Area remembers boom before bust

Boomtown: Another business closes in the strip that once catered to Fort Meade soldiers.

April 16, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

For 27 years, nothing stopped Jimmy Eng from serving juicy Shinto chicken and lo mein to hungry Army regulars on Route 175's Boomtown strip across from Fort Meade.

His Pagoda House survived military force reductions. It outlasted the dingy taverns and porn shops, the strip's sporadic fires, the lawlessness and the reign of fast food. It hung on long after the pawnshop and Chinese restaurant on either side closed, making Pagoda House the only open business on a boarded-up block.

But after Fort Meade became a restricted post in August 2001, Eng's customers stopped coming. Last month, Eng followed a path trod by a half-century of Boomtown mainstays. He turned off the red pagoda lamps and locked up for the last time.

"It's all closed up," he said. "No people."

Boomtown has gone bust. Already limping along from decades of military cutbacks and a reputation for seediness, the strip suffered a major blow when the base's once-open gates in Odenton became military checkpoints and regulars had to wait half their lunch hour to pass through.

The crunch couldn't come at a worse time for Anne Arundel County officials, who are pinning their hopes for Odenton's long-planned transformation on a reinvigorated Boomtown.

"It's pivotal," said county land use director Betty Dixon. "It's the entrance to the whole Odenton Town Center."

Dixon serves on the county's Route 175 Task Force, formed after nearby Seven Oaks residents complained about rats, trash and transients in the Pagoda House strip. It's the latest episode in a 40-year attempt to spruce up the shabby, low-slung structures dating to World War II.

At bases across the country, such strips sprang up in once-rural areas offering comforts to the soldiers -- mostly single young men away from home for the first time. At Fort Meade, where a young Hugh Hefner served before founding Playboy, Boomtown was born as an area of cheap taverns, arcades, motels and dry cleaners.

Task force members call the strip "North Odenton" or "the 175 corridor." But to the old-timers, Boomtown will always be Boomtown. And rather than symbolizing sleaze, the name evokes for them the ingenuity that came with eking out a living during a time of war, rationing, poverty and despair.

"It's sure not like what it used to be, and I don't think it ever will be," said Richard Eldridge as he ate a fish sandwich and crinkle-cut fries at the Eagle's Nest, the latest incarnation of the same Boomtown bar he has frequented for 50 years. "What made the strip then was the soldiers. Most of them are dead now. I was just a boy then. They were men."

Eldridge was 7 when he and his five brothers started shining soldiers' shoes along the strip during World War II.

He wasn't the only child entrepreneur. Charles Atas, now an Annapolis real estate agent, got his start selling Cokes from his mother's tavern to soldiers at Odenton's rail station. He charged 10 cents and kept a nickel of that. Soon, he and his brother graduated to ham sandwiches.

"After two months, everyone saw these two little boys making money," he said. "Then there wasn't a thing you couldn't buy."

Atas recalled one plucky businessman who turned his Boomtown chicken coop into a restaurant -- thanks to a lack of licensing laws.

Boomtown's early characters were a tight-knit group likely to squirrel away a couple of Carta Blanca Mexican beers during ration times for favorite customers or take IOUs until payday.

There was Whitey Crick, the fair-skinned pinball operator, Johnny "Fireball" Roberts, a race car driver, and Yale Gordon, a dry-cleaner known for his philanthropy to orchestras.

But Gloria Barattini was the most famous Boomtown fixture. She became the attraction when she tended bar at Barattini's -- despite her father's orders not to wear lipstick or anything red.

"Soldiers would come in and out of that bar just to look at her," Eldridge recalls. "Sometimes, she had shorts on. And boy, did she have pretty legs."

But Barattini, a professional wrestler known as "The Italian Bombshell," could handle ogling. She also ran Boomtown's gas station, supervising six men as they changed spark plugs and flat tires.

A once-promising singer, Barattini gave up her studies at the Peabody Conservatory to help her father run the family farm behind Boomtown. With the help of Italian and German prisoners of war confined at Fort Meade, she picked sweet potatoes and melons at dawn, then worked late tending bar.

"For the most part, we had no trouble," Barattini recalled. "Everybody got along."

But Barattini, whose parents were from New York, was troubled by the strip's segregation. And when she reopened her bar after a fire in the early 1960s, she hung a huge sign over the entrance: "Negroes Welcome." Eldridge, who is black, said she was one of the first owners to do so. And despite initial protests, the others soon followed.

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