Wednesday, October 24, 2007

guest blog: the "micro-neighborhood" of bonifant and thayer

The Crescent condos loom over Bonifant Street, one block south of the Downtown Silver Spring complex.

Spices, Santeria shops and saloons: it's just business as usual on Bonifant and Thayer streets, sitting in the shadow of the "new" Downtown Silver Spring. That may be threatened by the Purple Line, which could run straight through the neighborhood. Bonifant Street resident Elisabeth Higgins Null - who first appeared in
Just Up The Pike last July - writes this guest post about what could be lost on her street.

To me, the largely minority- and immigrant-owned businesses of Bonifant and Thayer between Fenton and Georgia are the soul of the community I live in and depend on. My hairdresser is on Bonifant, my bookstore, my coffee shop and arts cafe. In this two-block micro-neighborhood, I can find cleaners, another coffee shop, multiple ethnic restaurants, an oriental spice store, a Thai grocery store, a key shop, autoparts store, soda shop, santeria supply store, balloon shop, tuxedo rental, prominent basement saloon, cobbler, body shops, picture framer, store front churches, nail salons and and a world-class comic and "oldies" record store. Paris never had such neighborhoods.


so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

As a writer and someone who works at home, I welcome the chance to get out at mid-day for a few hours in my neighborhood. I have a car, a handicapped permit, and a crutch. So far, they've suited me well. I've got it timed so that I can usually scoot into a metered parking space nearby to where I am going. This is my neighborhood -- you learn these things. I've been able to park outside a store while the clerk comes out to take my money and deliver packages. There are lots of people in my area like me, people who would like to grow old in their homes but who develop debilitating conditions even though they are not yet in wheelchairs. In the clustered parking garage, pedestrian megamall approach to civic revitalization, my kind of people are anomalies.

We have avoided confronting this problem in the revitalization of downtown. It has its pulsing, teeming hub, good for entertainment or an outing, but many of us also seek out the quieter charms of Thayer and Bonifant for local residents to go about their filling their needs. For many, this is the old-fashioned walkable town, and the population is stable enough so that relations develop between service providers and their customers. When I can't walk any further, I drop in for chat and maybe a shampoo at Cyncole's or ask Nani at the corner Citgo to call me a cab. Once or twice I've gotten a lift, more often I get a coffee and a little good conversation.

This kind of rapport grows slowly over time and small businesses like these are not transported to a new locale with their equipment and furniture. They embody trust and mutual experience between service provider and customer over time. These businesses are those that survived the bad times economically and stayed with us.

How tragic that they might be shoved out during plans for improving the economic and transportational vitality of our community. How tragic that I and older and partially handicapped citizens like myself might be shoved out for lack of close-up parking and/or a local traffic lane.

I beg the MTA to explore my concern about damage the Purple Line may do to the Bonifant/Fenton/Thayer commercial district. My needs and theirs are interdependent. Beyond this, they are a shining example of the American dream fulfilled.

Elisabeth Higgins Null

29 comments:

WashingtonGardener said...

I do mos of my shopping on these 2 blocks as well. Pennysworth is now the only thrift store left in the area. However, I've never been inside the gun shop, tux place, and tattoo parlor. I've tried 3 times to buy balloons at the place with "Balloons" painted in verlarge letters on their window - I have never had a successful transaction. Usually what happens is I walk in - no one is there - I call out, "Hello, anyone here" a few times and wait a some minutes for anyone to show - then leave for the party store on Wayne. Anyone out there successfully by balloons there?

rd said...

Wouldn't modernization improve resources for the handicapped? Small stores often can't afford the best technologies for ________-impaired people, whereas chain retailers and retailers at any location that has increased foot traffic are forced to improve their amenities. I understand your points, but I disagree with the general premise.

Anonymous said...

Who buys used records? Or guns?

Anonymous said...

I like the Fenton Village streets too. I think anyone who grew up or lived near an inner city, like NYC, Philly, might find something familiar there.

Anonymous said...

If the county limits new retail development, these older retail buildings will be modernized and the rents will be driven up. The only way to preserve the older, low-rent retail districts is to build newer buildings to soak up all the high-rent retailers.

transit advocate said...

The writer never makes it clear why having a trolley running down the street would harm these businesses. This article is just classic alarmism without foundation. If a Purple Line stop is constructed in the new library and Wayne and Bonifant, the businesses on Bonifant will get more foot traffic, not less. The Purple Line will be a great benefit, not a harm, to business in downtown Silver Spring. There is no reason why handicapped parking spaces can't still be provided on Bonifant Street. Dan, you should do a little fact-checking before you allow just anyone to use your valuable blog space. Again, this article is completely without foundation in fact.

Nancy said...

Beautifully stated, Elizabeth. I find myself entering chain stores of all kinds less frequently -- I buy from them online. Small, unique stores are the ones worth visiting. And they are the ones driven out by rail-based transit-oriented development. The cost in rent eclipses the foot traffic.

Boniman said...

These small businesses are not sustainable over the long term in Silver Spring if we continue "redevelopment." A Purple Line stop will only mean more high-rises, more Starbucks, and a increase in traffic. What the Fenton Village needs is to redevelop one of the superblocks with a new power center with the likes of Walmart, Home Depot, Costco, etc. You can't get the retail you need in the inner suburbs and DC. This could bring a lot of new customers to Silver Spring and help revitalize Fenton Village.

Sanjay said...

The Purple Line boondoggle trolley will destory many more neighborhoods like the one on Bonifant. This trolley is a bad deal for taxpayers who will be stuck footing the bill for a slow, ugly, noisy trolley using 20th century technology that no one wants to ride. Lets improve the bus network and upgrade problem spots in our road network.

WashingtonGardener said...

Sanjay - welcome to the 21st C - Light Rail is far different from 1920s trolleys of our childhood - it is clean, quiet and efficient - running at the speed limit if on surface roads.

rd said...

washington gardener: sanjay doesn't give a crap about technology, he just doesn't want things to change.

Springvale Roader said...

I've successfully purchased balloons at that store on Bonifant, though the proprietor (a nice lady) seems to regard the store more as a hobby than a business.

I agree that modern trolleys are probably very nice, and certainly nicer than buses.

Anonymous said...

Are they 2+ billion dollars nice?

Brian White said...

Boniman, how exactly would inviting Wal-Mart into the neighborhood help the small shops again? That makes no sense to me.

Sanjay said...

rd said...
washington gardener: sanjay doesn't give a crap about technology, he just doesn't want things to change.

October 25, 2007 10:59 AM

unlike you anti-heavy rail zealots who tried to bring down Metro fourty years ago and have opposed extending the Red Line to Glenmont, I support any form of transit so long as it protects the environment and our quality of life. That means tunneling below the Capitol Crescent Trail. That can be done with light rail but would be more expensive than would be to build a heavy rail line. So why not make the Purple Line heavy rail and finance it through a tax on commerical landowners along the route. It should cost no more than $500 million from Bethesda to Silver Spring. That would close the only gap in the Metro system where it takes 45 minutes to get from two locations that are only a couple miles apart.

rtsind said...

Who would buy old records?

This luddite here would buy old records-- I have quite a few LP's and would not mind having a source for more.

b said...

...Trolley's Rock!

Boniman said...

Brian White said...
Boniman, how exactly would inviting Wal-Mart into the neighborhood help the small shops again? That makes no sense to me.

October 25, 2007 1:20 PM

Small businesses tend to benefit from proximity to bix boxes. They refer their customers there for products they don't stock and benefit from the foot traffic. If Fenton Village can be remade into a Washingtonian Center-style bigbox power center I think the retail center of Silver Spring would shift to Fenton Village. Or are you too good for Walmart?

Springvale Roader said...

Wal-Mart and other big box stores have proven track records of destroying small businesses. Wal-Mart represents the very worst type of cutthroat capitalism.

rtsind said...

Many of the so called mom and pop stores are over-priced, and customer service is generally poor.

Try getting a refund or a credit back on your credit card at some of these smaller establishments.

If service is poor, who doyou complain to- I believe a corporate store would force some of these smaller stores to improve their customer service.

The only exception would ne food or restaurant chains. Enough of these-- small independent eating establishments are far better.

boniman said...

Springvale Roader said...
Wal-Mart and other big box stores have proven track records of destroying small businesses. Wal-Mart represents the very worst type of cutthroat capitalism.

October 26, 2007 8:28 AM


You read too many anti-Walmart books. These small businesses were never competitive in the global economy. Walmart has eliminated outdated retail that is not competitive and enhanced the global dominance of American retail via the Internet where small business have found a niche. The days of you mom and pop shop with bad food and terrible service are over. Small business have to compete with high quality chains by becoming more innovative and offering better service. Walmart represents the best of capitalism.

David said...

Since change is coming, and we can't stop it, let's participate. How can we make sure that new development subsidizes rent some small and locally owned businesses? That's they key, since the only stores that can afford new development rents are the larger chains. But a mix would be good too. Cheesey as it is SS could use a GAP.

Brian White said...

Boniman... how are you linking "foot traffic" and Wal-Mart? I have never seen a Wal-Mart that wasn't surrounded by its vast parking lot. Almost everyone who shops at Wal-Mart drives there, and then drives somewhere else. They don't get out and wander around the neighborhood. Even if there's a fast food restaurant in the same parking lot, people will drive over to it and order from the pick up window instead of walking over and going inside.

I don't know if I'm too good for Wal-Mart, but the one near me sucks so I never go there: broken items, poor service, long lines, etc. but I think I must live near the worst Wal-Mart in the country (the one in Laurel) since I've seen nice ones elsewheree.

Springvale Roader said...

Boniman, do you were a black top hat and twirl your mustache while cackling? How on Earth can you write that Wal-Mart represents the best of capitalism? It represents the absolute worst. It uses sweatshop labor for its suppliers, busts unions, wastes unknown quantities of fuel in its "warehouses on wheels," treats its employees like disposable rags, and provides low quality service.

You may be right that small shops which pay decent wages and operate on friendly, human scales are not competitive in the global market, but that is more an indictment of the global market than them.

You can keep your Wal-Marts. I stick with smaller stores which may cost a little more, but which are far less destructive in every way imaginable.

b said...

Just as the council forces a precentage of apts to be fixed income, could they not set aside a precentage of commercial property for Mom & Pop ventures, who cant compete with chains.

Boniman said...

Brian White said...
Boniman... how are you linking "foot traffic" and Wal-Mart? I have never seen a Wal-Mart that wasn't surrounded by its vast parking lot.

October 26, 2007 1:29 PM

Brian, have you ever been to Washingtonian Center in Gaithersburg. There are big boxes such as Target, Kohls, and Dicks mixed with smaller retailers with parking garages. The concept is that large big boxes serve as anchor stores. I don't necessarily advocate Walmart (or any particular retailer) locating at the power center I propose at Fenton Village, but large big box anchor stores if designed appropriately could bring in the foot traffic to smaller stores and revitalize Fenton Village. There are some NIMBY's in the surrounding areas that would oppose that.

BW said...

Boniman-Your concept of big box store driving traffic to these small businesses is simply wrong. Typically, the mall anchor (which is what you are describing vs. SS's plan for high density, mixed use) receives incentives from the developer who knows other chain tenants will follow. Rent is discounted, build-out expenses are covered, etc. Small businesses are not offered the same special treatment and tend to be of the neighborhood good & services variety: dry cleaners, nail salons, etc. The post describes a number of businesses that do not fall into this category. While I do (as a small business owner in another MD town) believe the Purple Line could be a plus to this retail area if done if done well, I disagree strongly with your premise that Wal-Mart is a plus to our economy. Re: ADA compliance, my store was singled out by non-profit monitoring groups for its easy wheelchair access at both locations we have had--my chain neighbors were not. Locally owned businesses contribute significantly more to our local economy than chains do. Many studies have addressed this, a recent one is here http://www.civiceconomics.com/SF/ Perhaps you should explore the effort to support local businesses and the data behind it before suggesting more chains. SS has its share. Discounted rents and the technical support that might improve service for those small businesses that survived the redev. effort could preserve the retail diversity that adds character and distinguishes SS from every other mall in America.

Anonymous said...

BW said...

Boniman-Your concept of big box store driving traffic to these small businesses is simply wrong. Typically, the mall anchor (which is what you are describing vs. SS's plan for high density, mixed use) receives incentives from the developer who knows other chain tenants will follow. Rent is discounted, build-out expenses are covered, etc. Small businesses are not offered the same special treatment and tend to be of the neighborhood good & services variety: dry cleaners, nail salons, etc. The post describes a number of businesses that do not fall into this category. While I do (as a small business owner in another MD town) believe the Purple Line could be a plus to this retail area if done if done well, I disagree strongly with your premise that Wal-Mart is a plus to our economy. Re: ADA compliance, my store was singled out by non-profit monitoring groups for its easy wheelchair access at both locations we have had--my chain neighbors were not. Locally owned businesses contribute significantly more to our local economy than chains do. Many studies have addressed this, a recent one is here http://www.civiceconomics.com/SF/ Perhaps you should explore the effort to support local businesses and the data behind it before suggesting more chains. SS has its share. Discounted rents and the technical support that might improve service for those small businesses that survived the redev. effort could preserve the retail diversity that adds character and distinguishes SS from every other mall in America.

November 04, 2007 9:08 AM

RE: Nothing but Freaking Lies........

The Only reason why you people want Silver Spring to remain looking like a Closed Bottle 18th Century Enviroment full of Unattractive Shanty looking small business runned by third worlders is so that most of the People that reside in Silver Spring and the non-Washingtonian Tourists won't view Silver Spring as an Enticing Suburb to visit, and Spend Money there in which it forces all of the revenue and money spending to REMAIN in DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Tysons Corner, Reston, and Dale City.cirdmnya

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
RE: Nothing but Freaking Lies........

The Only reason why you people want Silver Spring to remain looking like a Closed Bottle 18th Century Enviroment full of Unattractive Shanty looking small business runned by third worlders is so that most of the People that reside in Silver Spring and the non-Washingtonian Tourists won't view Silver Spring as an Enticing Suburb to visit, and Spend Money there in which it forces all of the revenue and money spending to REMAIN in DC, Arlington, Alexandria, Tysons Corner, Reston, and Dale City.cirdmnya

November 05, 2007 1:03 PM

No Place in Maryland want to look like your second rate-poor state with STAGNANT ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT in Tysons' and NO STREET LIFE in ARLINGTON. WTF is Dale City, that white trash town with nothing in it. Do you live there? Developers are coming to Silver Spring to build new highrises, not Dale City. Becuase Maryland is wealthier, MORE ACTIVE, and an ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE.