In a tale of two Mitchellvilles, similarities end with the name

Apr 7, 1996 | News

Royston Brathwaite is an interior designer to the rich and famous, serving an exclusive clientele with addresses from Potomac to Georgetown to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But now, he also is serving a new upscale market less familiar, perhaps, to his old customers but rapidly becoming the Washington area’s most fashionable address for African Americans of wealth, education and culture. It’s called Mitchellville.

Brathwaite, 45, opened his Woodmore Interiors showroom this month in Mitchellville Plaza, not far from his $1.3 million home in Woodmore, a gated community that is Mitchellville’s priciest and most exclusive subdivision.

“I think this is the up-and-coming area,” he said of Mitchellville. “A lot of people call it the Potomac of Prince George’s County.”

Its 17,582 residents — 65 percent of them black — have a median household income of about $80,000, according to 1994 projections by Claritas Inc., a population think tank. The median home price for the area’s 20721 Zip code was $209,900 last year. Real estate ads refer to “upscale Mitchellville.”

There is one small detail to consider. The real Mitchellville is something very different: a tiny community 5.7 miles east of Mitchellville Plaza. This true Mitchellville, named after its first postmaster, is, as it was in the 19th century, devoid of glamour, cachet or pretense.

The mythical Mitchellville sprawls over an ill-defined area across central Prince George’s. It is a marketing concept, an image, an unincorporated state of mind. It is a collection of census tracts and a Zip code that used to be collectively called nothing.

But it is something: a metaphor for a changing county, emblematic of a demographic shift that has led to a Prince George’s that is 52 percent black and generally more educated and affluent than it was when the majority of residents were white. In effect, an influx of well-to-do blacks in recent decades is helping to gentrify a county that had been a blue-collar mecca for working-class whites who had fled Washington.

As rural Mitchellville was absorbed from the north by the city of Bowie, the new suburban Mitchellville emerged to its west from the conversion of countryside into the county’s most fashionable if not most easily described address.

These days, county historian Susan Pearl said, “Mitchellville is used for everything from South Bowie all the way over to Landover. It’s a little confusing.”

Florence McGwe, hostess at the new Country Club Estates development, where houses start at $374,000, agreed. The subdivision is off Lottsford Road, much closer to Landover than to Bowie. “Parts of Mitchellville they’ve changed to Bowie, and parts of Bowie they’ve changed to Mitchellville. The boundaries seem to be constantly changing.”

Bowie, along the eastern edge of Prince George’s, is 85 percent white, with a median household income of $69,000. The median price of houses sold there last year was $143,900. In the real Mitchellville, 10-year-old garageless town houses can be bought for prices in the low 100s, and previously owned detached single-family houses, split or ramblers, for $150,000 or less.

The mythical Mitchellville has “villas,” costing upward of $360,000, and not a lot of new houses of any kind in the $200,000-and-under range. How did the area far from the real Mitchellville usurp the name?

“I named it,” asserted Philip Taylor, county liaison with the U.S. Census Bureau, who said he defined Mitchellville as a “census designated place” for the 1990 count. Before that, he said, the entire area “didn’t have a name. They had neighborhoods.”

One of them is Lake Arbor, which lays claim to a Mitchellville address. Developed since the mid-1980s, it contains 2,500 houses, a man-made lake and a golf course. It also has Donna Dean, president of the Mitchellville Kiwanis, which was organized last year. In 1990, when she moved to Lake Arbor, the community had a 20716 Zip code and a Mitchellville address. Since then, the area has gotten a new Zip code, 20721. To Dean’s annoyance, some store computers spit out “Bowie” as her community name when fed her current Zip code.

“Anyway, I live in Mitchellville, which I personally think is a better name, and Bowie is quite far away from us,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. I really don’t care for it, so I continue to use Mitchellville because that’s where I live.”

What to call the area had perplexed Gary Lachman, managing partner of the Lake Arbor developers, in 1986.

“We’d been referring to it as Largo,” he said. “All of a sudden there was a notice from the post office with a new Zip of 20721 and that we could call ourselves South Bowie or Mitchellville.”

Lachman hired a Georgetown firm to ask residents which name was more prestigious, Bowie or Mitchellville, with mixed results.

“We came to the conclusion after many hours of deliberation and sleepless nights, it didn’t make one helluva difference,” he said. “We just began calling it Mitchellville most of the time.”

That was quite a stretch from the place defined in a 1974 federally funded study of the county’s neighborhoods. The study defined Mitchellville as bounded by the Patuxent River on the east and the Pope’s Creek railroad line on the west, miles from Lake Arbor.

Honor and Charles “Danny” Magill said they live in the “real” Mitchellville, in an old house by the train tracks. Their house, covered with the dust from coal trains rumbling by, is surrounded by Bowie, to which they declined annexation a few years ago.

Where is Mitchellville? Honor Magill was asked. “You’re in it,” she said.

Historically, however, they live in Mullikin, after the family for whom a nearby school was named. The Mitchells had the post office at the nearby intersection of Mount Oak and Mitchellville roads.

The 1878 Maryland Directory gives this description of Mitchellville: “Land good, principally cleared, can be bought at from $20 to $60 an acre. . . . Churches and schools adjacent. Population 75.”

For decades, Mitchellville also had a segregated black public school and two black baseball teams, the sandlot Mitchellville Tigers and semi-pro Black Sox.

Records date the post office to 1865 and the adjoining store to the 1870s. After the railroad came through, the post office was moved closer to the tracks. The store was run by a Russian Jewish immigrant from 1888 to 1925, when it was sold to a black man, who sold it in 1943 to Alexander Harmel.

The old store burned down in 1985, leaving the gas pump and an empty lot in front of the Harmel house, recently acquired by the city of Bowie, which plans to turn it into a community arts center.

Elwood Harmel, 62, Alexander’s son, lives a mile away on Mitchellville Road, where he repairs golf carts. His mother once ran the Mitchellville post office. (The current “South Bowie-Mitchellville” post office, dedicated in 1978, is off Route 301. There a patron can upon request have mail hand-postmarked “Mitchellville,” but with the Bowie Zip code, 20716.)

Technically, Stanley Gilliard, 41, lives in Bowie, in one of the newer more expensive subdivisions sprouting on its outskirts and inhabited largely by affluent African Americans. But Gilliard’s business, an art gallery specializing in black artists and themes, is in Mitchellville Plaza. “I associate myself with Mitchellville over Bowie,” he said, “because Mitchellville is special from a black person’s perspective. All you have to do is ride around, go to your grocery store, see the makeup of the community. It feels good to raise children next to people who are successful, and it’s the norm, a lot of wonderful role models.”

The feeling, he said, is “beginning to simmer right now. People are really enjoying the Mitchellville experience. Step back from all the numbers and demographics, and think who all these people are. The majority are 40 to 55. In many cases, they were the first group of blacks with a serious opportunity to get a lot of education and to work in a career as middle managers and above.

“This is really the first really large black middle class, a product of the ’60s and ’70s, education and affirmative action, a direct product of the civil rights movement, and Mitchellville is a product of all that. So it feels good.”

With its concentration of wealth, he said, “the Mitchellville thing is becoming, from a financial perspective, the best game in town.” CAPTION: A “real” Mitchellville store dating to the 1870s burned down in 1985, leaving a gas pump and an empty lot in front of the Harmel house. CAPTION: The increasingly affluent Mitchellville “is special from a black person’s perspective,” says Stanley Gilliard, 41, owner of Heritage Gallery. CAPTION: Carol McGhee Taylor is a real estate agent who lives in Lake Arbor. She sells houses, such as this one by Prima Builders, mainly in the Mitchellville area.

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