Activist Pam Browning on the Capital Crescent Trail. Browning's organized a petition to stop construction of the Purple Line on the popular path. Check out this slideshow of the Capital Crescent Trail/proposed Purple Line route in Chevy Chase.
I'm introduced to Pam Browning in her kitchen, spooning yogurt from a cup. Trees fill the view of a picture window behind her. A box of Trader Joe's dishwashing detergent prominently located on the kitchen counter.
"I'm a tree-hugger," she says. "You can write about that on here. It makes me want to cry."
so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .
Like most people, Pam Browning likes trees. Organizer of the Save the Trail Petition, Browning has spent the past several year fighting the Purple Line, a proposed transitway between Bethesda and New Carrollton. Its preferred route would follow the Capital Crescent Trail, a well-used and heavily-forested hiker-biker trial that runs through her back yard.
While some 11,000 trail users have signed her petition, but it appears considerably fewer actively support ther work.
A tree is chopped down in front of a house being rebuilt.
"We're going through a lot of mansionization right now."On our way to the trail, Browning points out a construction crew working on a new house. "This used to be the 'other side of the tracks,'" Browning says, "and now we're having all this mansionization."
A man hacks away at a felled tree in the sidewalk. "And these guys are raping all the trees," she moans. "I'm having huge battles with the town about not stopping them."
I ask an elderly woman what she thinks of the Purple Line. "Purple Line? What Purple Line?" she spits. "The trains they want to put here," Browning responds. "I don't want it. Not a bit," she says.
"The observation is that the buses aren't full," Browning says as we enter the trail. "People come here to find what they can't elsewhere in this urban area."
"They're telling us it'll be a nice trail," says Browning, referring to the Maryland Transit Administration's plans to build the Purple Line alongside the trail. To do so would involve the removal of thousands of trees dating to the area's original development a century ago. "I say it's a fiction in the most generous terms."
The exclusive Columbia Country Club has been on of the Purple Line's biggest opponents since inception.
The trail's right-of-way ranges from sixty to ninety feet, the majority of which is completely forested. Many backyards infringe on it, making the area seem smaller than it really is. In the Columbia Country Club, which surrounds the trail on both sides, the trail is hemmed in on both sides by tall chain-link fences. Columbia, the most exclusive country club in the region, has historically been the Purple Line's largest opponent, suing the County for control of the railway in the 1980's when the project was first proposed.
A country club in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation is an easy target for proponents of a transit line that would serve some of Montgomery County's poorest neighborhoods. The Action Committee for Transit, who advocate building the Purple Line along the Capital Crescent Trail, blame Columbia Country Club for the project's twenty-year delay:
"Were it not for the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Columbia Country Club has spent on political contributions, public relations, and lobbying, the segment from Bethesda to Silver Spring would already have been built."But they aren't the only ones opposing the Purple Line, insists Browning. "The Ben Rosses [from Action Committee for Transit] . . . to them, it's all the country club. They don't see any of these houses," says Browning. "The people who use this trail don't go to the country club."
"They [MTA] don't have to look at the neighborhood or the trail. It's not their criteria."
A mother stands in the path, holding a bottle to her baby's mouth. A leashed dog stands guard. "What do you think of the Purple Line?" I ask. "I'm sort of still indifferent," she says. "As long as they make some kind of accomodation for pedestrians."
Take Columbia Country Club out of the equation, Browning explains, and class is no longer an issue. "These are not mansions [in Chevy Chase]," says Browning. "A lot of the people in this neighborhood are government workers or teachers."
For decades, she's been advocating for people in need, a fact she was quick to point out to me. "My senior thesis was on red-lining on the South Side of Chicago before Barack Obama was there," she notes.
"I wanted to get a job with the NAACP in Chicago, but they didn't know who I was," Browning laments. Instead, she moved to Washington over twenty years ago and started working in non-profit groups. She runs through a list of the advocacy and lobbying work she's done: migrant workers. Civil Rights. The decline of Black farmers. After-school programs for low-income kids. A national campaign for sustainable agriculture.
"[The controversy] it's like pitting Black people against Hispanic people.""All my life I've been campaigning in non-profits for justice," she says, brow furrowing. "And I hate seeing this [the Purple Line controversy] painted as a justice issue when it's an environmental issue. It's like pitting Black people against Hispanic people."
Browning admits, however, that she doesn't know much about the Purple Line's proposed route east of Silver Spring and through some of Montgomery County's poorest neighborhoods - not to mention struggling neighborhoods on the Prince George's side as well.
"I'm not in the discussion of Silver Spring to New Carrollton. I don't know those areas," she says. "I'm saying the best transit plan for this area is Metro, and if it's tunneled or along the Beltway . . . I don't know everything that's at stake, but I know what's at stake here."
Two mothers power-walking with their kids. "What do you think of the Purple Line?" I ask. "We love it!" one says. "We were just saying we live in such a great place."
"I don't think she heard what you were saying," Browning suggests.
"So the developers said . . . Let's do whatever we have to to get the goddamned development!"
We can hear the roar of traffic on Connecticut Avenue up ahead. Six lanes of traffic stream from the Beltway through Chevy Chase and into the heart of D.C. The Capital Crescent Trail stops at a metal guardrail, takes a sudden jerk to the left, and ends at a poorly marked crosswalk. On the other side, next to a tall office building, the trail starts again.
There, the land on both sides of the trail is owned by the Chevy Chase Land Company, responsible for the development of the umpteen villages that bear the Chevy Chase name. If the Purple Line is built, Browning says, the company would make a fortune from a proposed development called Lake East to be built adjacent to the trail and a proposed Connecticut Avenue stop.
"This was not a transportation plan, it was a development plan," she spits. "There was nothing about your New Carrollton."
The trolley first proposed in the 1980's "would never get approved," Browning says. "So the developers said, 'Let's make it go to University of Maryland! Let's make it useful! Let's do whatever we have to to get the goddamned development!'"
Browning points to a bike shop in the office building that faces the trail. "They're crass enough to put a bike store here because they know how popular the trail is," she snorts.
"If everyone who wanted transit got together and said 'we want underground Metro,' we would have it. But instead, we're battling each other."Four teenagers and a mother on bikes near Jones Mill Road. "I think it's a good idea," one kid says. "I want to have my cake and eat it, too," the mother says. "I want the bike trail and I want the Purple Line."
"Bike trail on top!" another kid adds.
The Chevy Chase Land Company is not "viewed favorably," she says, nor are most developers here. "Our developers are greedy," she says. "They just want to build up every inch of Bethesda that they can. Why not give some of that development to Silver Spring?"
Browning stops. "Have you ever been to Mexico?" she asks. "In every village there's a zocalo, or town square. These are areas where people come together. Every evening, they talk, and they don't go shopping.
Public, non-commercialized spaces such as this - whether on the currently undisturbed Capital Crescent Trail, Downtown Bethesda, or even in the land company's proposed development - are what communities need the most, she say. Places where people come together, instead of polarizing issues that only force people apart.
Several times during our conversation, Pam Browning appears to be on the brink of tears. It's hard not to be moved by her devotion to the trail. "It's a beautiful resource, and I've spent a significant amount of my life trying to save it," she says. "If everyone who wanted transit got together and said 'we want underground Metro,' we would have it. But instead, we're battling each other."
"I would love to have a Purple Line. I'd just like to have it underground," laments Browning. "We shouldn't be pitting transit against the environment."
Most voices in the Purple Line debate have yet to experience the Capital Crescent Trail, Browning says, and few are interested in learning more about it. "I would organize people to tie themselves to trees," proclaims Browning, "but short of that I can't get anyone to even walk the trail with me."