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To the list of great cities that have inspired booksRome, Paris, London, Tokyowe can now add Bethesda. As in…Maryland? The same. And while those other metropolises may have the edge in terms of numbers, Bethesda: A Social History, by William Offutt is, literally, one of the more weighty tomes.
“It makes a good doorstop,” the author cheerfully acknowledges. The 783 large pages are filled with more than 200 interviews of longtime and lifelong residents, and trace the suburb back to pre-Colonial days. Bethesda also includes numerous charts detailing such minutiae as the number of parking spaces in the business district, as well as faded photographs with (original) captions like: “B-CCers enjoying swirled cones and sundaes.”
Working on the project for nearly six years, Offutt was inspired after reading David Brinkley’s book about wartime D.C., Washington Goes to War. “That wasn’t what I remembered,” he says. Noting that “Brinkley’s a bit older than me; he moves in different circles,” Offutt insists that the pundit’s memories “are not mine,” and decided to capture lives as they were lived away from the headlines. His efforts have drawn “practically tear-stained letters” from residents who tell him “[the book is] a $30 time capsule,” Offutt says proudly.
As hefty as it is, Bethesda’s story ends in 1945. “People of your generation are always saying, ‘Where’s Volume 2?’” Offutt snorts. “I tell ’em: ‘Dead people can’t sue ya!’”
A fresh “one-damn-thing-after-another” chronology is being added to carry the book up to 1984, “when the subway got out here,” Offutt says. “I think that will shut up the Boomers.”
What is most striking about Bethesda is how little it resembles Bethesda. The current agglomeration of upscale restaurants, snarled traffic, and garish architecture is not even imagined in Offutt’s text, maps, and charts. Even so, Offutt is hesitant to speak ill of his hometown; he will admit that Bethesda is “in transition.”
“It’s like talking about an awkward adolescent,” he says, taking the historical view. “It might be OK, but now…it’s at that gawky stage.” Offutt manages to see the silver lining, noting that one recent building is “not as ugly and cheap” as its neighbors.
His own cherished memories now safely set in print, Offutt can chuckle a warning about things to come for this Boomer writer’s hometown: “Silver Spring is next!”