My teenage years revolved around “rides”: parents, friends’ parents, and eventually my two or three friends who could drive. Our lives were lived half-an-hour away: in the Olney 9; on Rockville Pike; at the Mall in Columbia. Senior year, the Majestic and Ellsworth Drive opened and we had a brief glimpse of how different our teenage years could’ve been for lack of a real place to “hang out.”
These kids had independence: a pair of feet to take them from home to work; a SmartTrip card that enabled trips on the Metro to school, to visit friends, to nights out in the District; a new civic stage on which to play out the great drama of teenage life. Only a handful of the thirty-odd kids at our store had cars.
Their stories are the same as any kid who grew up within a few blocks of Bethesda Row or Downtown Silver Spring. They were exposed to the world around to them – different kinds of people, different kinds of places – essentially city kids with better schooling. The brighter ones knew why it came to be that way. One girl had even written a term paper on Smart Growth for her sophomore Government class. “I think Rockville’s a really good place to live,” she told me. “Everything you could ever need is right here.”
We’d had the Smart Growth unit in my sophomore Government class at Blake High School as well. In my room at home, collecting dust on a shelf, is the culminating group project: a scale model of a Smart Growth town. It looks like King Farm in Rockville: a neat grid of streets, a downtown with apartments, offices and shops, a broad greenbelt with parks and fields.
Ours was the only one, though. Most of the other projects in my class looked like East County: clump of single-family homes here, strip mall there, a collector highway, cul-de-sacs everywhere. Even before the unit was eventually gutted to make time for High School Assessment preparation, no one in my class knew what Smart Growth meant because they didn’t know what Smart Growth looked like.
Place means a lot. If your parents have the means, they move you to a place that will raise you as they would themselves. This usually translates to big yards and good schools; cul-de-sacs and great rooms; people who look like you and make the kind of money you do and will direct your kids in the right way, whether or not you ever speak to them. And the silent message of place will stick. My former roommate, a fellow architecture student who despised the suburban sprawl he grew up in, says he still loves Montgomery Village.
There is a passage from the Bible – that I first heard through Councilmember Valerie Ervin last fall – that basically says “We all drink deeply from wells we did not dig.” We build to illustrate what values we want to instill in the next generation. What do we seek to teach? That despite the threat of environmental ruin, we can continue to base our lives around the automobile? That people who do not look like us or make the money we do can be safely tucked away in garden apartments far, far away from our neighborhoods? That the farm down the street is only valuable as land that can be turned into a highway, or a megachurch, or a Wal-Mart?
Downtown Silver Spring has already come around from that, as have Bethesda and Rockville. But in places like White Oak and Burtonsville, these are the values we’re instilling in the next generation. I was wondering why all of the families in my neighborhood – four at last count – are picking up and getting out. Even if they don’t want their kids to grow up on top of a Metro station, they’re not happy with the education they’re getting on the east side.
UPDATE: Thomas Hardman asked about the Smart Growth unit taught in sophomore Government classes. Yes, it's true - or, at least, it was when I was in tenth grade (this was in 2003.) I can't find much about it online anymore, though there are some photos from the unit as it was taught at Blake in 2005. I also found a coloring book on Maryland's Smart Growth website.