Friday, August 7, 2009

east county needs many advocates now, not just one

Community Day Sign, Briggs Chaney Road at Castle Boulevard
The Gazette wonders who will fill the shoes of civic activist Stuart Rochester, who passed away last week. Judging by the number of times his name's appeared in that paper over the past several years, I doubt it's likely to be one person. Nor should it. As open-minded as those in Wednesday's article say Rochester was, an individual can only represent the wants and needs of a few in our increasingly diverse community.

There are a vast number of constituencies here - different ethnic and religious groups; blue-collar and white-collar; families, couples and singles; young and old; people who remember what Burtonsville was like forty years ago and those impatient to see it forty years from now. Never have they been fully represented by East County's civic structure. Aside from neighborhood and homeowners' associations, we've never had much organization on a larger level. And as devoted as the members of an HOA can be, they usually look out for themselves and ignore the greater context.

Citizens Involved, an "umbrella civic group" whose Eileena York became a mouthpiece for Burtonsville's long hoped-for revitalization, fizzled out after barely two years of existence. We have the East County Citizens Advisory Board, which does an excellent job as transmitting our concerns to County Executive Ike Leggett, himself a Burtonsville resident. But they make recommendations, not actual policy. And with eighteen members, they've got enough people to form their own civic association but too many to lead one.

What I would like to see is a regional advocacy organization unbound by the parochialism of local homeowners' associations and seeking to be as inclusive as possible. It should cover a wide area - the entire Route 29 corridor from Burnt Mills to Burtonsville, for instance - and seek representatives from as many neighborhoods as possible. In Olney, where the county wants to redevelop the town center, the Planning Department has convened an Advisory Committee composed of delegates from homeowners' associations, civic groups, and business and social organizations as well. As a result, the discussion won't be one-sided because you have groups with many, many different interests at the table.

One group that definitely needs to be included in any East County civic group is the residents of apartment complexes. Rental communities are stereotyped as being "transient," something Stuart Rochester constantly railed against, but by not engaging the residents who are there for the long run, you can't rally for the kind of improvements that would make more people want to stay.

Windsor Court and Tower Apartments, located on Castle Boulevard in Briggs Chaney, has done a good job bringing their residents and those of surrounding complexes together with the East County Community Day, held each August for the past two years. Spurred by the deaths of three sisters in an apartment fire, the event is an outdoor fair held in a parking lot. Attractions include a barbeque, performances by local musicians, a petting zoo, and booths offering goods and services. There is no hidden agenda; leasing agents insist that they wouldn't be showing apartments during the fair.

Right now, Community Day is a small event, tucked in the back of an apartment complex on a residential street many people may never go down. But it's well supported by the nearby Regional Services Center and could grow if moved to a more visible location - say, in the parking lot of the Briggs Chaney Plaza shopping center, which after last month's shooting in broad daylight could use some good publicity. It's an opportunity to showcase local restaurants; to "re-brand" the Briggs Chaney area for people more familiar with its reputation for crime; and give renters a chance to assert themselves as part of the greater community.

I've been reflecting a lot on the passing of Stuart Rochester, and what his loss truly means for those who live in eastern Montgomery County. And I come to the same conclusion that I had before: we need more voices in the conversation. Not just because he worked so hard that no one could replicate his efforts, but because no one can truly speak for the majority. If there's a hole in East County, I'm looking forward to getting it filled - by many people, from many places, with many ideas.


Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, this need for a District 4 (or East County, as you seem to want to call it) centered local concerns and advocacy promotion group, is the main reason I started up District 4 Organization Wiki.

It's easy to use, as you know, and I have no interests in having it become anything other than non-partisan and come-one-come-all. Despite the fact that evidently nobody has used it since the last Special Election's pre-primary campaign forum schedule postings, I still keep it running and will probably continue to do so. The domain name doesn't cost much.

I'm starting to take it personally, pretty much, but it could be that most people simply do not know that it is there, and that it is intended for one thing: to help the various neighborhoods of District 4 develop their own web presence, and let people know:

* Who and where they are

* What they care about and what they wany

* How to get in touch with each other

* Why they feel the way they feel.

If they want to debate or blog, well, is free and accessible to anyone.

But a lot of people seem to think that they don't have the authority or the right (or maybe the skill or talent) to speak for their neighborhood or their part of town. Folks, do not be shy! Someone has to step forward first, and you do not need a license or permission to do this.

This is, or should be, a Free Country and the Home of the Brave. People should step up and say their piece before they get too pissed off to speak. Stand up, folks. Say what you have to say, whether you're totally outraged, or if you want to talk about your shiny new library or whatever.

Let everyone else know what your neighborhood is like, what your neighbors want or need. You could go to a "town hall meeting" and never get a chance to say your piece. Why not go ahead and get it down in writing in a place that isn't controlled by the politicians or their employees.

People need to stand up, step up, speak out, whether to complain or compliment. Please do.

And thanks, Dan, for pointing out the screaming need for people to do this, especially in the eastern part of the County, whether it's part of District 4 or not.

C. P. Zilliacus said...

Dan, Stuart Rochester worked very hard to listen to everyone, including people that he did entirely agree with.

Yes, he worked very hard to undo the damage done by the 1981 Eastern Montgomery County Master Plan and its badly-flawed "concept of transit serviceability," which was about meeting needs and desires of other parts of Montgomery County (e.g. agricultural preservation, "affordable" housing and increasing transit patronage), not especially about East County and its needs.

And he fought off efforts by activists (frequently individuals from far outside the East County) to densify our neighborhoods and force our residents to take mass transit - and to prevent the InterCounty Connector from being built on its master-planned route.

And he was respected by elected officials (at the county, state and federal levels) as someone knowledgeable about people living in the East and its communities.

Those are just some of his achievements.

Dan Reed said...

This is my point exactly. If you want to believe that people are foisting apartments and transit on you, fine. But that's not true. We built apartments around transit and didn't follow up with the transit. So now we have traffic, but some of the most well-used Metrobus lines in the region. In that respect I think the 1981 plan worked.

The way you make it sound, Stuart Rochester's motto was "they built apartments in my neighborhood, and I don't want any more poor people living around me." Correct me if I'm wrong, but that sounds like every other NIMBY I've encountered.

You know what I want? An affordable place to live and a way to get to work without my car. I know many people feel the same way. It's not something I would force on anyone else. But thanks to people who claimed they were "watching out for East County," I don't get a choice. Who's pushing whom here?