Thursday, July 30, 2009

jimmie cone: a small urban space in the suburbs

Jimmie Cone, Damascus
For a while now I've been very curious about Damascus. When you want to say something is "far" but "still in Montgomery County," you invoke the name of this small-ish town (it officially has more people than Burtonsville) way the hell out where Montgomery County shakes hands with Frederick, Carroll and Howard. It seems as physically and psychologically far as you can get from the glitz of Chevy Chase or the grit of Silver Spring, which judging by the things I heard from the mouth of my former roommate who grew up there, might be a fair assessment.

Before I went there on an obscure errand last weekend, what I knew about Damascus was that a) there's nothing to do here because b) it's illegal to buy or possess alcohol here and has been since the 1880’s so c) we go to Jimmie Cone. I went to a driving school where all of the instructors were cops, and they would tell stories about kids who died in horrible accidents are going to or coming from this ice cream stand. Surely Jimmie Cone must be good, I thought, if kids are willing to die for it.

In the business district, three roads meet at an awkward intersection. There's an elementary school and a library; a CVS and a McDonald's; and two strip malls. It reminded me of Burtonsville. Except at the center of Damascus is Jimmie Cone, an unassuming little box with a big green canopy and a parking lot surrounded by picnic tables. What sets it apart is that, on a Friday night, it looks like the entire town showed up for ice cream. The menu is simple: two flavors of soft-serve, two flavors of frozen yogurt, and a list of toppings, among them jimmies. (If you don’t already know, jimmies are another word for “sprinkles.”) A small ice cream is $1.66.

This place is worlds away from Rockville, where I spent a year and a half at Gifford's selling four-dollar scoops of ice cream. But both places are community institutions, gathering places made relevant when the temperature rises and the schools let out. While it doesn't scream "city" like Rockville Town Square does, you could say Jimmie Cone contributes to the urban realm as well.

Why do people come here for ice cream and not the McDonald's across the street? It's cheap. It's close to home. But, most importantly, it's community. You may know the family who started it in 1962. Your kids/your neighbors' or friends' kids may work behind the counter. Or you expect to run into people you know. This place fosters those relationships in a community more so than any chain could because it is a product of its location. You can only experience Jimmie Cone in Damascus or their second store in Mount Airy, a few miles away.

For the younger set, Jimmie Cone is a place to see and be seen. There are two sets of picnic tables here: one next to the stand itself, under the canopy, and another next to the street. I saw the teenagers in the latter area, where they'd be in plain sight of anyone who drove by. It's the same reason kids sit in front of the Majestic in Downtown Silver Spring. Were he still alive, I'd say sociologist William H. Whyte could do a whole Social Life of Small Urban Spaces-style review of Jimmie Cone.

Places like this are what I find so exciting about suburbia because they dare to challenge the status quo created by big cars and big houses: they encourage and often force us to interact with other people, to embrace our innate social urges. It’s no Dupont Circle – hell, it’s not even “the Turf” in Downtown Silver Spring. But places like it are integral to creating stronger communities.


Bowie Mike said...

I spent my teenage years near Boston. Everybody orders "jimmies" up there instead of sprinkles, but I've never heard anyone around here use the term. There are a lot of Massachusetts transplants down here, and I wouldn't be surprised if the original owners of Jimmie Cone came from the Boston area.

WashingtonGardener said...

I only get up to Jimmie Cone rarely - because of its way-up-there locale. But I can attest that it worth the trip and thanks Dan, for the 411 and a reminder that no summer in MoCo should go by without at least one Jimmie Cone roadtrip!

JessicaAPISS said...

I love this post - linking to you on APISS right now...

Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, you say:

[ ... ] they encourage and often force us to interact with other people, to embrace our innate social urges.

Try to keep in mind at all times that there is a subset of people who find this sort of place to be basically a living hell, one best avoided.

I'm not talking about "Jimmie Cone" in particular, I have never been there.

However, there are places where some people are pointedly excluded. Places that a "for the cool people" often get their reputation for being "cool" because they exclude "losers", or "nerds", etc. Back in the day, they used to exclude blacks, or foreigners, or Jews, or Catholics, you get the idea.

To add to the fact that you have to understand that for those who are picked out for exclusion these places are no attraction but rather a hazard, let me once again point out that for those of us who aren't gregarious, it would not be our "innate social instincts" that would make us go to such a place, but rather a craving for the product that they serve.

If you're with the "in crowd", or whoever it is who has staked a claim to a facility that's supposed to be open to all comers, perhaps the products are a mere excuse to stake out your territorial claims.

If you're one of the people picked out to be excluded, well, look at it this way: if it was 1959 and you were a black man and the only place you could get ice-cream was at the meeting house of the KKK, I guess you just wouldn't be satisfying your innate social urges over an ice-cream cone, now would you.

And if I recall correctly, that place was at one time infamous for exactly that problem, Maryland being Maryland and Marylanders being Marylanders, dontcha know.

Bruce said...

Jimme Cone has a definite throw-back vibe to it. Their sundaes are great as well.