The past is another place and you were another person when you lived there. I remember it taking me a long time to hold onto the idea that summer had more than one saturday in it — I had enough of a sense of it being wrong to ask about it, but I could never quite internalize the answer. My son coined a wonderful little neologism when he talks about the non-immediate past: he refers to things having happened, “A few whiles ago.” Time was mostly an endless, indistinct blob of “the same” punctuated by irregular intervals of “different”. Not that being an adult is all that much different, except that the “the same” happens a lot faster and more often, and you’re more tired.

So you can perhaps take it with a grain of salt when my childhood memories tell me that it takes a shopping mall freaking forever to die. There were no shopping malls on Kent Island when I was growing up, and there still aren’t, unless they’re hiding. There’s four or five strip malls, depending on how you count, and, of course, the ghost mall. But an actual proper shopping mall required going Across The Bridge, which made it the most attainable experience in my childhood that still fell into the realm of “exotic”, and I imagine that’s why shopping malls have always held a certain special kind of nostalgia for me, despite the fact that I don’t especially like shopping.

Actually, I guess that a shopping mall is itself only the most attainable and least exotic example of a whole class of thing I like. I don’t know if it even has a blanket name. “Arcology” is the closest thing I can think of, but those are largely hypothetical constructs that bring a lot more specific things to mind than what I’m really going for. I’ve always been fascinated in enclosed spaces that have more than one thing inside them — this is itself probably a special case of my odd obsession with variety and diversity, and maybe also that I’m kind of claustrophilic. Shopping malls, sure, but also train stations, cruise ships, casino hotels, and underground cities. But not big box stores, supermarkets or department stores, once they ripped out the acoustic ceiling tiles and tore down the walls between departments at least (Odd fact about me: going inside a Bed Bath and Beyond causes me physical distress. Not so bad that I can’t work past it, but something about the design, with the high ceilings and shelves stocked to the roof does something to my depth perception. I feel like Malcolm MacDowell in that movie where he’s H. G. Wells time traveling to the ’70s to catch Jack the Ripper and he comes over all dizzy when he realizes that the future is full of crime and gangs and war rather than being a crystal-spire-and-toga Sci-Fi future. And it’s gotten significantly worse since I stopped wearing aviator glasses).

Annapolis MallThe primary mall you’d go to back in the days of my youth, and still today I assume, is the Annapolis Mall, now called Westfield Annapolis. The mall was built in 1980 on the site of the former Best Gate station of the old Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Electric Railway. As far back as I can recall, it was anchored by three stores: Montomery Ward, Hecht’s, and JCPenney. Only Penney’s remains: after Ward’s closed up shop around the turn of the century, Sears moved in from its former location in the nearby Parole shopping center (Which was subsequently demolished and turned into a supergiant high-rise apartment block)Shop Parole sign, and Hecht’s became Macy’s when the May Company’s new owners consolidated the two divisions. The mall was extended in the ’90s with a new wing, adding Nordstrom as a fourth anchor and adding a movie theater above the food court. Another renovation in the 21st century added a second hall in parallel to the main corridor which runs from the back of Macy’s through the fifth anchor, Lord & Taylor (Another refugee from Parole) to the Nordstrom end of the mall. At one point, I think it ended up with two Starbuckses and four Gamestops. I liked looking up at the darkening sky through the large skylights as we walked from one end to the other and back, pizza at Sbarro, looking for games in the Commodore section at Babbage’s, begging for Transformers at Kay Bee Toys, free samples at Chik-Fil-A, pretzels from Hot Sam, and watching the currency exchange rates on the LED screen at the American Express place across the hall from where mom got her hair cut. Sbarro is still there. It was and remains a popular weekend hangout for cadets at the nearby US Naval Academy. I can, of course, track my own age by whether my instinctive reaction to seeing little cliques of midshipmen walking the mall in their whites was impressed reverence, apathy, or “My God what are those little children doing dressed up like sailors?”

These days, I reckon that if you were coming from Kent Island, the Annapolis Mall would be the only realistic choice if you wanted to go to a shopping mall. Located just off of US Route 50 about two miles past the Severn River, in amenable traffic, it’s about a twenty minute drive, give or take, markedly closer than the Salisbury Mall, even if it still existed, which it doesn’t. The much larger, much newer Arundel Mills mall is almost half an hour farther away, which, I mean, it’s doable, but that seems like kind of a trek just to go to Bed Bath and Beyond (It does have both a Medieval Times and a casino, though, so that’s a mitigation).

Back in the days of my youth, though, you had some other options. In that same window of 40-50 minutes it takes today to drive up to Arundel Mills, there were five shopping malls along the Ritchie Highway corridor you could go to instead. A few months ago, I decided one afternoon that I’d like to do something interesting, so I tried to drive down to the Laurel Mall. After twenty minutes of searching, I pulled into a parking lot and got out my phone and checked. Turns out I was there; the mall wasn’t. It’d been demolished back in 2012 to make way for a Towne Centre, which is the new hotness in commercial real estate, I guess. And by “new hotness”, I mean, “It was where the growth was back in 2003 when I was an IT temp for a commercial Realtor (Realtor is a proper noun. Really), which is where I learned the tiny amount of commercial real estate jargon I know.”

That’s what got me thinking about the malls of my youth. My particular interests run toward specifically old-fashioned shopping malls. Dark places with a lot of neon, and fountains lined with bathroom tiles, and built-in ashtrays every fifty yards (You used to be able to smoke in shopping malls. This all sounds like some kind of weird fairy tale now), and an inexplicable shoe repair shop twenty years after having your shoes repaired was a thing that was done by the sort of person who would visit a shopping mall.

Prior to the completion of US Interstate 97 in the early ’90s, pretty much the standard way to get from Annapolis to Baltimore was via Governor Ritchie Highway, the stretch of MD-2 from US-50 to the Baltimore line. When I was very young, my father had to commute to Baltimore daily and developed a strong aversion to that stretch of surface highway he maintains to this day. I did the same commute myself for three months in 2001 when I started grad school and found that I personally preferred the Ritchie Highway route, largely because I didn’t have a tremendous amount of faith in my 1990 Subaru Legacy with the broken power locks on the right side of the car and the broken manual locks on the left side of the car and the tail lights bypassed through the cigarette lighter and the spot you had to kick if the blower fan stopped blowing because it was on the same circuit as the brake lights. In favorable traffic, the two routes take the same amount of time to drive, but MD-2 is ten miles shorter.

About five miles after US-50 and MD-2 part company, after you pass an unusually large Safeway, and Anne Arundel Community College and a driving range where I think I played mini-golf for the only time in my life, you’ll come to what’s now “Severna Park Marketplace”, a strip-mall anchored by a Kohls and a Giant. Back in my misty water-colored memories, this was the Severna Park Mall.

Contemporary picture of the Severna Park Mall

I spent a few hours googling. There aren’t any pictures of the Severna Park Mall from back when it existed.

I seem to have a disproportionate number of memories connected to the Severna Park Mall for its size. It could be that we went there a lot, though I’m not really sure why. It’s a tiny bit closer than the Annapolis Mall, but an order of magnitude smaller. Never really intended as anything other than a local mall, its enclosed area was at most about 250,000 square feet, making it like a sixth the present size of the Annapolis mall. When I was young, the anchor at the south end was Caldor, who’d taken it from Grant City on account of Grant City ceasing to exist in the ’70s. It would later be a Zayre, Ames, Caldor again, and a Value City. I remember there were places where you could still see bits of evidence of the place’s past, like the shadow of the Zayre asterisk in the facade or a burnt-in “WELCOME TO AMES” on the cash register display. Some winter day between 1987 and 1990, my sister lost a pink and white knit tam hat there. Dad was very upset: he liked that hat. This was probably one of the inciting incidents in my lifelong disproportionate fear of losing things.

The anchor at the north end of the shopping center was Giant. Not the same one that’s there now — they tore everything down except possibly the shell of the Value City (I’m not even sure about that) in 2000. The new Giant occupies the space that used to be the mall proper.

A grocery store is not something I had ever seen attached to a shopping mall before (Insofar as there is a “before”, this stretching back to my earliest memories), and only rarely since, although research tells me that supermarkets were one of the most common mall anchors until the ’70s. In my head, there’s a largely imaginary but very strong distinction between “the sort of place that is in a mall” and “the sort of place that is not in a mall”, and only a very few places are allowed to cross-over (This is one reason why freestanding Chik-fil-as weird me out. Every mall had a Chik-fil-a on the food court, but I never saw a freestanding one until I was an adult). It was a strange novelty for there to be a grocery store which opened directly into a mall — stranger still because this meant that it had two completely separate exits, with separate pools of check-out lanes on different sides of the building. Not that we did a lot of grocery shopping in Severna Park. I think maybe we went there for seafood back before they built the Safeway on Kent Island, because the Acme didn’t have lobster or shrimp.

Slush Puppie

I resemble but am legally distinct from Droopy Dog

The mall itself was, as I said, small. I think it had a fountain. I don’t remember it having a toy store. The only thing I ever remember us buying there was shoes. And Slush Puppies. That bit I do remember. I remember the promise of Slush Puppies being frequently used to keep me and my sister in line during shopping expeditions. If you don’t know, a Slush Puppie is basically the same thing as a Slurpee or an Icee, though I think maybe a little bit coarser, closer to a snow-cone in texture. Or possibly I have it backwards as I have not had any of those things since the ’90s. I always got Blue Raspberry, because blue was my favorite color (Which is basically straight-up Dylan-logic and why I totally get it when he does that). Only many, many years later did I realize this was stupid because Watermelon is self-evidently a better flavor than Blue Raspberry, as hinted at by the fact that there is no such thing as a blue raspberry.

The other two major fixtures in my mind about the Severna Park Mall were its two sit-down restaurants. They were outward facing with their own separate marquees and facades, though if I’m remembering right, the actual entrances were still inside the mall. This, again, was not something I had seen on any other mall at the time (I have since; they’re utterly commonplace now). There was a Horn & Horn Smorgasbord and a Kona Tiki.

Kona Tiki was allegedly a Polynesian restaurant, but the distinction between “Polynesian” and “Chinese” was lost on child-me. I mean, probably they had this whole neat menu of amazing cuisine from the Pacific, but because I was a small child and my parents weren’t adventurous eaters, they just ordered Chow Mein or something. I remember us eating there, though I’m not sure if it happened more than once. I only remember eating at three Chinese restaurants as a child: a distinctive A-frame building in Annapolis which still exists, one in the strip mall attached to the Safeway on Kent Island (As previously mentioned, this did not yet exist during the bit of my early childhood I’m rambling about), and Kona Tiki. If you click on the icon for the Severna Park Marketplace on Google Maps, it shows Kona Tiki’s marquee, though as far as I can tell, the restaurant hasn’t existed in close to twenty years.

I don’t know much about Horn & Horn. It always fascinated me, what with that big fancy name, “Smorgasbord”. Buffet-style restaurants weren’t especially common in my youth. Horn & Horn is the only one I’m actually aware of (And the term “buffet” itself doesn’t seem to have ever been applied to them until the ’90s; anything earlier refers to them as “cafeteria-style”). There was a Golden Corral on Kent Island for a few years, but they were still a sit-down restaurant back then. So I was interested.

Horn and Horn SmorgasbordAccording to my dad, Horn & Horn was related to the Philadelphia-based automat chain Horn & Hardart. I was about to say that this isn’t borne out by the evidence, but then I turned up a 1989 newspaper article which revealed it to be true, but only in a technical sense. The original Horn & Horn restaurant in downtown Baltimore — a favorite of shoppers, corrupt politicians and tired strippers, due to its location convenient to the old downtown shopping district, the local government buildings, and The Block — had been opened by two of the three Horn brothers: the third went to Philadelphia and partnered with Frank Hardart, allegedly because of a dispute over the amount of seafood on the menu. But I think — and I’ll accept correction on this if anyone has more information — that the Baltimore restaurant was sold to another local restaurateur back in the ’50s, and the Smorgasbord chain only opened decades later.

I always wanted to try out the Horn & Horn. We never did. My parents weren’t adamantly opposed or anything. Or if they were, they hid it, because it seems like the answer was always, “Yes, we’ll go some day, but it’s not a good time for it right now.” And then they tore the place down so I never got to go.

Or so I thought. In a weird little addendum to this already weird story, while I was researching this article, I found out that back in ’98, Horn & Horn renovated and rebranded itself as Cactus Willies, a local buffet chain which I’ve visited a few times. It was okay.

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Misspent Youth: Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center

Chesapeake Heritage Center SignIt has been a quiet week in Kent Island, my home down. I guess. I don’t really know. The Queen Anne’s County Board of Education held a dance competition fundraiser at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club. There’s been a rash of mailbox vandalism in Chester, as crops up from time to time, typically ending when someone buys one of those concrete-post mailboxes that’s been cunningly disguised as a wooden post, which is probably about as close as you can legally get to legally setting up booby-traps to maim trespassing vandals. Some asshole did donuts in the athletic field at Batts Neck Park, tearing ruts in the sod ahead of a scheduled lacrosse game. Saturday, the business district of Historic Stevensville held their third annual “Small Business Saturday Shopping Destination”, where patrons of town businesses were entered to win a gift basket. An elf-on-the-shelf themed children’s version of the event was new this year. This coming Saturday, they’ll be holding a chocolate chip cookie competition among local businesses. Proceeds will benefit the Arts and Entertainment district.

A few weeks ago, an article crossed my news feed about how there was a temporary exhibit of some models of Cheseapeake Bay workboats at the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center at Kent Narrows. Now, workboats of the Chesapeake Bay is not a particular interest of mine, but scale models of things is. And more to the point, it turned out that there was such a thing as a “Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center” at the Kent Narrows, which, frankly, seemed a little implausible to me, and as I was scheduled to drive down there for dentistry a week later, I decided to check it out before my regular, “Wander around forlornly looking for traces of my misspent youth and then go to Hardee’s.”

Kent Narrows Bridges, Chester, MDThe Kent Narrows, which I mentioned in passing last time, is a really narrow strip of water that connects the mouth of the Chester River to the Eastern Bay. It’s basically just a deep part of the marsh on either side that they dredged until they could get boats through it. It’s crossed by two bridges, the Kent Narrows Bridge, which carries US-50/301 off of the island, and the much older Route 18 drawbridge, which sits in the shadow of the newer bridge and is officially called the “Waterman’s Memorial Bridge”, but as far as I know, everyone still calls it “The Old Narrows Bridge”. The “new” Narrows Bridge is an immense, steep structure that seems just ridiculously grandiose for a body of water I am pretty sure you could throw a Frisbee across, but the whole point of it is that you need to get sailboats under it, and four lanes of shore traffic over it, unlike the old bridge, which sits closer to the water, only carries two lanes, and, y’know, opened up in the middle a couple of times a day.

The community of Kent Narrows, I assume, refers to the area around the waterway on either side. The mainland side features a number of hotels and locally renowned restaurants. I never went to any while I lived there, but there’s a really nice one we go to sometimes when I visit my sister with a model train track around the ceiling and a big collection of antique oyster plates. The island side is almost entirely mooring, storage and maintenance facilities for yachts. And, of course, the extinct shopping center.

See, back in the late ’80s or maybe the early ’90s, there was a successful strip of outlet stores in Queenstown, anchored by the Chesapeake Pottery, a sort of, if I’m remembering correctly HomeGoods-like shop that sold, uh, mostly a lot of stuff I didn’t care about. In the back, they had a little gourmet shop, and after the Pottery closed down in, I’m guessing, the mid-’90s, the gourmet remained until a few years ago, when it suddenly closed up right around Christmas and unceremoniously fired all the employees, including my sister. So not too much later, they decided that the Island needed something like that. And right at the Kent Narrows, where thousands of travelers crossed on their way to and from the shore every day from May to September, would be an ideal place for it.

So they built this enormous blue clapboard shopping center. The center consisted of two buildings, and housed an Old Navy store, a really good deli where I had my first Turkey Club, a small toy store… And frankly nothing else I can remember just at the minute, because, come on, it was 25 years ago. But it was convenient and a big step on the Island’s long march to modernity.

And then they built the new bridge. So, see that picture of the bridges up there? If my orienteering skills are what I think they are, the camera is pointed directly at the Kent Narrows Shopping Center. Notice what you can’t see in that picture? Yeah, it’s just as bad from the highway. If you’re on the old bridge, the place is completely invisible. If you’re on the new one, you can catch a glimpse of it if you look to your right while heading east, just after you’ve passed the only exit that will take you there.

Kent Narrows CenterYeah. By the time I was sixteen, all that was left was the Old Navy, a hair salon, and, I think, a gym of some sort. The Old Navy closed down not too long after. These days, it’s just the hair salon and a former restaurant that a catering company leases out for private parties. I think some of the mall offices are rented to DNR. The clapboard has turned gray with age, as befits a creepy ghost-mall.

So when you go looking for the Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center, by taking the Piney Narrows exit from Route 50, or making the last left before the Route 18 bridge, you find yourself on a winding road past a lot of yacht mooring, then suddenly up in front of you is this creepy ghost-mall, and it starts to feel like you’ve made a mistake. Follow the road around to the right, and it’s more docking facilities and yacht maintenance facilities, and I think a strip of townhouses that are accessible from the water, and you’re totally thinking that it would not be out of place if you passed an old man in a flannel shirt and yellow waders with a squint in one eye who tells you through teeth clenched around a corncob pipe that, “Aye, we don’t get many vis’tors ’round these parts this time o’ the season, least, not since the Old Navy Ghost been seen walkin’ the grounds at the old pier…”

So you follow Piney Creek road as it turns again to the right, and about this time, it occurs to you that you’re heading east again, and you were basically at the water when you turned off the highway to begin with, and this is an island, and surely there can’t be much more of it left before you drive into the water and drown. And this, approximately, is when you see a comparatively new, modern looking building. It’s got a bit of the look of an office building, rather than the industrial look of the rest of the area. It’s got a distinctively east-coast waterfront-community look to it, hipped roof, wood shingles. It’s not up on stilts, but you could easily imagine if it were. The front part of the building is a field office for the county police. The remainder of the first floor of the building is the Heritage and Visitor Center.

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor CenterParking is plentiful, optimistic even. Or maybe it just seems that way at the moment. The 1906 Skipjack Anna McGarvey normally stands outside the building on display, but it’s been temporarily removed for restoration. Also closed for the season is the attached Ferry Point Park (I’m not sure about the origin of the name. As far as I know, the ferry services ran from Love Point, Matapeake and Romancoke, not from the Narrows), which is undergoing shoreline restoration.

I wasn’t the only visitor to pass through that Wednesday, but the receptionist was surprised all the same, doubly surprised that I wasn’t a local, and trebbly surprised that I’d read the article about the model boats. The Visitor Center consists of two galleries and a wildlife porch. You enter through (Here, I’m guessing, since I did not note which room was which) the Eastern Bay Room, which is dominated by a large tabletop map of Queen Anne’s County. The periphery of the room has smaller exhibits: local photography, a few foam jigsaw puzzles children can assemble to learn the shape of the Eastern Bay, and a collection of vintage, modern and reproduction products of the Eastern Shore, such as canned produce or the shipping containers used for tobacco. On your way back toward the rest rooms, there’s an old-fashioned refrigerator in the corner with a sign inviting you to open it. Inside are trays of preserved teeth from local and historical sea life. You can also pick up tourist maps and brochures here, as befits a visitor’s center.

Down a hallway past the reception desk is the Chester River room. If the front room is more “Visitor Center”, the back is more “Heritage Center”. One of the first things you’ll see is a display of a half-dozen or so duck decoys by local artisans, celebrating Kent Island’s now largely lost tradition of decoy-making. There’s a collection of snuff boxes, clay pipes and tobacco containers as part of a display about the importance of tobacco to the early economy of the area. The drawers of an antique roll-top desk contain artifacts from early settlers, such as gun flints and tableware. The next section shows mock-ups of the various trade goods important to the colonial economy in the form of barrels of plastic corn, baskets of plastic rockfish and the like. There’s a reproduction of a seventeenth century print showing the native Matapeake tribe engaged in typical activities like fishing, hunting and farming. Panels on the image open up to reveal modern photographs of twenty-first century white guys engaged in the same activities.

Past this is a chest of drawers illustrating the geological history of Kent Island. Drawers down the left side each contain a map of the island and a few paragraphs about the conditions and population (human and otherwise) during time periods ranging from the present day back to 8,000 BC. Each map is superimposed with the Island’s present-day outline to show how erosion has nipped away at the edges of the Island. The corresponding right-hand drawers contain small artifacts of the period, mostly arrowheads, clovis points and knapping tools. Beside this, set into what looks to have been meant as a coat closet, is a temperature-regulated display case of colonial-era tools, including a badly deteriorated but mostly intact flintlock mechanism.

The gallery is loosely partitioned into three sections by partial walls. While the first section primarily covers the precolonial and colonial era, the large middle section is oriented toward the history of Queen Anne’s County, and Kent Island in particular, from American independence through about the middle of the twentieth century. There’s nothing directly about the wars, the Island not being of tremendous direct strategic importance in either so far as I know (More relevant but also unmentioned is that time that Virginia and Maryland kinda sorta went to war over ownership of Kent Island, mostly because William Claiborne didn’t know when to give up). One wall displays pages from 18th century farmers’ almanacs and examples of period farming equipment and techniques. The opposite wall houses displays of the tools of the trade of watermen, equipment for fishing, crabbing and oystering, as well as samples of silt from various beaches around the county.

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor CenterI don’t recall anything in the display explaining this, but farming on Kent Island went into a decline in the 19th century due to soil degradation. Fortunately, an industrial revolution started up shortly thereafter which made Stevensville a viable shipping and transport hub between the middle Delmarva peninsula and Baltimore. Appropriately, the east wall of the gallery covers Kent Island’s role as a transport hub. One display shows photographs of the ferry boats that were the primary means of accessing the island until the 1950s, along with some small artifacts like fare tokens and a coffeepot. The section also covers the long-extinct railroad, with photos of the old railroad bridge and a model train carrying examples of the sort of freight that would travel the long-defunct Queen Anne’s Railroad (That is, they put a can of corn and some plastic vegetables in one of the freight cars).

Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center exhibitThe exhibits get a bit more fanciful when they come to cover the construction of the Bay Bridge (Which is, for you pedants, technically called the “Governor William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bridge”, but not even most official state publications call it that). In addition to photos of its construction and ephemera from the opening celebration, there’s a case of Matchbox cars meant to be demonstrative of the traffic volume over the bridge, and a couple of paint cans labeled with the amount of paint it takes to coat the 4.3 mile steel structure.

The northernmost section of the room is where the aforementioned model boats are exhibited. The exhibit consists of about six or so models of some of the more signficant styles of boat used for pulling sea life out of the Chesapeake. And I should be up-front here: they’re not really all that much to look at. I mean, these are fantastically well-made models, and they’re at least as accurate as my minuscule maritime history knowledge can tell. And if you’re into that sort of thing, more power to you. But here’s the important thing to remember if you’re most people and don’t have any particular specialized interest in the subject: these are working boats. Their entire raison d’etre is to take a waterman out somewhere where he can pull up a bunch of aquatic life, then carry him and the aquatic life back to port, and to do it as cheaply as possible. Which is to say that we are for the most part talking about boats that all more-or-less look like a flat box with a point at one end. A boat with a large, flat deck for working, a flat keel for shallow water, and a sail design that minimizes the amount of manpower needed to do the not-fishing work of making the boat go where you want it. Skipjack Anna McGarveyThe only boat that’s properly interesting to look at all on its own divorced from maritime history is the Skipjack. The official state boat of Maryland, the Skipjack was a late 19th century design to make oyster dredging cost-effective in light of legal restrictions on the use of powerboats. Their most distinctive feature is their disproportionately large sails, which provided the power needed to pull an oyster dredge. Limited use of powerboats in oyster dredging has been permitted since the 1960s, so most modern Skipjacks hang a small motorboat from a davit off the back that they use to tow them around when they’re working.

There’s also, without explanation, a 1950s television set. Which is cool, but I have no idea why it’s there.

The wildlife porch is a small room at the end of the building, facing the park. On a nice day, I imagine it could be pleasant to sit a while on the bench and bird-watch out the windows, though I guess if the weather was amenable for bird-watching, you might just as well go outside and do it there. It’s also the home of their live animal exhibit, which consists of a terrapin named Francois and a horseshoe crab (unnamed). There’s a couple of small horseshoe crab skeletons you can look at next to the live crab’s tank too. Possibly as a warning to him if he doesn’t start bringing in the business. There’s also wildlife identification cards available so that nature-watchers can figure out what they’re looking at.

The Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor Center is a neat little place. Certainly, it’s small and the exhibit room is a little spartan, but there’s enough there to spend an hour or two. It feels like they’re mostly set up for school groups. I’m not really sure it’s big enough to justify a field trip, but maybe they do half-day field trips now? When I was in school, field trips were always all-day affairs, but then, driving a school bus anywhere worthwhile would be close to an hour each way back then. Chesapeake Bay Maritime Musem Brochure Cover, Autographed by William Donald SchaeferIt strikes me as pretty much a scaled down version of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, where I took a field trip in fourth grade and met then-governor William Donald Schaefer (This was before his infamous “shithouse” statement got him banned from the Delmarva peninsula), and indeed, the CBMM provided a bunch of the exhibits.

The tour is unguided, which I normally prefer, especially in a small museum like this. But in this case, without a guide to explain the exhibits, I think I’d like there to be more explanatory text accompanying the various displays, since a lot of them don’t have anything beyond the names of things. That’s particularly lacking in the case of the model boats, which really don’t give you any sense of their historical context.

I wouldn’t say that the Heritage and Visitor Center is really worth the trip all the way to Kent Island, but it doesn’t really have to be. Like I said, it’s fun enough to waste an hour on. And it’s about five minutes off of the major highway that you basically have no choice but to drive if you’re going to or from the Eastern Shore. So if you happen to be heading back from the shore in the early afternoon and you feel like stretching your legs for a bit, pull off at exit 41, wind your way past the ghost-mall, and stop by.


  • The Chesapeake Heritage and Visitor’s Center is located at 425 Piney Narrows Rd. in Chester, MD. Its operating hours are 10 AM to 4 PM, seven days a week during the summer months, and weekdays December through April, except holidays.
  • The model workboat exhibit runs through December 11.

Misspent Youth: Kent Island Memories

What with the holiday and all, I don’t have time this week to do the background research for the scheduled article. So instead, another Special Article Day. This time, I’d like to try out some rambling about something more personal. I’d intended to go somewhere specific with this, but I got halfway through and decided it was better as a more philosophical meander. If you like this sort of thing, I’ll try to do more in the future.


Chesapeake Bay Bridge
It has been a quiet week on Kent Island, my home town. I guess. I don’t really know. But it’s pretty much always a quiet week on Kent Island. The Long & Foster at the Thompson Creek shopping center is running a Toys For Tots drive through December 18. Veteran’s Day events were held at the local middle school and two of the three local elementary schools, including the one which existed at the murky dawn of time when I was in elementary school.

My relationship with my home town is a little bit fraught. On paper, Kent Island sounds like it could be one of those neat old quirky backwards little communities full of local color, but anywhere can seem boring if you’re living in it unless you’re the right sort of person, which I wasn’t. Besides, I lived on the south side of the island, which put seven miles of residential neighborhoods and farmland between me and what passed for civilization, so all those fun adventures you hear about kids having in quirky backwards little communities were sort of off the table, since even the playground was about 40 minutes away by bike, if your mom even let you bike on the Big Road, which she really shouldn’t because it’s incredibly dangerous. The bike path that ran parallel wasn’t added until the 21st century. If you were a little older, of course, you could drive to town, where, I am told, the major pastime of young people was smoking backs of pick-up trucks in the parking lot of the Acme, the island’s only grocery store, located next to the island’s only fast food joint, a Hardee’s, and the island’s only pizza place, a Pizza Hut that was run by the family of the girl I went to prom with.

Kent Island was first seen by the early explorers of the Chesapeake bay in the 16th century, unless you count its discovery by the indigenous Matapeake tribe twelve thousand years earlier, which those intrepid 16th century explorers didn’t. In 1631, William Claiborne established the first permanent European settlement on the island, which he named for his own hometown of Kent, England. It was the first permanent settlement within the borders of the present-day state of Maryland, though (and this will get you extra credit in fifth grade social studies), not the first permanent settlement in Maryland (That’s St. Mary’s City, est. 1634): Kent Island was considered part of Virginia Colony until 1658, and Virginia didn’t give up its official claim to the island until the revolution. The original settlement no longer exists, on account of the ground it stood on no longer existing, on account of the island’s habit of occasionally losing bits around the edges to hurricanes.

Traditionally a farming and fishing community, the island became a transport hub in the middle of the nineteenth century with the building of a causeway and later a railroad bridge across the Kent Narrows (A tiny little waterway leading to the Eastern Bay, which makes Kent Island an actual Island, unlike the nearby and geographically similar peninsula of St. Michaels) to the Eastern Shore. Convenient to Baltimore and Annapolis by water, the town of Stevensville was founded in 1850 to serve as a steamboat terminus, displacing the older town of Broad Creek, now extinct. The unincorporated town of Stevensville is now the most populous Census Designated place in Queen Anne’s County. In my time, its official limits contained virtually all of the island’s commerce and retail. Beyond its official limits, its ZIP code, 21666, services the bulk of the island. The neighboring unincorporated town of Chester, 21219, seems like it’s where most of the commercial growth has been in the twenty-first century, the other side of the island being, y’know, full.

Kent Island, MD

Kindly ignore the horrorshow that is my thumbnail. I damaged my cuticle.

Viewed from the air, Kent Island vaguely resembles a crude, weathered drawing of a mittened right hand on its side, fingers pointed south. Stevensville proper occupies the end of the metacarpals, Chester the base of the thumb. I grew up somewhere along the second finger-joint.

My parents moved to Kent Island in February of 1979, part of the leading edge of a wave of migration touched off by the addition of a second span to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in 1973. That wave would eventually see the island transformed into an exurb for the Baltimore-Washington corridor, but back when they moved, there were maybe nine houses on their quarter-mile street, which now has, I think, twenty-two. My parents didn’t have family or friends in the area, and aren’t especially outgoing to begin with, and I’m no better. Besides, they were city folk and not especially attuned to whatever excitement there was to be had with country living. The only really geographically grounded stuff I remember from my childhood was going for explores in the woods behind our house. Dad found a nineteenth century midden once. I found a little lea full of shrubs that looked like foot-tall Christmas trees. The woods are gone now, cut down for wood around the turn of the century. The scrub that replaced them went up in a 7-alarm fire back in 2012 and nearly burned my parents’ house down due to Kids These Days smoking pot back there during a drought.

Things from my childhood being gone is basically the story of going back to my home town now. I imagine it’s the same for everyone. I went off to college in 1997, and spent about nine more months living total over the course of the next four years until I bought my first home in 2001. Things had changed a great deal over the course of my life there, of course, but it had always felt predominantly constructive rather than destructive. The overpass on MD-8 that eliminated the traffic signal at US-50/301 and made it so that a trip to the grocery store during beach season wasn’t an all-day affair. The “new” shopping center in Chester, with the island’s second grocery store, a Safeway. The new “new” shopping center at Thompson Creek with the island’s third grocery store, a Food Lion. The industrial park at the end of Main Street where the Paul Reed Smith factory is, identifiable by the large water tower the kids nicknamed “The Eiffel Onion” for its distinctive spheroid shapeonion. The first big-box store, that made it possible to buy home goods without crossing the bridge. The McDonalds. The Burger King. The first non-chain pizzeria, whose phone number I can still remember. The Friendly Computer Store, where my 486 came from, located above the Friendly Chinese Take-Out in the building behind the Friendly Gas Station. The evangelical Christian video arcade (Basically an ordinary video arcade, with the implicit mission to give kids a more wholesome zombie-shooting-based alternative to smoking in the Acme parking lot). The evangelical Christian ’50s-style malt shop (“JitTterbugs”). The public library branch, where my sister’s mother-in-law works. The new elementary school. The new new elementary school. The gourmet carry-out and gas station.

Abandoned Stevensville Acme Market.The Acme closed in November, 2012. The building is currently unoccupied. The hardware store that had taken over their previous location (and for that reason, had an otherwise inexplicable supermarket-style airlock foyer) moved out, that entire strip mall having priced itself most of the way out of business by undergoing an expensive renovation right before the anchor store closed. The Safeway built a new store which seems perfectly normal to me, but my dad still speaks of it in hushed, reverent tones as though it’s some kind of grocery Mecca. My dad, of course, has lived on Kent Island since long before it was perfectly normal for supermarkets to be that big or carry exotic, otherworldly produce like Swiss Chard or Chayotes. They tore down the McDonalds and built a bigger one. The gas station still exists, but it’s neither a Chinese carry-out nor a computer store any more. The independent pizza place and its entire strip-mall was bulldozed in favor of a Cracker Barrel. The motel that used to stand at the intersection of MD-8 and US-50/301 didn’t survive the loss of the intersection. It stood abandoned for a decade then turned into a Park-and-Ride.

Chesapeake Bay Model

We’d always assumed they moved the model out when it was shut down. But the model itself was made of concrete and effectively part of the floor. Had I know, I think I would have broken in to take a look at it at some point, rather than just wandering around the outside that one time until I saw a spider as big as my fist and ran away in terror.

The Bay Model, an enormous scale model of the Chesapeake Bay for scientific research, had been closed ever since computers rendered it obsolete in 1981. The building collapsed from storm damage in 2006 and is a business park now. The Pac-Man tree, a big tree by the side of MD-8 that had been distinctively groomed to accommodate overhead power lines, fell down in a storm. An ancient abandoned store on Batts Neck Road, which had probably shut down when MD-8 was widened and rerouted in the ’70s but which inexplicably still featured a working Coke machine in front of it as late as 1996 is now just a weed-encroached concrete slab. Tidewater Bank is now a Bank of America branch, and at some point in the 21st century, they replaced the 8-track player (Literally the only 8-track player I have ever seen in real life) that had sat on top of the night deposit vault playing background music dutifully for as long as I can remember. They tore down the Pizza Hut last May, I think. There’s a Dunkin Donuts there now (The island’s second attempt. One opened in the late ’90s, but was run out of town to defend the business of a local non-chain donut shop. Which closed a year later anyway. The first one is a Dairy Queen now). The Hardee’s is still there, but not really, because Hardee’s was bought by Carl’s Jr. back in ’99 so the modern place bears basically no resemblance to the place I remember from my childhood.

Over and over again, I go looking for my past and find that they’ve torn it down and replaced it with something that’s just like everywhere else. And, I mean, of course it is. I’m looking for the past, and someone’s gone and replaced it with the present. Duh. Still, I’m disappointed, and it’s not the disappointment of nostalgia exactly, because I’m not just looking for my own past.

When you’re a kid, and your parents drag you off on a long trip, where do you want to eat? If you’re every child I have ever known, including my own younger self, the answer is that you want to go to McDonalds. And this is, once you are no longer a child, stupid. Because, come on, you can eat at McDonalds any time you like (In my own personal defense, when I was a child, McDonalds was exotic, since you had to cross the bridge to get to one). There’s like 10,000 of them. There’s an intersection in Ellicott City where, if you go up to the parking lot of the car dealership on the hill there, you can see six of them. You’re going somewhere new and exciting, and you should try something you can’t get at home. (This has, in recent years, become a source of all-consuming angst for me, to the point that it makes it really hard for me to have a decent meal when traveling)

The past is a foreign country. That’s the actual problem here. I don’t actually mind the past being a foreign country. But I find travel stressful. Kent Island, my home town, is an hour’s drive and thirty years away from the father of one and a half who lives in central Maryland and has a wife and a job and two mortgages. If, as I do roughly twice a year, I’m going to drive down to Kent Island on a weekday when I’m neither bringing nor visiting my family, I want to have something to do when I get there to justify the trip. Something more than a dentist appointment. I never find anything. At least, not anything I couldn’t do just as well at home. If I’m going to put in the effort to go visit a foreign country, I don’t freaking want to eat at McDonalds.

Which is why I always go to Hardee’s.

Even if the burgers are kinda bland. Chicken’s good though.