Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: How Germantown evolved into the D.C. metro area

September 21, 2011 - 01:27 PM
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Germantown was planned about 20 miles from D.C. (Photo: LIFE)

One critical dimension of transit history is the way modern cities have expanded into the suburbs. We're not just talking a city when we talk transportation, you see — we're talking metro areas. There's the District of Columbia, yes, but there's equally relevant to all our transit conversations the D.C. metro area, which includes the heavily populated satellite towns in northern Virginia and Maryland. Together these form the broader region we commonly evoked when people bring up the nation's capital, united by road and train.

So how did D.C. expand into all these suburbs, anyway? A 1965 article from LIFE's double issue on the state of the U.S. city provides insight into how the District first became the DMV.

The article, titled "The Rural Ring," talks about how landholders first created a plan for the satellite town of Germantown, Maryland 20 miles outside of D.C.. People had lived in the region for scores of decades back into American history, but the community only began to come into its own — and evolve its own identity as well into an outpost of D.C. — in the mid-20th century. In 1958, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was located in Germantown, and planners and sponsors saw a vision for what Germantown could be. These individuals put together the Whittlesey, Conklin, and Rossant plan to house 100,000 people in Germantown and offer 30,000 jobs. "The planners of Germantown believe differing downtown pursuits should not be intermingled but kept largely distinct," the article notes, referring to Germantown's seven planned complexes. The Washington plan called for a dozen satellite cities like Germantown, according to the article, to be "placed upon major transportation corridors leading out from the capital."

The business and life of Germantown continued to grow throughout the '70s, '80s, and into the present. Today the Montgomery County community sports close to 90,000 residents and is driving distance from the Rockville Metro station. A MARC train station allows Germantowners to commute into D.C. or Baltimore. Germantown has come a long way from "the rural ring" that LIFE magazine once described.

Can we ever get away from the sprawl? Read the 1965 LIFE piece on the rise of Germantown here:

Read more pieces of Metro history here.

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