Call it an attack on the cul-de-sac. Call it nostalgia for the grid.
The theory behind a new wave of old-style housing developments suddenly in vogue around Maryland is that laying out blocks with sidewalks and houses close together will break the growing isolation of America's cul-de-sacs.
Gently curving streets with dead-ends that slow traffic became popular after World War II as symbols of suburban escape from the dehumanizing boxes of the city.
Now some suburban planners are holding up the cul-de-sac as a symbol of evil.
Planners in the so-called "new urbanism" school argue that cul-de-sacs discourage human interaction by spreading houses apart, eliminating sidewalks and imprisoning people in cars.
They claim that tighter communities would be formed if people were forced to bump into one another walking from on-street parking spaces past neighbors' porches and to the store.
This move back to the grid is based on an underlying assumption about human nature - that sidewalk social engineering can work. The New Urbanists have faith that re-arranging streets not only will help traffic flow but also will improve society.
"It sounds goofy, but it really does change people's behavior," said Baltimore engineer David S. Thaler, who has designed neo-traditional subdivisions in Sykesville as well as in Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
"It doesn't make criminals into saints. But it cuts down on the isolation of the sprawling suburbs. It creates outdoor spaces that pedestrians feel comfortable with. And this gets people out on the street and interacting with other people."
The Sun interviewed 10 residents of a 6-year-old grid-style subdivision - Kentlands in Gaithersburg - and 10 residents of equally new cul-de-sac developments, Knollwoods and Keenan's Landing in Ellicott City.
In some ways, the neighborhoods couldn't be more different.
Kentlands features colonial houses close together on narrow streets, with cedar-shingle roofs, porches, picket fences, garages hidden in alleys, with paths to encourage walking and intimate neighborhood parks.
Call its residents the blockheads.
Knollwoods and Keenan's Landing are on private dead-end roads, with "Brady Bunch"-style houses far apart on wide lawns. They have no sidewalks, and two-car garages predominate.
Call its residents the pod people.
The interviews showed that the blockheads were almost as likely as the pod people to drive to the mall for even a single item such as a quart of milk.
The difference between their destinations: The blockheads' shopping center has Romanesque pillars and faux towers decorating its Fashion Bug and Giant chain stores, while the pod people's supermarket lacks these "traditional" touches.
The interviews also suggest that the allegedly isolated pod people knew more about their neighbors than the blockheads who paid to live shoulder-to-shoulder.
The blockheads bragged about their close-knit warmth, but only half of them could recite the first names, last names and occupations of their next-door neighbors.
In contrast, 90 percent of the pod people could cite these facts.
Defending the cul-de-sac
Jim Murphy, a 42-year-old moving company vice president who lives in a Keenan's Landing cul-de-sac, reacted angrily to a suggestion that pod people weren't as neighborly as blockheads.
"I don't think people's behavior changes according to what living accommodations society builds," said Murphy. "Being close doesn't necessarily make people friendlier. Do people in prison like each other? They certainly are close. The rowhouses in Baltimore are close, but if you try to walk to the store there, you'll get shot."
Mike Janus, a 41-year-old prison system manager who lives in a rowhouse in the Kentlands, said blocks with houses close together force neighbors to see and interact with each other.
"If you are out in your backyard and your neighbor is out in his backyard, you tend to talk because you are physically close. We've moved from suburban neighborhood to suburban neighborhood before we came here, and we moved here intentionally because we wanted that community feeling, which I enjoy," said Janus, who couldn't recall his neighbor's last name.
L The community feeling is selling well now but hasn't always.
A year after developer Joseph Alfandre started selling homes in June 1990, Alfandre defaulted on a bank loan. Sales were sluggish when the recession hit, explained Jane Osorio, manager of the Kentlands Information Center.
Chevy Chase Bank took over, and eventually 1,200 of the planned 1,500 homes were sold and occupied, she said. Nevertheless, the trouble made other neo-traditional developers nervous.
On Telegraph Road in western Anne Arundel County, the Mandrin Construction Co. plans to start building 135 homes in a neo-traditional grid this winter.