Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Bowie Christmas

The City of Bowie recently held the 28th Annual Holiday House Decorating Contest. I took pictures of some of the winning entries and some other Christmas sites around Bowie.

The list of addresses for the winning entries can be seen in this PDF file on the City Of Bowie's Web site, and pictures of all of the winning entries can be seen in this large PDF file.

Tony Begenwald received a Best of Bowie Award for this display on Medina Lane. Tony is a repeat winner.

The Norris Family on Moylan Drive received a Spirit Award.

The Galentine Family on Gradys Court received a Best of Bowie Award.

The Robey Family on Gradys Walk received a Spirit Award.

The Gradys Walk neighborhood in Bowie had more than their share of winners. The Westbrook Family on Gradys Walk received a Spirit Award.

More holiday decorations in the Gradys Walk neighborhood, although this house wasn't one of the contest winners.

Christmas decorations in the Whitehall neighborhood.

We came across this Santa on a motorcycle in the Whitehall neighborhood. This was my son's favorite.

This holiday display can be seen every year on Chelton Lane in Bowie's Chapel Forge neighborhood. My picture didn't come out that great, but this decoration appears to be a single strand of lights that hangs in a straight line along the trunk of a tree. It looks like there may be a small ball at the top. I'm not sure if there is any meaning behind the light. It doesn't really look all that festive. I can recall seeing this display for at least the last three or four years.

Santa and Mrs. Claus can be seen each year at the Bowie Train Station Museum on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That Sunday is known as Train Spotting Day in Bowie. The museum is located next to the train tracks that are used by Amtrak for runs between D.C. and points in the Northeast, and more train traffic can be seen near the museum on the Sunday after Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.

This guy waves to people driving along the Crain Highway near Rips.

The Giant at Free State Mall on Christmas Eve afternoon. The parking lot was packed, and I had to park at the other end of the parking lot in front of Blockbusters.

I ran into this Christmas display on Good Luck Road in Lanham. Here's a little multiple choice test. Which one of the following was your first thought when you saw this?

A. Now that puts me in a holiday mood!
B. Where do they store all this stuff during the rest of the year?
C. How do the garbage men know what to take and what to leave on trash day?
D. I need to find a spot to pull over to take a picture for my blog.

Many Christmas trees remain unsold at this lot in Bowie Plaza on the day after Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aldi Discount Grocery Store Now Open in Bowie

I previously posted about the Aldi discount grocery chain opening a store in Bowie's Hilltop Plaza in the old Magruder's location. The store opened on Monday, December 14th, and I stopped in two days later to take a look around.

Roofers were still working on the building, and other construction was still taking place at the liquor wine and spirits store next door.

Aldi requires customers to deposit a refundable quarter to use a shopping cart. Instructions and reasons for the system are posted on the front of the building.

A close up of the cart system. You have to insert a quarter to release the last cart from the cart in front of it. You have to attach your cart to the next cart to get your quarter back. Don't you just love German engineering? I'm already trying to think of ways to beat the system. I do try to teach my kids to put things back where they found them, but this feels too rigid. I guess I must be a hypocrite.

This deposit system, however, probably does avoid scenes like this shopping cart mess that I saw on The Abbot of Unreason blog.

This is the view that greets you as you enter Aldi. There's only one way to go. Even if you want to pick up something in the front of the store, you're going to have to walk all the way to the back of the store first.

Product is stacked in cardboard boxes. Rather than taking something off a shelf, you're taking something out of a box. Experienced Aldi shoppers recommend stocking up on items that you like. Products that are available this week may not be available next week.

I spoke with a shopper in the store who told me that her daughter's technique is to shop Aldi first for the discount items, and then supplement your grocery shopping with a trip to Giant or Safeway.

This is just about the lowest price that I've seen for bottled water.

I was told that the store sells Aldi brand products almost exclusively. That is true, but Aldi disguises that fact by creating realistic sounding brand names. If you read the Aunt Maple's Original Syrup label, you'll see that it's distributed by Aldi, Inc.

Dakota's Pride is another Aldi brand. Sounds like an appropriate brand name for chili beans.

...and Las Mas Ricas Mexican food products. I saw Other Aldi brand products like Rodeo Bill Chips, Clancy Party Mix, Millville brand cereals and Tate's Ketchup (not catsup). If you want to buy ketchup or yellow mustard at Aldi, your only choice is Tate's.

Aldi does carry some name brand products. I think it would be impossible to create a cheaper product to compete with Ramen noodles.

Aldi seems to know where to compete and where not to compete. There are no Aldi brand equivalents to Skittles, Milky Way, Snickers and Kit Kat. Aldi also carries Pringles.

A view of the frozen food department. Aldi also sells bread, dairy products and produce. The produce department has basic items. You'll have to shop elsewhere for more exotic produce.

Miscellaneous items can be found for sale in the center of the store. Who wouldn't want to wake up Christmas morning to find an electric stove heater from Aldi under the tree?

I didn't buy anything on this trip to Aldi. I heard that cash and debit cards are the only acceptable form of payment. Bring your own bags to avoid having to purchase bags from Aldi.

Aldi seems to be the kind of store that you either love or hate. If you love hunting for bargains, you may like Aldi. If you like a little more pizazz in your grocery shopping, you may hate it.

6810 Race Track Road, Bowie, MD 20715

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Observations from a Snowfall

We received maybe 18 inches of snow in Bowie during this weekend's storm. I haven't heard the official snow totals yet. I spent a good part of Saturday shoveling. A snow blower would have come in handy, but it's hard to justify that purchase when storms like this don't come all that often to Bowie and I don't get as much exercise as I should.

I've lived in a city in New York with an average annual snowfall of 96 inches, and I lived in a city in New Hampshire with an average annual snowfall of 56 inches. So I've seen a lot of storms, and I've shoveled a lot of snow. During the 1977-78 winter, more than 169 inches of snow fell where I lived.

When I was a kid, snow meant money. My customers were mostly older ladies. I would shovel their walkways, and I would shovel their driveways if they still drove. Sometimes they would have me come inside to do odd jobs while I was there.

One of my regular customers was Mrs. Sykes. She would always invite me inside, and she would always prolong the payment process. To use accounting lingo, I was hoping for "terms net 30 seconds," and she preferred "terms net 30 minutes." I think she probably liked the company. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend 30 minutes talking to me.

During one of my visits in 1979, I recall Mrs. Sykes showing me the newspaper coverage of the Nelson Rockefeller funeral. "We lost a good man," she said. "We lost a good man."

I don't see many young entrepreneurs looking for snow shoveling jobs after storms in Bowie. I'm not sure if it's a regional difference or a generational difference. I did hire a couple of kids to clear my driveway a few years ago. They threw a lot of snowballs at each other, and they did a shitty job on the driveway.

The woman that lives next door to me was out shoveling her driveway yesterday. I saw her son walking down the street toward her house. "Good news," I yelled. "Looks like you've got some help." "Yeah, right," she yelled back. Sure enough, he walked right by her and into the house.

All that time shoveling yesterday gave me plenty of time to think about my next blog post. I had to post something about the storm, of course. I knew the blogsphere would be full of plenty of beautiful pictures of the snow, and I knew there would probably be some bitchin' and moanin' about ruined plans. So I decided to focus on my observations of various snow removal techniques.

This is the "Park Close to the Street" technique. By parking close to the street before the snow starts, you limit the amount of shoveling that you have to do. A clear footpath from the house to the car is all that's necessary. Unfortunately, your car could get hit by a plow if you park too close to the road.

Here is the "Wait Until It's Over" technique. By waiting until the snow stops, you don't have to keep re-shoveling sections of your driveway.

This is the "Make Narrowest Path Possible" technique. There's no use shoveling more than necessary - just wide enough to get the car out. This works in the D.C. area because there's a good chance that the narrow path will soon be widened when the temperature rises. This homeowner also practices the "Park Close to the Street" technique, but there's plenty of room for the plow to clear the street without hitting the car in this driveway.

This is the "Shovel Everything" technique. This homeowner may have migrated from a place with a colder climate. People living in colder climates can't rely on the snow melting between storms - as it usually does in the greater D.C. area. Driveways in colder climates should be completely cleared after each storm so the driveway can be used all winter.

Shoveling everything was important when I lived in New Hampshire. We had a rural style mailbox, and if you didn't shovel a clear path for the letter carrier to drive up to your mailbox, you wouldn't get your mail. Sometimes I would see people stick a temporary mailbox on a stick into the snowbank. I also came across this design for a mailbox on a sliding arm.

Putting the windshield wipers in an upright position keeps them from freezing to the windshield. I don't recall people in the North utilizing this technique very often, but it seems popular around here - perhaps because it's more common in the D.C. area to have icy conditions.

Leaving your car in the street during a storm is not allowed in some communities, but it is allowed in Bowie. The trick is to dig your car out before the heavy mounds of snow turn to ice.

In urban areas like Boston's Dorchester community, some residents believe in an unwritten code that gives someone rights to a public parking spot on the street if that person cleared the snow from the spot. People will place folding chairs, garbage cans and other objects in parking spots to save the spot while they're away. It's not always legal to do this, and plenty of fights have occurred when a driver took a spot that someone else cleared.

Here is an example of "Wait Until the Plow Finishes" technique. There's no point in spending too much time clearing the section of the driveway closest to the road until the plows have made their final trip down your street. Where I lived in New York, people commonly refer to this section of the driveway as the apron. I've never heard anyone use that term in Maryland.

People in snowy climates are better prepared to protect their shrubs and bushes from heavy snow. Some homeowners keep the heavy snow from crushing plants by supporting them with snow fences or covering them with an A-shaped shrub structure (see pic here). I also found this picture of people in Japan making a tee-pee like structure out of bamboo.

If you have kids, you have to get them their own equipment. Otherwise they'll be fighting you for your shovel.

A broom may be more effective than a snow brush when the snow is piled high.

I sometimes see people in Bowie ride by on ATVs while I'm shoveling. In New Hampshire, I would sometimes see people on snowmobiles riding on the snow covered streets.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Santa Rides Through Bowie

The sounds of sirens, air horns and bells can be heard throughout the early evening in Bowie this week. The Bowie Volunteer Fire Department is continuing their annual tradition of escorting Santa through the neighborhoods to pick up donations for the Bowie Food Pantry and to pass out candy canes to the kids. Click here to see the 2009 schedule.

Engine 192 (Huntington) escorts Santa through Bowie's Whitehall neighborhood.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Indian Food Comes to Bowie

UPDATE: The White Tiger closed the Bowie Town Center location in December, 2012. 

Ethnic dining choices in Bowie are almost as rare as white tigers. So it's only fitting that the first restaurant to offer Indian cuisine in Bowie be called The White Tiger.

The White Tiger, a Capitol Hill restaurant for the last thirteen years, opened a fast food venue in the Bowie Town Center food court on the day after Thanksgiving, and Kavitha Ravishankar, a member of the family that owns and runs the restaurant, said that business in the Bowie location has been great ever since.

Customers can order from a small list of specials, or they can choose appetizers and buffet items for faster service. Buffet items change multiple times per day. Buffet combos are available with your choice of two or three entrees, salad, and your choice of rice or naan. Vegetable samosas, vegetable pakoras and fish pakoras are available as appetizers. When I stopped by last Friday for lunch, the buffet included chicken tikka masala, a spinach and beef dish, peppered curried wings, vegetable korma and daal maharani. Ravishankar said that chicken vindaloo is frequently offered as well. Raita is available for dipping (it's great with the samosas) as well as the popular yogurt drink - lassi.

Other menu items take about ten minutes to prepare, according to Ravishankar. Tandoori chicken, lamb chops, chicken tikka, paneer tikka and chole batura are available.

The other customers that I spoke to last Friday were all very happy with their meals. One woman told me that The White Tiger is her new favorite restaurant, and she's been to The White Tiger three times in the last week.

Ravishankar, a resident of Bowie's Heather Hills neighborhood, said that the family hopes to open a formal Indian restaurant in Bowie after establishing clientele at the Bowie Town Center location.

Bowie Town Center Food Court

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Belair at Bowie to Turn 50 - Conference to be Held

When people think of D.C. area architecture, Union Station, the National Cathedral or the National Museum of the American Indian might come to mind. When the Vernacular Architecture Forum holds its annual conference in D.C. next May, the members will be discussing more ordinary architecture like the suburban subdivisions of Belair at Bowie and Greenbelt's New Deal development.

On Thursday, May 20, conference participants will attend a lunch at Bowie's Belair Mansion before touring Levitt constructed homes. The City of Bowie is seeking residents who are willing to open up their Levitt homes for the tours. Read this press release on the City of Bowie Web site for more information.

The conference coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of Belair at Bowie. Levitt & Sons opened the Belair at Bowie model homes on Sussex Lane on October 8, 1960. According to Pam Williams, the City of Bowie Manager of Historic Properties and Museums, the City of Bowie Heritage Committee is planning events for the anniversary - including an oral history project.

I've heard many stories from my father in-law about the early days of Belair at Bowie. I've heard most more than once! I asked him to share a few of his stories for this blog, and this is what he wrote.

Ed and Mary Conroy claimed to be the first residents of the Belair development on October 12, 1961. Ed of course was politically minded and was the first president of the Belair Citizens Association and the following year was elected to the MD House of Delegates. A guy named Frank Crown disputed the Conroy claim for years saying that while the Conroys were taking pictures he and his first wife actually moved in. Who knows?

The model homes were on Sussex Lane. We were visitors in the first couple of weeks after they opened in 1960. We did not put our money down until Thanksgiving week, 1962 when Levitt lowered the price on the Cape from $15,990 to $14,990. Our first monthly payment was $101 (principal, interest, tax and insurance).

Levitt had a little slump in 1962 prompted by counter attacks from PG Realtors alleging poor construction and some scare stories in the Washington press about high utility costs. Leo Green actually got a Cape for $13,990 on Kemmerton Lane. They were having trouble selling homes near Route 50.

In fact the buyers in Somerset and Buckingham bought sight unseen, just a model and a map location. We actually saw our finished house as Levitt had an inventory of unsold homes and we drove around Kenilworth. We chose a pink Cape because I wanted a house where the back yard was shaded in the afternoon. A few years down the road when it came time to repaint I was concerned about the restrictive clause in the deed that said we had to have Levitt's permission to change the color. I called Don Westcott and asked how I went about getting permission. He asked what color our house was. When I told him it was pink, he said if I were willing to change the color to something sensible he would get Bill Levitt to wield a paint brush.

I recently took pictures of the former model homes on Sussex Lane that my father in-law referred to in his story.

The Cape Cod is the lowest end model, and it originally sold for $15,900. Four bedrooms are squeezed into this house. Like all Levitt houses in Bowie, this house has no basement. Other Cape Cod models feature a single large living room window instead of the double windows shown here. My father in-law recollects that Levitt & Sons placed smaller than usual furniture in these model homes to make the homes seem larger than they were.

The Rancher is a single story "L" shaped house featuring three bedrooms and an original price tag of $16,500. Levitt & Sons later introduced a larger Rancher model known as the Devon.

This house is referred to as a 3-Bedroom Colonial. True to its name, it features three bedrooms, and it originally sold for $17,900. The garage must have been expanded to accommodate a second bay because the original home would only have had a single car garage.

$18,500 in 1960 could buy you this 4-Bedroom Colonial. The living room fireplace (see chimney on the left) was not original equipment. This house features a common customization found in many Bowie Levitt houses - a garage conversion. Converting a garage into an office, bedroom or family room is a relatively cheap way of adding living space, and this type of customization is common because Levitt houses don't have basements. Additions are also commonly found on Levitt houses.

The well-to-do Bowie residents might have purchased a Country Clubber for $24,900. This was the top of the line model offered by Levitt & Sons in Bowie. Original models in the Somerset and Buckingham sections were built with four bedrooms. Later models in the Long Ridge section featured five bedrooms. The fireplace in this house was original equipment. To insulate Country Clubber owners from the riffraff in the neighborhood, there is not a single Country Clubber that was built next door to the lowest end Levitt model - the Cape Cod. In fact, Levitt & Sons created the Long Ridge section in 1964-1965 featuring only Country Clubbers.

This large colonial style house is known as a Manor House. It's a little hard to see with the trees, but there are four pillars on the front of this house. This is a one-of-a-kind house in Bowie. It may be possible that Levitt & Sons never received any orders for a Manor House, or maybe they decide not to build any more due to some other reason.

This is another one-of-a-kind Levitt house in Bowie. It sits on the corner of Sussex Lane and Stoneybrook Drive. I'm not sure what this model is called.

The City of Bowie Museums offer reproduction Levitt & Sons Belair at Bowie brochures for $4 each at the Belair Mansion and the Old Town Bowie Welcome Center (see front and back cover below). The original brochures were printed in October, 1961 - a full year after the model homes opened on Sussex Lane. Five Levitt models are described, so the decision to not offer the Manor House must have been made by the time the brochure was planned.

You will notice on the cover below that the Country Clubber is not right next to the Cape Cod. A 3-Bedroom Colonial provides a buffer.

According to the brochure, the minimum lot size for a Country Clubber is greater than the minimum lot size for a Cape Cod. Desirable corner lots are priced higher. Here's a quote directly from the brochure.

"A few, especially suitable for doctors or dentists, are priced higher."
The brochures offer a neat look back in time.

Part of the Levitt business model was to purchase and completely develop a large tract of land about 20 miles or so from a major metropolitan area. This was the plan in Levittown, NY, Levittown, PA, Levittown, NJ (later named Willingboro) and Belair at Bowie. A large parcel of land allowed several thousand houses to be built. The houses were mass produced in what Levitt called the "reverse assembly line" process where the construction of a house was broken down into 26 steps. Specialists performed each of the 26 steps, and workers were transported from house to house to perform their work. Rather than having workers remain stationary while product moved by on an assembly line, product stayed in one place, and workers moved. Additional details can be seen here in a Levitt Corporation SEC filing.

I had once heard that the residential streets in Bowie at Belair are intentionally curved to provide a traffic calming effect. I'm not sure if that is true or not. Check out this map of the streets in the Kenilworth section.

I came across an unofficial Levitt & Sons reference site that includes some interesting artifacts. Click here to see a picture of the crowds on Sussex Lane on opening day and a related real estate article from the Washington Post.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Holiday Tree Lighting at Bowie City Hall

The City of Bowie held its annual holiday tree lighting ceremony last Sunday night at City Hall.

Bowie Mayor G. Fred Robinson introduces the City Council and other dignitaries.

Nichelle Fullen leads the crowd in holiday songs.

Local politicians sing. From left to right, Councilwoman Diane Polangin, Abba Polangin, Councilman Isaac "Ike" Trouth, Councilwoman Geraldine Valentino-Smith, Valentino-Smith's daughter and Maryland District 23 Senator Doug Peters.

From left to right, Kathy Brady, Councilman Dennis Brady, unknown, Mayor Robinson, Councilman Jimmy Marcos, Councilman Todd Turner and Anita Turner. Todd Turner looks like he might be enjoying a cat nap.

A small crowd gathers for the singing.

And finally, the lights are on.

Nichelle Fullen leads the crowd in a local rendition of Here Comes Santa Claus.

The Bowie Volunteer Fire Department escorts Santa and Mrs. Claus to City Hall.

Santa and Mrs. Claus are lowered from the fire truck.

Face painting and craft activities were held for the kiddies. Here is the craft room in City Hall.

Santa and Mrs. Claus listen to Christmas wishes and hand out candy.