It looks like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille “sand and sandals” Bible epic from the 1950s.
Roman centurions with spears and red capes menacingly lead a long-haired man wearing a crown of thorns and dragging a large wooden cross. They pretend to whip and hurl threats at the man, as thousands of bystanders line the roadway and walk along, singing and praying in Spanish, English, and French.
The remarkable presentation is not a Hollywood movie, but the annual Good Friday Via Crucis, or “way of the cross,” unfolding along busy New Hampshire Avenue in Langley Park. Common throughout Latin America, this procession starts around noon and slowly traces a two-and-a-half-mile line from Our Lady of Sorrows in Langley Park to St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring.
Their lights flashing, police cars slowly lead and trail the walkers, bringing a surreal and short-lived halting of traffic and noise to the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard (where, on a typical day, 95,000 vehicles pass).
The procession winds past huge parking areas sprawling before vast collections of restaurants, beauty parlors, car washes, fast-food outlets, toy stores, banks, record shops, and other establishments.
Bill Hanna, a professor who teaches graduate classes in urban studies at the nearby University of Maryland, says he has included Langley Park in his curriculum over the past 30 years. The gritty, unincorporated stretch of post-World War II shopping centers, apartments, and single-family homes rides the northern edge of the District of Columbia and is framed by Maryland’s College Park campus to the east and Wheaton to the west.
Although crime can be an issue in the area, Langley Park’s thrumming “melting pot” vibe makes it truly special.
“Langley Park is very small, maybe one square mile, but the reality is that Langley Park is much bigger in its history and the breadth and depth of the drama taking place right now as ‘new Americans’ are finding their way in our culture,” says Hanna.
“Every spring, I take my honors class out to explore Langley Park, looking for experiences and auguries of what this place will look like in years to come. We see the Easter processions of the Latino community. We hear African drums in storefronts, take in the aroma of Asian cooking, see the dress and hair, the faces of people from everywhere,” he says.
“When we put it all together, we see Langley Park in bloom.”
Longtime resident Erwin Mack agrees.
“It’s a place like no other,” says Mack, who often motors around Langley Park’s parking lots in his open-topped 1910 Model T. As executive director of the Crossroads Development Authority of Takoma/Langley Park, he does what he can to encourage development in a place many observers regard as just suburban sprawl.
“Look past what your eyes tell you,” encourages the 78-year-old Mack, who, with his wife, raised four children, ran a business, and is now in semi-retirement in the citified expanse with the pretty name.
The name, in fact, comes from England, where, in Kent, outside of London, the Goodhart family owned an estate called Langley Park dating to 826 AD (and mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086).
After World War I, Frederick and Henrietta McCormick-Goodhart came to America, where they hired a society architect to create a one-of-a-kind home for them on the 500 acres they bought in the “wilderness” of Prince George’s County.
They named it Langley Park after the Kent estate and, for years, enjoyed the three-story Georgian Revival mansion, which still stands.
After the war, the family sold the house and most of the land to developers, who, in no time, built the homes, apartments, and strip malls that define Langley Park today. The McCormick-Goodharts, incidentally, still live in the area and are active in revitalizing the ever-changing, endlessly varied community.