What images does your mind conjure when you hear the term, “corporate park?”
Do your thoughts jump to soulless financial machines: adult Lego bricks available only in greys and browns, photocopies of similar buildings plopped down into populated parking lots, unblinking logos like electric gargoyles perched on feckless facades?
Or do you imagine an actual “park,” a living, thriving, gathering place for a community of professionals, a bustling ecosystem of admins and executives sharing lunches and lessons on a Tuesday afternoon?
I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit sawing at the invisible fetters of McLean, Virginia, and I recognize the suit and tie mentality permeating every porous inch of the concrete towers that rise like well manicured mausoleums from the DC Metro marshlands. I’m fortunate to not have to spend all my waking hours walking that tech corridor, but I’m still a denizen of a different corporate park, one whose history I’m fascinated by, and have written about before.
I fear I’ve developed an unhealthy cathexis for Corporate and Garden City drives, come to know their presiding dryads well as I’ve built the base of my career. The “park” borders I-495 (the infamous DC Beltway), its air polluted by the sounds and smog of seven hundred and fifity thousand daily commuters, but signs of nature remain. Freshly gnawed trees betray a local group of beavers; fat, ornery Canadian geese turn the little creek into a personal nesting ground every Spring; honey suckles and several other wildflowers sneak to bloom between discarded trash from Metro riders moving from train to office.
It’s here I run, usually after work, usually in warm weather twilight. Doing some quick writer-math, I’ve run approximately 1500 miles in Sisyphean circles around this place over 6 years, giving me ample time get to know it.
And yet, it still surprises me.
On days I’m feeling particularly energetic, I’ll stop to do pull-ups on a set of bars just east of the Metro station. There is a sign there, worn white print on aging blue fiberglass, surrounded by algae stained splintering wood that I’ve noticed many times, but never really paid attention to:
The sign was planted here by the Southwood Corporation, a group that since the 1970s has made giant, custom signs for locations just like corporate parks. Fit-Trail creates an outdoor gym, where any person can move between stations, getting a full-body work out by following the nifty directions on the strategically oriented placards. Or so goes the theory.
I’ve never seen anyone else use the bars to do chin-ups, and have never seen anyone tempt fate by rubbing their back against old, weathered wood to do an isometric squat. Despite my hours pounding the local concrete, I’d never noticed another flash white and blue, anywhere. But this station is 21 and 22 of some indeterminable number; there have to be others, elsewhere, right? At least 10 more with two exercises each, and at least one more down the line, since the instructions on this one say: “Pace to next station: Jog.”
So I jogged. And jogged. And jogged. Heaved and sweated and walked after giving into my asthma. Put my hands on my knees and cursed the Eastern shore humidity. I went around the whole 1.3 mile loop two more times in my search, but didn’t see any other signs. I’d lost the Fit-Trail before I even got a chance to find it.
1978. The year Southwood launched the Fit-Trail line (they’re still making them today for children’s parks and retirement communities), meaning this random corporate park in the middle of Maryland had been one of their first customers. Other than the brief terror of realizing I’d been doing pretty rigorous pull-ups on a thirty six year old metal bar and wooden frame, I felt sort of sad. This piece of signage was older than me, the only reminder that its brethren had ever been here to begin with, the last bastion of a time when this corporate park was more than just a shell for contract vehicles and short-term tenants.
The New Carrollton Metro station also opened in ’78 (not a half mile from Corporate drive), and I imagine some real estate developer spending top dollar to create a vibrant place to work at the then-new (and still) end to the Orange line. An all inclusive vocational vacation with restaurants and social draws and accouterments to made working seem as unlike work as possible.
As I run on the decades old sidewalks, I picture a different, distant version of Corporate drive, one where beautiful afternoon sun showers brought people out of offices regardless of deadlines, one where many people ran this trail to stay in shape, moving from each station to the next, past coworkers who were chatting away about that new movie, Grease, or the crazy situation in Love Canal, New York. I step back into a place come to life with employees who cared and a community that teemed, thirty years before the whole place grew thick with trash and unkempt overgrowth.
But that version, if it ever existed, is gone. Replaced by nothing and instead trimmed down, personality faded and weathered by time. A few echoes do remain, tucked behind the buildings, but with no one to use or maintain them, they’ve lost their luster and appeal.
If history is a cycle, the moves by Google and other progressive companies to create corporate environments where people actually want to go to work might be a full 360 spin of the wheel, returning us to sometime near 1978. I’m too young to know what it was like then, but if these few dwindling symbols are even sort of representative, it’s a time I’d like to experience again, for the first time.