A Drive Through “the Ugliest Place in Maryland”: Part 1


It’s always interesting to find old write-ups of commercial strips like this, especially from the 1970s, when they had become old enough to be studied with some sense of time and perspective, but young enough that they were still mostly intact in their original form. For example, check out this piece in the Washington Post from 1979, simply titled “The Rockville Pike.” It identifies Rockville Pike as “the Main Street of the suburbs,” and notes that in 1964, a Montgomery County council member dubbed it “the ugliest place in Maryland.” (He must not have been familiar with Maryland’s portion of U.S. 1.)

The Post article also profiles a produce vendor, who opened up back in 1946 when there were dozens of such vendors. By 1979, he was the last one. It’s remarkable how recently you could still find such semi-regulated, small-scale commerce along a major thoroughfare. On many country roads, you still can. It’s heartening, in a way. The stroad form these thoroughfares take today is really quite recent in the big picture.

One last note from the Post article: There’s an interesting paragraph about a 1970 sign ordinance that prohibited flashing lights along Rockville Pike. I wrote about this phenomenon here, arguing that the highway beautification movement basically got it wrong: the problem was not aesthetics but land use. Yet instead of reforming the land use, we settled on things like banning neon and regulating how many times a sign could blink. And what’s worse, we went full-bore into “urban renewal.” Rockville embodies all of this history. But it also suggests what can come next.

Let’s Hit the Road

Today, there’s not much of that old vaguely-Wild-West Rockville Pike left. Most of the surviving structures and signs from the heyday of the American roadside have either been demolished or remodeled beyond recognition. And, despite the area’s long history of settlement, there’s very little that survives from earlier than that. Even the historic, old-fashioned Hank Dietle’s Tavern is a rebuild, though a nearly exact one; the original structure was destroyed in a fire in 2018. One of the most visually interesting commercial structures of some age is a Wendy’s, with a unique glass-block sign on its roof.

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