Monday, August 31, 2009

the water tower house(s)

The Water Tower House
3 BR 3.5 BA Colonial, near schools, shopping and 495. Potential for waterfront access (comes with two of every animal just in case). $699k.

In my family, house-hunting is something of a tradition. From elementary school on, Saturdays meant piling into the car and driving out to some new subdivision in Olney to traipse through model houses. As a real estate agent, my mother had access to resale listings as well, meaning we didn't have to mess with open houses. This summer, after a decade of living contentedly in our house in Calverton, the tradition began again, now with my brother in tow.

This house is one of six being built at the end of Kermit Road in Montgomery Hills, behind the Seminary Place shopping center. Features include granite countertops, hardwood floors, and a lovely porch, not to mention a water tower barely twenty feet from the backyard fence. You'd think that might be a deal-breaker, but thanks to some very clever photography, the water tower is completely invisible in the online listing. Unscrupulous? Absolutely!

It's a truly attractive house, solidly built and well laid-out, not to mention in a fairly decent location. Schools, shopping and the Forest Glen metro are all more or less within walking distance. But the siting of these six houses, in the shadow of a hulking water tower and hard up against the back of a strip mall, is less than ideal. This project illustrates many of the challenges of infill development, namely what to do with inflexible site conditions. You can't move the water tower. The shopping center is likely decades away from being redeveloped. And the property is zoned for single-family homes. You have to make the three work together. I can't say that happened here, though I'm not sure if it's even possible.

Here's hoping that the family who buys this house has a sense of humor, and furthermore that the water tower is well-sealed.

The Water Tower House (The Backyard)
The water tower seen from the backyard.
The Water Tower House (View From Upstairs)
The roof of Seminary Place shopping center, seen from an upstairs bedroom.

what's up the pike: back to school, or not

The Fairland Center
I've been dreading the first day of school all summer. Not only am I not going to class for the first time, but my glorious 25-minute commute to Rockville will now double. Hey, this is why my great Purple Line experiment took place on the first day of school last year. Here's a look at what's happening today in East County:

- Maryland calls the InterCounty Connector's "one of America's greenest highways," but local residents weren't buying it at an open house hosted by the State Highway Administration last weekend, reports the Post. Features included rainwater filters and special underpasses for deer crossing the road; to avoid damaging Lake Needwood, the ICC was re-routed through a neighborhood in Derwood instead. The road's first phase, between I-370 and Georgia Avenue, opens late next year.

- Two pedestrians were struck and dragged behind an SUV for nearly a hundred feet on Capital View Avenue between Silver Spring and Kensington on Saturday. The narrow, winding street dates to the late 19th century and has no sidewalks. Here's hoping County Executive Leggett happened by the scene because they won't ever see a sidewalk here otherwise.

- If you've been waiting for LifeSci Village, the proposed mixed-use "town center" on Cherry Hill Road, keep holding your breath. Percontee, who owns the gravel mine where LifeSci was due to rise, says they now want to build a thirty-three-story tower next to Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville. That's right, folks: thirty-three floors. In Hyattsville. Did we mention that the University Town Center next door is still struggling with vacancies? Maybe Percontee's people should read A Man in Full before they go any further.

- I missed this last week, but JUTP and the Silver Spring Penguin were mentioned in local LGBT newsmagazine Metro Weekly's write-up of the Tastee Diner protest two weeks ago. We've yet to hear if Aiyi'Nah Ford and Torian Brown, who were booted out of the diner for a show of PDA last month, got the apology they've been waiting for.

- Today marks the close of a whole summer without "the Turf" and, thankfully, without a major incident in Downtown Silver Spring. A couple of months ago, I asked if the so-called "Hellsworth Drive" has calmed down this year. I think we can confidently say yes. Do you?

Friday, August 28, 2009

top posts this week

Montgomery Cinema And Drafthouse, Wheaton Plaza
I don't know if this will become an actual feature, but a few posts over the past week have really caught readers' attention, catapulting Just Up The Pike's weekly readership to the highest level in three years. The blog got 2,800 visits between August 19 and August 26, and people came to read these stories:

"silver spring in name only?" - Using Craigslist ads, I try to find where Silver Spring begins and ends. Greater Greater Washington joins the conversation, noting that people are similarly confused about local identity across Montgomery County, the fabled "land of few names." Even more confused, BeyondDC reveals that he gave all of East County to Burtonsville five years ago.

"an open letter to wheaton" and "four things wheaton's got all to itself" - I politely ask Wheaton to stop complaining that redevelopment will make it "contrived" like Downtown Silver Spring because, hey, I don't see people beating down the door to hang out there on Friday night. To be fair, I follow up with a list of things Wheaton should use to its advantage.

"kiss-in denounces anti-gay discrimination at tastee diner" and on being black, gay and hungry" - It was the biggest story in Silver Spring for a couple of days but seems to have disappeared since: what exactly happened did a black lesbian couple do in the Tastee Diner two weeks ago that got them kicked out? After the ensuing protest, the restaurant's staff responded to allegations of gay-bashing by posting an almost useless surveillance video of the incident.

It's been a great week here at Just Up The Pike. Come back next week for more stories about eastern Montgomery County. As always, tell me what you like - and what you don't like (especially what you don't like) by shooting an e-mail to justupthepike at gmail dot com.

what's up the pike: opening time

You won't be seeing these sexy mixed-use buildings around Glenmont any time soon.

- The wait's over for the interchange at Randolph Road and Georgia Avenue. Sort of. The state's hired a construction firm to move utility lines in preparation for the long-awaited project, which they say will be carrying motorists through Glenmont by 2014. Developer JBG says the interchange's slow progress caused them to toss out plans for a mixed-use community atop the Glenmont Metro station with over 1,500 apartments and 90,000 square feet of retail.

- The Dutch Country Farmers' Market says they hope to open at their new location in Laurel in the "second week of September," according to an e-mail sent to shoppers. A local institution in Burtonsville for over twenty years, the so-called "Amish Market" sought to move elsewhere in the village center after being booted out for the redevelopment of the Burtonsville Shopping Center at Route 29 and Route 198. (Thanks to Dr. F for the heads-up.)

- Speaking of mid-September: as many of you know, the Fenton Street Market will start up Saturday, September 12 at the corner of Fenton and Silver Spring Avenue. Unlike the current farmers' market in Downtown Silver Spring, this one caters to artisans from across the region. Local activist Karen Roper told the Gazette it'll be bigger than Bethesda. "By making Fenton Village different, it will be more popular than any of those places," she said. "The diversity we have here is real diversity . . . as opposed to the homogenous, planned diversity it's being replaced with." Whoa, don't get all Wheaton on me now.

- Don't forget: the State Highway Administration wants to keep you posted about the InterCounty Connector's environmental impacts. The meeting's from 9am to 12pm Saturday at the National Capital Trolley Museum on Bonifant Road. It's your only chance to preview the newly re-built museum before it opens for real next month (they're shooting for September 27, according to their website.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

daily snapshot: wastebasket

Crumpled Street Sign, Fairland at Marlow
A crumpled-up street sign at the corner of Fairland and Marlow roads, a few blocks from my house. When I took the picture, I didn't notice the SUV that had jumped the curb and the girl on her cell phone freaking out. It took me a few minutes to connect all the pieces, much longer than she needed to when she saw a boy with a camera. But, of course, only she will know how to fold up a metal street sign with a vehicle like one unwraps a Starburst with their tongue.

the ted kennedy federal research campus?

Perhaps we should consider naming the FDA Campus in White Oak for recently-passed Senator Ted Kennedy.

With so many celebrity deaths this summer, watching the news cycle find new things to report about the departed has become a pastime in and of itself. Following this trend, the online magazine Slate asks what buildings can be named after Senator Ted Kennedy, who passed away late Tuesday evening. They've found a potential candidate in the Federal Research Campus in White Oak, better known as home to the Food and Drug Administration:
Given Kennedy's devotion to health care reform, maybe it would be appropriate to get his name inscribed on the Department of Health and Human Services building. Unfortunately, HHS HQ was nabbed in 1977 by Hubert Humphrey, a former senator and vice president . . . the Food and Drug Administration is moving to new headquarters at the White Oak Research Center in Maryland, which will be home to several huge, as-yet-unnamed buildings.
Why not name part or whole of the FDA's new headquarters after Ted Kennedy? I'm not claiming to be a political science major (though I did take AP Government in high school), but it seems like the senator had more than a few run-ins with them throughout his long career. A quick Google search for "Ted Kennedy FDA" reveals three things that happened just this year. In March, Kennedy and three other senators proffered the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, sought to reduce the occurrence of food-borne illness and prevent the spread of those that do arise. A few weeks later in April, a book came out critiquing Kennedy's involvement in anti-tobacco legislation. Shortly after, one of his staffers left to create policy for the FDA.

It makes sense to name the new headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration - an agency that directly and indirectly deals with the biggest health-related issues of our day - after a senator who devoted much of his life to improving the health of others. I also personally think it would raise the profile of East County to see the facility we've pinned our economic hopes on named for such an illustrious figure as well. The campus doesn't enjoy waterfront views like the Kennedy Center and RFK Stadium, named for Ted's brothers, but I hear the new pool at the Enclave across the street is pretty nice.

Looks like it's time to write our congressional representatives (it's mainly in Donna Edwards' district, but Chris Van Hollen and Steny Hoyer are pretty close by, and can't ignore Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski because they shared a chamber with Ted Kennedy) and get this idea some attention. We wouldn't want to see them do something silly with Kennedy's name and put it on, like, the National Institutes of Health or something. After all, doesn't Bethesda have enough things named for important people (or nice things in general) by now?

Rendering of now-completed Building One on the FDA campus courtesy of Grunley.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

whoops! (again)

I set Blogger up to publish posts in advance. Occasionally, posts that never finished cooking get taken out of the oven too soon. And you might've just seen one of them.

Sorry about that. Perhaps it'll be ready in a few days, or never. (You can never tell.)

silver spring in name only?

Two nights ago, I went to a dinner for contributors to Greater Greater Washington, which I've written for intermittently since last spring. Each of us had to introduce ourselves and where we lived. When it was my turn, I said I lived in "what I'll call Silver Spring," figuring that most of the people there weren't from Montgomery County and wouldn't know Calverton from California. "Would you really call where you live 'Silver Spring'?" asked David Alpert. Yes, I said, and this is why.

I embrace Silver Spring's lack of defined boundaries. Purists will argue that Silver Spring consists of Downtown and immediately surrounding neighborhoods. The Singular likes to call places that are not within this area "SSINO," or Silver Spring In Name Only. Silver Spring is not a municipality like Rockville or Gaithersburg. It means we don't have a mayor, but it also means the place can be as big or as small as we want.

To explore this relationship, I looked up the three hundred most recent rental listings in Silver Spring on Craigslist, tossing out commercial ads and keeping the ones that gave at least a nearby intersection as a reference point. This left seventy-five listings, the locations of which I recorded on a map. The result is a rough, unscientific survey of where Silver Spring really is.

View "silver spring in name only" in a larger map

What did I find?

- Of 75 listings, more than half (44) claimed to be in "Silver Spring," followed by "Silver Spring/Wheaton" (7), "Silver Spring/Takoma Park" (6), and "Downtown Silver Spring" (6). Six listings also mentioned other neighboring communities, including Rockville and Kensington. Only six ads referred to specific parts of Silver Spring.

- Of those listings that mentioned Downtown Silver Spring, only two of them were actually located in the central business district. The other four were all within a mile of the CBD, the furthest being on Dale Drive.

- Listings on Flower Avenue in the Long Branch area were said to be in "Takoma Park," despite being several blocks north of the Takoma Park city limits.

- Some listings were misplaced entirely. One rental at Randolph and New Hampshire - generally called Colesville - claimed to be in "Ashton," nearly six miles away. Another was physically inside the town of Kensington. Three listings mentioned places outside of Montgomery County, including Laurel, Columbia, and Beltsville.

- No listings mentioned Langley Park, Aspen Hill or Briggs Chaney, which may suggest that landlords were worried about any stigma associated with those neighborhoods. Also, some listings in Downtown Wheaton - including one across the street from Wheaton Plaza - were simply called "Silver Spring."

- The northernmost references to just "Silver Spring" appeared in Leisure World, which is surprising because that community would be familiar to people throughout MoCo and the region. An unscrupulous landlord might purposely leave the name off to prevent Leisure World's age restrictions from limiting their potential pool of renters.

- While I didn't include them in the final sample, I noticed that many of the commercial ads associated Silver Spring with other areas. Listings for the Bennington on East-West Highway referred to it as being "In Silver Spring near Shepard [sic] Park" and "In Silver Springs [sic] near Chevy Chase," seeking to place the building near ritzier neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Monterey at Randolph Road and Rockville Pike claimed to be in "North Bethesda near Silver Spring," a surprising association for a building already in an upscale area.


I'm not sure if my opinion changed very much. If anything, I realized that people may identify even less with individual neighborhoods than with Silver Spring as a whole. This may be because of the revitalized downtown, which serves not only as a regional anchor but as the preferred place to hang out. It would also explain why the most distant listings mentioned Rockville or Columbia - because people who live there might spend more time in Rockville Town Center or at the Mall in Columbia.

Regional identity is significant. Downtown Silver Spring becomes all the more relevant when people who live ten miles away associate themselves with it. At the same time, a lack of local identity makes "Silver Spring" becomes a pejorative term, a way to quickly and cheaply collect a bunch of places that are no longer worth individual names. This may or may not be an issue depending on who you ask and how they see their community. (Someone who lives in the once-prestigious Burnt Mills Hills neighborhood probably wouldn't say they live in "White Oak.")

The census defines Silver Spring as basically everything below the Beltway and Four Corners, with a population of 76,540 in 2000. But the U.S. Postal Service gives eight zip codes (20901,2,3,4,5,6,10 and 12) to Silver Spring, an area containing over 200,000 people. As a result, someone living on a farm at Ednor Road and the Patuxent River has the same address as someone in a high-rise at Colesville and Georgia. Can farms and high-rises happily co-exist in Silver Spring, or can communities that historically had their own identity as rural villages (places like Norbeck, Colesville and Fairland) reclaim them from the suburban quilt? I doubt we'll find the answer on Craigslist.

daily snapshot: tower

White Oak Towers Is Really Effing Big

what's up the pike: walk, don't run

Silver Spring Blues Festival
- The Magical Montgomery festival next month does its own take on National Park(ing) Day, letting people have free reign over parking spaces on Ellsworth Drive. "What can happen in a park(ing) spot? You name it— it has probably been done . . . the rules are that it all has to fit within a parking space and be open and free to the public," says the event website. For more info, check out the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County's website. (Thanks to Richard Layman for the heads-up.)

- Park Hills resident and civic activist Alan Bowser posted photos of last weekend's Peace Walk, hosted by the youth group Mixed Unity in response to increased violence against young people in Silver Spring. The march led from the corner of Piney Branch Road and Arliss Street, where fourteen-year-old Tai Lam was murdered last fall, to Pyramid Atlantic's arts center on Georgia Avenue.

- Learn about the proposed Third District police station tonight at a meeting hosted by the North White Oak Civic Association and County Councilmember Nancy Navarro. Representatives from the Police Department and Housing and Community Affairs will be there to speak with residents about plans to build a new station along with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing on the twelve-acre site near New Hampshire Avenue and Columbia Pike. The meeting's at 7:30pm Tonight in the White Oak Library at New Hampshire and Heartfields Drive.

- The State Highway Administration wants to keep you posted about the InterCounty Connector's environmental impacts. Next Saturday, they'll be having an open house to talk about the Environmental Stewardship/Compensatory Mitigation program, which includes everything from cleaning streams to moving box turtles affected by the highway construction. The meeting's from 9am to 12pm at the National Capital Trolley Museum on Bonifant Road. (It's still there: the original building was razed to make room for the highway, but a new museum has been built behind it. Read more at Maryland Politics Watch because the ICC's website either doesn't have the info or I'm not looking hard enough.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

visiting national harbor

A couple of weeks ago I visited National Harbor, the "mini-city" on the Potomac in southern Prince George's County. The crowning achievement of developer Milton Peterson, who gave us Downtown Silver Spring and its attendant battles over free speech, National Harbor is probably worth the trip. We already have a CakeLove here, but we don't have a fake beach, or a marina.

My only real gripe with National Harbor is that it's very isolated. The project has one point of access from the Beltway, effectively sealing itself off from the surrounding neighborhoods. Some of these communities are very affluent and would make a nice counterpart to the development as greater Bethesda would to its Bethesda Row. Yet others struggle with crime, decay and neglect. You don't see any of this from National Harbor. It makes me wonder what good it will actually do for Prince George's County: look, they say, we have all of these nice things (a restaurant with six different kinds of ketchup!) Are you not impressed?

I'm sure a lot of people, both from around the Beltway and across the country, will leave thinking that Gorgeous Prince George's truly lives up to its name. But even the neighbors of National Harbor are tourists like everyone else, disappearing into a world of glitzy buildings and gold-paved streets before returning home to places that will never look like this because they can't. Simply because it's not tucked off a highway exit, Downtown Silver Spring has no choice but to interact with its surroundings, an arrangement that's created many problems but has spurred investment throughout the CBD and beyond. A rising tide lifts all boats, as they say.

When the tide rolls in at National Harbor, will it ever reach Prince George's County? I'd like to be proven wrong.

four things wheaton's got all to itself

Wheaton Skyline
Picking up where we left off from yesterday's post about revitalizing Wheaton and the discussion that followed.

I think there's always been some anxiety about plans to redevelop Downtown Wheaton. For those who have been working on it for, like, twenty years, it might be both a relief and a shock that "things" might actually "happen" soon. Ever since Barry's Magic Shop on Georgia Avenue was bulldozed to make room for a pedestrian walkway, fears that local businesses would get subsumed by redevelopment (as people complain has happened in Downtown Silver Spring, which I think is a falsehood) have only been amplified. Delegate Al Carr, who represents the area, even introduced a bill earlier this year to help preserve local businesses.

So far, at least, we've proved that you CAN have awesome local businesses like El Pollo Rico and DeJaBel Cafe alongside major chains, provided those chain stores are sequestered inside a mall. And if we agree that Wheaton is threatened by what some might call "gentrification," the goal should be finding was to recast the area. The money's coming, so how do you direct it? Towards becoming a standard "upscale shopping destination" or embracing the quirkiness that Wheaton allegedly possesses?

This is what marketers call "Branding," and it goes beyond Montgomery County's designation of Wheaton as an "Arts and Entertainment District." What can Wheaton offer that other places don't, and how can that be parlayed into different kinds of investment? And let's not be limited to the central business district but the surrounding neighborhoods as well. They are a package: together, they provide the widest variety of housing types and amenities (including schools and parks) while remaining under the difficult-to-define umbrella of "Wheaton."

1) 1950's suburban nostalgia. Wheaton was the epicenter of a post-war building boom that stretched from Langley Park to Rockville as builders put up thousands of tiny Colonials, ranchers and split-level houses. Built in 1959, Wheaton Plaza was one of the first shopping malls in the nation, let alone the region. This was the era when Montgomery County entered into its own as an affluent bedroom suburb for federal workers, and Wheaton is where it began.

What's the point? Sell the image that Wheaton was and is a family-friendly place to live with lots of built-in "amenities," including good schools, shopping, and easy access to roads and Metro. Throughout the 1990's, the Mantua neighborhood in Fairfax County ran ads pitching it as an closer-in alternative to newer planned communities. After all, why move to Clarksburg and wait for a grocery store to come when you've already got them here?

2) "Baby Boom Modernism." My architectural history professor, Isabelle Gournay, coined this term for stuff built during the Baby Boom (late 40's through the early 60's) that took inspiration from capital-M modernism at the time (think of Mies Van Der Rohe's MLK Library in the District, Eero Saarinen's Dulles Airport, or Cesar Pelli's COMSAT building in Clarksburg). The Wheaton area is home to two of the region's most renowned modern neighborhoods, Rock Creek Woods and Hammond Wood, both designed by famous architect Charles Goodman.

What's the point? Both Rock Creek Woods and Hammond Wood are well-known for their architecture, so tap into the growing nostalgia and appreciation for mid-century modern commercial and institutional buildings through education and adaptive re-use. Good Counsel High School and its funky stained-glass windows have bit the dust, but its contemporaries (get it?) remain.

3) Super-multiculturalism. It was during the 50's and 60's that Wheaton became a haven for the Jewish middle class, which is giving way to immigrants from Latin America and everywhere else. The biggest result is food, and lots of it. Nowhere in Montgomery County - or hell, the entire region (save for Eden Center in Falls Church, which is about as close to Saigon as you can get without taking a plane) can you eat so well, from so many different countries, for so little.

What's the point? Market Wheaton as a unique dining destination. Mention the variety of food, publicize good reviews, make it clear the prices are Good Good Good. The Taste of Wheaton festival is a great thing to have.

4) The favored quarter. Wheaton is roughly in the middle of Montgomery County's developed area. Within a half-hour, you can go to the middle of D.C. or the middle of farm country. Rockville and the I-270 corridor are just as easy to reach from Silver Spring or Bethesda via Veirs Mill Road.

What's the point? Market Wheaton as a good place to put back-office stuff to attract employers. The eastern side of the county is hurting for jobs, but big companies may prefer to have their main office in more prestigious zip codes (cough cough Bethesda). But back-office positions (tech support, accountants, marketing . . . anything we haven't already outsourced) could find a good home in Wheaton. They don't require Class A office space which would be expensive to build anyway, but they still provide well-needed, high-paying jobs. And they help support local businesses that, due to perceptions of crime, can't rely on foot traffic after dark.

The issue (or perceived issue) of crime is one thing I haven't covered here. In fact, there are many, many concerns with revitalizing Wheaton that fall outside the purview of these four points I've mentioned. But I think they represent a good start. Wheaton's no Silver Spring or Bethesda, and it won't take long for anyone trying to make a buck here to figure that out. (Just ask Steven Karr, about the closest thing to a developer-veteran Wheaton's got.) And by focusing on what Wheaton can do - as opposed to what people say it can't or shouldn't do - we'll have a better plan for making it Montgomery County's next great place.

Monday, August 24, 2009

an open letter to anyone in wheaton . . .

County Parking Lot 13, Wheaton

. . .who has ever said "We don't ever want to be 'fake' like Silver Spring."

Hey, Wheaton? Could you come over here a second? Thanks.

Now please shut up.

As someone who grew up in Downtown Silver Spring before it was Downtown Silver Spring, I understand your pain. I remember walking down streets lined with empty and abandoned buildings and discovering the many ways that different cultures combine bread and meat into various ethnic dishes. (Is it taco, a gyro, or a pita? So many options!) And, yes, I even remember going to Westfield Wheaton before it was Westfield Wheaton, when its tenants included a knife shop and a branch library.

But I don't have any patience for this "I don't want to be like Silver Spring it is so fake" crap, especially because y'all are no Columbia Heights yourselves. Save it, please. I don't see the crowds flooding into Wheaton every Friday night to walk around holding a skateboard and grimacing at people. I don't hear about people paying $3,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Wheaton. I hear about public drunkenness and an awesome movie theatre that closed after two months.

Yes, Wheaton is different from Silver Spring. I appreciate that. Yes, Wheaton has lots of small businesses. That's great. I love El Pollo Rico, as well as Full Key, Paul Kee, Max's, the place where the punk club Phantasmagoria used to be (so scary as a little kid), Chuck Levin's (my little brother bought his guitar there and complained the area looked "sketchy"), De Lounge (still haven't gone yet) and DeJaBel Cafe. (I have also heard good things about Marchone's.) And I agree that they're threatened by the ever-lingering spectre of Gentrification, which is sure taking its sweet time. Those townhouses on top of the Metro sold for like $600,000 a couple years back, but their residents are probably spending their time and money at Pier 1 Imports in Silver Spring. (Sorry.)

Remember, Wheaton, you have a mall with "over 200 stores", almost all of which (except for that "Foreign Flix" place) are chain stores. Most every phase of my teenage reinventions took place in Wheaton as I flitted from PacSun to Hollister to Express. I defy you to find that many chains in Silver Spring's entire central business district.

No one is saying that Wheaton has to install a fountain with a colorful mosaic and a plastic turf field and change the name of Ennalls Avenue to Ellsworth Drive. At least, I'm not. But you'll never be anything if you keep going on about what you don't want. I want to hear what Wheaton wants to be. Take that and give it to your elected officials/your citizens advisory board/local developers and tell them "We want X, Y and Z or we will bring you down like Circuit City." Hey, it worked with the Trader Joe's in Burnt Mills. If a group of committed people write enough letters, anything is possible. And now I can have Two-Buck Chuck whenever I want.

So don't fret, Wheaton. No one's calling you Silver Spring North (or Bethesda North East) yet. If you're still feeling cranky later, come along by and I'll give you some tips on how to "brand" yourself so you DON'T become all "fake." Because as I always say, the buildings might be fake, but the people look real to me.

Dan Reed

what's up the pike: phantom traffic jam

Traffic On New Hampshire Avenue, Sunday Afternoon

- The Baltimore Sun interviews David Silverman, proprietor of the National Pinball Museum in Colesville. Silverman keeps some eight hundred machines in and around his house, but envisions creating a full museum complete with gift shop and restaurant. Silver Spring, Singular wants to see him move Downtown, but if we're going to play the Fantasy Museum game, I vouch for keeping this quirky attraction Up The Pike. People, including Downtown Silver Spring bloggers, need to have as many reasons to come here as possible.

- Does Kemp Mill's Jewish population protect it from urban decay? "I would posit that religious Jews are to 1950s suburbs what gays and artists are to intown neighborhoods: a group disproportionately attracted to neighborhoods that might otherwise be slums, writes Michael Lewyn, writer at the urban planning site Planetizen and an Orthodox Jew himself. He argues that places like Kemp Mill, which developed largely after World War II, are attractive to Jewish families because they're cheaper than areas like below-the-Beltway Silver Spring but closer to established synagogues (to which observant Jews must walk on Shabbat) than newer subdivisions on the suburban fringe.

- Perils for Pedestrians, the public-access TV show produced by Bethesda resident John Wetmore, has video of Governor O'Malley's endorsement of the Purple Line three weeks ago. In a press conference at the New Carrollton Metro station, O'Malley announced his preference for light rail along the proposed sixteen-mile transitway between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

- Sparks may fly at the next meeting about the proposed Third District police station on Milestone Drive, this one hosted by the North White Oak Civic Association. Assuming it's the same as the last meeting, representatives from the Police Department and Housing and Community Affairs will be there to speak with residents about plans to build a new station along with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing on the twelve-acre site near New Hampshire Avenue and Columbia Pike. New District 4 County Councilmember Nancy Navarro will also be there to meet constituents. The meeting's at 7:30pm next Wednesday, the 26th in the White Oak Library at New Hampshire and Heartfields Drive.

- Due to near-monsoon conditions on Ellsworth Drive last weekend, the Expression Live festival - originally set to bring music, spoken word and an open mike to Silver Plaza on Saturday - will be postponed until Saturday, September 5. Check out their website for the latest info.

Friday, August 21, 2009

tastee diner responds to the "kiss-in," sort of

Allegations of Discrimination at Tastee Diner, Silver Spring MD from Tastee Diner on Vimeo.

If you haven't seen this already, Tastee Diner has posted surveillance video from the night of August 12, when lesbian couple Aiyi'Nah Ford and Torian Brown say management asked them to leave for embracing in the restaurant. This is the only response they've given following Wednesday night's "kiss-in," where some thirty supporters of gay rights staged a protest at Tastee Diner.

This is what the diner's management had to say about the video: "On August 12, a couple sat just inside the front door of the Tastee Diner in Silver Spring, Maryland, and with their bodies pressed up against each other, engaged in behavior that is normally considered inappropriate regardless of gender or sexual orientation. This video is a short version showing one burying her face in the other's breasts. The couple was asked to tone it down, but responded angrily, so they were asked to leave."

Given how blurry the video is - "two faceless, dark-gray round things" is how the City Paper describes Ford and Brown's appearance - can you really decide which account of what happened is correct? Were these two girls embracing - or were they engaged in something more illicit? And, regardless of what they may or may not have been doing (picking lint off the other's shoulder? a lot of lint?), does this video vindicate the actions of Tastee Diner staff?

If you were already skeptical of the situation (and, as I explained yesterday, I am not), I don't think this video would help anyone make up their mind. (Thanks to Chip Py for the heads-up.)

what's up the pike: pop-rock and coke

Coca-Cola Building, Elton Road, Hillandale
- It's probably really easy to call B.S. on my constant harping about the teenagers who hang out on Ellsworth Drive, but when you hear that one of the co-stars in the new movie Bandslam described as "gawky, curly-haired", "indie-rock-loving", and "a nerd [hero]," you almost could say "that kid must be from Silver Spring." And he [20-year-old Gaelan Connell] is! But it's very strange that the Majestic, the theatre Connell himself said he'd go see the movie at when it premiered last Friday, has only one showing scheduled today - at 12:40pm! The Movies, Popcorn and Candy Committee will probably be pleased that I can't drag him to see Bandslam with so few showings. (Thanks to Alan Bowser for the heads-up.)

- Speaking of youthful statements: the Expression Live festival returns for its second year in Downtown Silver Spring. Dozens of local artists, including spoken-word artist/my friend Jonathan Tucker, will be there (click here to see what he had to say about it). Check it out tomorrow from 4:30 to 8pm in Silver Plaza.

- Looks like somebody wishes they went to architecture school: Silver Spring, Singular takes us on a study of midcentury design in Downtown, looking at the 1960's-era Weller's Dry Cleaners on Fenton Street and drawings from the 1969 Preliminary Master Plan for Silver Spring, which envisioned how the CBD would look in the future.

Other nice examples of midcentury modern architecture in East County can be found in the (endangered) Perpetual Building on Georgia Avenue; architect Charles Goodman's Rock Creek Woods and Hammond Wood subdivisions on Veirs Mill Road in Wheaton; the Coca-Cola building on Elton Road in Hillandale (above); and the C & P Telephone (now Verizon) Building at Route 29 and Musgrove Road. The Modern Capital blog is an excellent resource for more info.

- The Gazette reports that the Postal Service's economic woes mean the Burtonsville post office won't be leaving its temporary location on Dino Drive any time soon. It's left unclear where the branch can go after being evicted from the redeveloped Burtonsville Shopping Center last summer. Reporter Amber Parcher also erroneously places the "hard to find" post office (Google Maps doesn't even list it) in Spencerville (which has its own zip code) rather than in the Burtonsville Industrial Park east of the Route 29 bypass.

- You commenters are smart. Wednesday night's re-cap of the "kiss-in" protest at Tastee Diner was slammed as unresearched and hastily written. And, having been written in roughly forty-five minutes, it was. Sorry about that, y'all. If a post needs to spend more time in the oven, I should never rush it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

on being black, gay and hungry

After last night's protest I realize how lucky I was to have grown up in an environment that at least on the surface was accepting of the LGBT community. My friends jokingly called Blake "the liberal faggy school on a hill," because it was a place where many gay students had come out and did so with the support of their friends and faculty. As a sophomore, I remember being yelled at by a teacher for saying "That's so gay" in class. She pulled me aside after the bell rang. "When you go out into the real world," she said, "you're going to encounter people who won't tolerate you for saying things like that."

My teacher was right, but not in the way she expected. Scared of kids like Randy, who did a curtsy at graduation, and scared of things I felt but refused to acknowlege, I was not one of those students who felt comfortable enough to "come out" in high school. In college I heard terms like "faggot" used in a derogatory manner for the first time in a long time. My first boyfriend and I were even chased down the escalator of the U Street Metro by a man threatening to kill us. I'm not even sure if he saw us holding hands. I knew that I had to finally accept who I was. You don't grow up black (I am also Indian) without feeling like you constantly have something to prove. I knew I had to take ownership of this new identity before anyone else defined them for me.

So it's especially daunting to be reminded that you can still go to a restaurant not too far from that "liberal faggy school on a hill" and find out you are not valued for who you are. I'm disappointed that a restaurant which, as Aiyi'Nah Ford pointed out is a local institution, would be willing to turn any paying customer away under the pretense of offending someone. It turns out that the manager of the Tastee Diner was right: we are offended. But will that stop me from eating at Tastee Diner? I'm not sure. No one is exactly clear what this couple did to be asked to leave. The protestors - and the cameras that followed - were not turned away last night, suggesting Tastee Diner isn't interested in making a big deal of what happened.

That doesn't relieve them of giving an apology, however. Whether or not you think anything really happened last week, it's clear that Tastee Diner's getting very bad marks for customer relations. It's best for them to make amends with Ford and Brown and move on.

"kiss-in" denounces anti-gay discrimination at tastee diner

Aiyi'Nah Ford and Torian Brown, being interviewed by TV news cameras, were kicked out of Tastee Diner last week for embracing.

Supporters of gay rights came to the Tastee Diner last night to protest the restaurant's discrimination against a black lesbian couple who ate there last week. Though blogs like DCist and The New Gay and the Blade, the D.C. area's gay weekly, only picked up on the story that morning, some thirty people showed up outside the diner at Cameron Street and Ramsey Avenue for a brief press conference before going inside for a "kiss-in."

Aiyi'Nah Ford visited the diner with her companion Torian Brown late last Tuesday night and was kicked out for a public display of affection. "We came here and we ate and the service was fine," says Ford. While waiting to pay the bill, they embraced. "The manager said 'can you please take that outside?' We thought they were referring to the heterosexual couple making out next to us," Ford continues, "before we realized they were talking to us. We said 'Are you serious? It's 2009.'"

After they left, the waitress followed them out and apologized. "She said, 'It happens a lot and it's embarassing,'" Ford recalls. "That was the proverbial icing on the cake." After the incident, Brown e-mailed the Tastee Diner's manager demanding an explanation of what happened. "I was sorry to hear your complaint about your visit the other night. Our manager said he did not mean to offend anyone," replied General Manager John Littleton. Five days later, "They still haven't apologized," Ford says. "We've tried to give them several opportunities for mediation. We spoke to the owner's daughter on the phone and she hung up on us."

Inside, other protestors said they've encountered similar discrimination there. "I'd eat here alone and the manager would look at me like he thought I wouldn't pay the bill, but that might be because I'm young," says Cynthia, a student at Morgan State University who heard about the event from a Facebook invitation sent out earlier this week. "But my [lesbian] friend used to work here and said she'd never came out because of the environment." Even tonight, as Ford, Brown and several friends and well-wishers filed into the restaurant, they were asked if they wanted to sit in the back.

Jay Morrow and Treeva Creek-Morrow are served by a Tastee Diner waitress.

The plan for the protest, as outlined on Facebook, was to come in and order food so they wouldn't be loitering. "But we're not going to eat it," says Jay Morrow, sitting at a table with Brown, Ford, and Treeva Creek-Morrow. "We don't know what they've made it with. The long-term impact is when people know this behavior is happening, they won't eat here because they know they're not welcome here."

Heather of Springfield was eating on the Tastee Diner's patio with a friend from Silver Spring when the protest began. "Oh dear God, why are the TV cameras here?" she recalls thinking, but was excited to "watch the process of a peaceful protest unfold."

"Were they following the law? Probably," Heather says. "Was it right? No . . . I have a lot of friends in the LGBT community. It's kind of a personal thing."

County Council aide Dana Beyer was there to survey the goings-on. She sat on the board of Equality Maryland, an LGBT civil rights organization formerly located in Silver Spring, and their employees used to eat at the Tastee Diner frequently, Beyer explains. "The management must have been so upset because we used to eat here a lot," she jokes, " that they lashed out on the first gay couple they saw."

"It's not about Prop 8, it's not about marriage equality," says Beyer, who is transgendered. "it's about treating people with respect regardless of who they are."

"It's bigger than us," Ford says, insisting that the incident not be limited to the LGBT community. "I want to make it be known that I'd have been here if it was someone who practiced Islam, someone who practiced Judaism, someone who was overweight, someone who was disabled, because it was wrong."

"This is a pillar in the community, and if you're doing this, it spreads, just like H1N1."

A special thanks to photographer Chip Py, who beat me downtown to take photos and knows something about protests himself.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

more sidewalks, fewer press conferences

Crossing The Street, Stewart Lane at 29

A reader sent me an e-mail last weekend asking why I haven't written anything about the new sidewalks and stoplights on Fairland Road. I didn't write about it because I just don't feel it's worth the attention of even a press conference, which is what happened last week after the work was completed. There's no excuse why our county's major roads don't have good sidewalks, and no reason to celebrate building something that should have been there in the first place. But as long as the discussion over how to design our roads is led by drivers and people who advocate for drivers, accomodations for pedestrians will always take the backseat.

Living two blocks from Fairland Road, I know how dangerous it can be. Construction on Randolph Road and Briggs Chaney Road have made it a popular cut-through for motorists, and a lack of stoplights make it easy for one to go sixty miles an hour. (I know this because I have done so.) I took my life in my hands every time I had to run across Fairland Road to visit a friend or catch a bus.

In high school, one of my friends lost control of his car on Fairland Road and drove into a brick wall. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt, but many people are not so lucky. Not fine was the dad of another friend, who ran to work on Route 29 every day before being hit by a car, all long before sidewalks were completed and a press conference was held. People who live along Fairland and 29 have been clamoring for improvements for years, but our County Executive had to see someone die there in order to make them happen. No one needs to be a martyr for sidewalks, nor should anyone be a hero because of them.

Pedestrian safety is one of the biggest transportation issues East County faces, if only because we have so many pedestrians and so few accomodations for them. Only two months ago was a 71-year-old man killed trying to cross New Hampshire Avenue in White Oak. This is a major road in a busy shopping area surrounded by apartments and served by several bus routes - not a surprising place for a pedestrian to be, and there are many. Yet we've widened New Hampshire to allow cars to get through faster. Some might say that the fence in the median is good for pedestrians, but don't think for a second that people will stop jaywalking. Except now drivers won't anticipate anyone jumping in front of their car, so they'll step on the gas, and someone else will get killed.

New Hiker-Biker Trail Along Fairland
New trails along Fairland Road being completed last summer.

I'm personally very happy at the improvements Montgomery County has made to Fairland Road east of Route 29, adding sidewalks (in some places up to eight feet wide) and roundabouts. Traffic moves slower, but it still moves. My brother and I started going for bike rides this summer solely because it's now safe to do so on Fairland. Hopefully, the improvements west of Route 29 will allow more people to do the same.

There are more people, I'm sure, who would change their habits to walk or bike more for work, errands or play if given safe, attractive paths. But there are even more who don't have any choice but to risk their lives every day walking in Montgomery County. Rather than celebrate the one sidewalk we've built, we should be building - and improving - hundreds more, on all of the roads where we've neglected to consider the needs of those without four wheels.

what's up the pike: the system is down

- Sparks may fly at the next meeting about the proposed Third District police station (above) on Milestone Drive, this one hosted by the North White Oak Civic Association. Assuming it's the same as the last meeting, representatives from the Police Department and Housing and Community Affairs will be there to speak with residents about plans to build a new station along with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing on the twelve-acre site near New Hampshire Avenue and Columbia Pike. New District 4 County Councilmember Nancy Navarro will also be there to meet constituents. The meeting's at 7:30pm next Wednesday, the 26th in the White Oak Library at New Hampshire and Heartfields Drive.

- It'll be music and spoken word on Ellsworth this weekend as the Expression Live festival returns for its second year in Downtown Silver Spring. Dozens of local artists, including spoken-word artist/my friend Jonathan Tucker, will be there (click here to see what he had to say about it). Check it out this Saturday from 4:30 to 8pm in Silver Plaza. Check out for more information.

- The State Highway Administration wants to keep you posted about the InterCounty Connector's environmental impacts. Next Saturday, they'll be having an open house to talk about the Environmental Stewardship/Compensatory Mitigation program, which includes everything from cleaning streams to moving box turtles affected by the highway construction. The meeting's from 9am to 12pm at the National Capital Trolley Museum on Bonifant Road. (It's still there: the original building was razed to make room for the highway, but a new museum has been built behind it. Read more at Maryland Politics Watch because the ICC's website either doesn't have the info or I'm not looking hard enough.

- We've got a date for the Zombie Walk's triumphant return to Downtown Silver Spring: it'll be October 24th for the second march of the undead (and costumed-undead) down Ellsworth Drive.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

an apology to the montgomery county taxpayer

Dear Montgomery County Taxpayer,

As an aide to a County Councilmember, I know you're expecting that the salary I receive is as well-spent as the tax dollars that go to pave your roads and teach your children. That's why I'd like to apologize to you, Montgomery County Taxpayer, for taking my ten-year-old brother to the Regal Majestic 20 in Silver Spring two weeks ago to see Aliens in the Attic, a G-rated tale of a family whose lake house is besieged by an extraterrestrial invasion. Ninety minutes and thirty-eight dollars later, I was thoroughly ashamed of what I now realized was a wasteful and redundant expenditure of taxpayer money.

I entered Fiscal Weekend 8/1-8/2 with a small surplus; as a result, the parents' lobby aggressively campaigned to have some of those funds directed to summer programs for youth. The first of these events would be a Saturday matinee with the aforementioned brother, currently on summer vacation. From the beginning, attempts were made to eliminate waste and cost overruns. Despite the protests of my brother, the self-appointed chair of the MPC (Movies, Popcorn and Candy) Committee, CVS Pharmacy was offered the procurement contract for candy to be smuggled into the theatre. A concession was made at the concession stand for my brother to have his own soda, resulting in an unanticipated $4.50 overrun, but can be defended by saying that he did, in fact, finish his drink.

But it was the movie itself, the largest line-item on MPC's Interim Fiscal Weekend 8/1-8/2 Budget, that represented the most egregious misuse of taxpayer funds. The MPC committee endorsed Aliens in the Attic because of its availability at the Majestic 20 and early showtime (2:45, long before the teenage crowds descend on Ellsworth). Reviews from, which uniformly panned the film, were toseed out due to allegations of bias "towards stuff that grown-ups like."

I entered the theatre with low expectations, but for $16.50 for one adult and one child ticket, I was hoping to see a film with a coherent plot and interesting characters. At the very least, I expected that the presence of Kevin Nealon, whose portrayal of an infantile city councilman on the TV show Weeds suggests he'd be able to save an otherwise lifeless children's movie (in what planet on what universe do sixteen-year-old boys ever say "What the heck?") but I was disappointed nonetheless.

I know I have failed you, Montgomery County Taxpayer, because you work hard for the money that we squirrel away from you, and using those funds to support such mindless drivel is nothing short of impropriety. While I do not advocate requiring County employees to partake of films that have received at least a 50% rating on RottenTomatoes (or, better yet, restrict the use of government salary to screening art-house films at Bethesda Row or the AFI), I cannot understate the importance of using more discretion in selecting higher-quality entertainment. I promise that, in the upcoming Fiscal Weekend 8/15-8/16, I will use your money more responsibly.

Monday, August 17, 2009

they used to call it georgian towers (part three)

part THREE in a series about growing up in an apartment building in Downtown Silver Spring. see part ONE | part TWO

Kitchen, Renovated Apartment
The new Georgian Towers turns out to be everything it's cracked up to be . . . sort of. Scroll down for more photos.

In January 1998, our family moved from Georgian Towers to a rented townhouse on Randolph Road in Colesville. We had a yard for the first time and, if you ignored the headlights of passing traffic, you could just barely see the stars at night. But not long after we moved, I realized that we'd lost something as well. "I'm going to Silver Spring," my mother would say when she went downtown. "But we already live in Silver Spring," I'd reply. Six miles isn't exactly moving cross-country, but as Downtown slowly came back to life I felt more and more detached from it.

In high school I began returning to Georgian Towers. The first time, my friends and I saw a lamppost across the street that a car had crashed into. There was broken glass, parts of a fender, an entire headlight. And a used condom. I used to live here, I said. I felt it gave me street cred to kids who'd grown up in Stonegate or Cloverly and thought Downtown Silver Spring was The City. Meanwhile, a revolving door of owners and management companies passed through Georgian Towers with increasingly ambitious plans to revitalize the complex. Last year, a new ad campaign transformed it into "Georgian," an "ultra-modern" building "designed for those with discerning tastes," as the website says. That's when I decided to make an appointment and take a tour.

Walking into the leasing office, I realized my mental map had been destroyed. This used to be an eyeglass shop, I remembered, small, dark and smelling like my grandparents' house. Now there were white leather couches, plasma TVs, and fake plants. I was led upstairs, into a space that had once been a deli, where I met with a leasing agent. She had me tag along with another tour group because I wasn't going to sign a lease. They were a pair of twenty-something married couples, looking to rent a two-bedroom together because it was all they could afford.

We were shown from the office to the mailboxes, to the business center, to the "cafe" that served Starbucks coffee from a little machine; out to the courtyard which looked much as it did when I had my first snowball fight in the Blizzard of '96. On a window I noticed a familiar brown "GT" - the logo Georgian Towers had used when I was a kid, resistant to attempts at scraping it off.

She then took us to an unrenovated apartment, down a hall where the lights were out and wires stuck out from the walls. The 70's-vintage oven and range I'd grown up with were gone, but the parquet floors and baby-blue bathroom tiles were there as they'd been since the Johnson administration. It's all the same, I said to the agent, who smiled and kept walking. She kept her distance from me as we traveled upstairs to see a renovated unit.

When we reached the end of the hall, I realized we're going into our old apartment, or at least the one three floors down. Except our old apartment didn't have this ridiculous little rock-and-bamboo garden next to the door. Or a flat-screen television. Or carpet, for that matter. It'd taken them over a decade, but the transformation was finally complete: Georgian was the finest address in Silver Spring, right down to the shelf of hipster-y books over the bed in what was my parents' room. "This is not a book," read the spine of the one at the end.

The kitchens and bathrooms, though, look much as they do in the ads: sleek modern cabinets, deep shades of brown and blue, stainless-steel appliances, more frosted glass. And an island, something that definitely wouldn't have appeared in a 60's kitchen. My companions were nonplussed. We keep kosher, they told the agent, opening and closing the cabinets. We need room for two sets of dishes: one for meat, one for dairy. (I wonder if GT had a reputation for Jewish tenants: my best friend's dad, an atheist, moved there after college in the 70's and complained it was the biggest mistake he ever made because none of the women he met there would date him.)

I'd never realized how small my childhood room was. It was a strange trapezoidal shape barely seven feet wide at one end, but had plenty of room for a city of Legos, bookshelves, and a computer. The agent follows me in; she's writing on a clipboard while the two couples explore the rest of the apartment.

What's the rent for this? I ask her.

Twenty-nine ten a month, she says.

You know what the rent used to be here in 1998? I asked her. It was $955 a month.

Well, times change, she replies, and walks out.

what's up the pike: macaroni and cheese

Georgian Sign Flipper Guy
We asked this enthusiastic fellow to let you know that our series on Georgian Towers continues this afternoon. Check it out!

- It'll be music and spoken word on Ellsworth this weekend as the Expression Live festival returns for its second year in Downtown Silver Spring. Dozens of local artists, including spoken-word artist/my friend/"macaroni and cheese" (his words, not mine) Jonathan Tucker, will be there. When asked to say a few words about the event, he gave me this:

"no i can't
i'm too fresh
can't be stopped
without limits, bold
crazy activist kid
bumping into truth
dissecting soul reality
suburban youth casualty
bourbon proof majesty"

Expression Live happens this Saturday from 4:30 to 8pm in Silver Plaza. Check out for more information.

- Thayer Avenue reports that donut shop Fractured Prune has finally opened Saturday in Downtown Silver Spring. An Ocean City institution for over thirty years, the store now has franchises from Delaware to Mississippi. Their newest location is at 8512 Fenton Street between Roeder and Ellsworth.

- Dave at Imagine, DC writes about his experiences coaching the Silver Spring Saints, a youth football team whose players often come from disadvantaged families. In an age where supersized youth leagues mean matches that are hours away, "his kids" are forced to rely on a public transportation system that's sorely lacking.

- Now that MoCo has something resembling a skyline, rooftop parties are all the rage. Rockville Central reports that their city's getting into the game with a Teen Summer Luau, held atop the VisArts building in their Town Square this Wednesday. For more info, click the link above.

- The Post writes about how local governments are taking advantage of the recession to buy land for preservation - notably, the County's purchase of fifty-three acres in Burtonsville that were slated to be part of a housing development. Instead, the property near Route 198 and Old Gunpowder Road will help to mitigate the loss of undisturbed land to construction of the InterCounty Connector.

Friday, August 14, 2009

the short sale

SFH, Northridge, Bowie
My mother is a pastor who moonlights as a real estate agent. Or a real estate agent who is sometimes a pastor. In the eight years since she was ordained I've never been clear. But lately, she's been doing something called BPOs, or Broker Price Opinions, to earn extra money when houses aren't selling. These basically involve her visiting houses that are going through a short-sale and giving a quick appraisal of them. This is so that banks in other states that don't know what our real estate market is like can price them appropriately.

As a result she and I have become like scavengers picking through the detritus of the recession. A lot of the houses we've visited are large, respectable-looking Colonials in new neighborhoods in Olney and Germantown. They're usually empty, and what we have are the signs of the occupants' former lives: abandoned cable boxes, old pictures, a dresser with "I [heart] my family" scrawled on it in crayon. There was the house in Bowie with an elaborate deck that, after months or years of deterioration, came to look like Roman ruins.

The houses are almost always unoccupied, and if people are still living there, they're usually out for the day. But last Friday my mother had to look a little kid in the eye and tell him he's losing his house.

The house is this little cinder-block deal off Route 108 in Damascus, white with black shutters and a casually overgrown lawn. Across the street are a couple of McMansions with brick fronts and vinyl sides sitting in the middle of a field that seems to go on forever. I turn into the gravel driveway and am surprised to find that it goes behind the house, into a loose cul-de-sac with a shed, an old truck, and some people. Two young men carrying things into the shed who look up momentarily when we arrive. A boy about ten, my brother’s age, and a younger girl in a pink dress who stumbles across the yard clutching a doll, watching our car curiously.

I wanted to leave right then and there. The Realtor told my mother that people were home, but I was expecting to see them through the window, seated in front of a TV, oblivious to our presence. And they still were, sort of.

My mother gets out, taking pictures of the house, as I turn the car around, trying to be invisible. As she holds her camera up, the boy strides up to her. “What are you doing?” he asks. “I’m taking pictures of the house,” she says. Why, the boy continues. As she explains to him that his family is losing their house, another truck pulls into the driveway. It has the name of a landscaping company on the side and two ruddy-faced men in the front. We face each other; I’m blocking them, so I back up, slowly, into the yard where the little girl is still clutching her doll.

As the truck passes me, the two men inside nod at me and I nod in response. Unlike the kids, they know why I’m here, this city boy in a blue Honda and a woman taking pictures. “Do you want me to get my mom?” the little boy asks my mother, and before she can say yes he takes off to get her. My mother slides into the car next to me and we wait. A few minutes pass and no one comes out. She calls the Realtor. “I went to the house and the little boy asked me to speak with his mom,” she says, thinking out loud, “but you already told them I was coming, so I guess I don’t need to stay.” We drive away.

We live in one of the wealthiest counties in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country but, still, there are people whose lives have fallen apart just like that. When we are back on Route 108 my mother becomes a pastor again. “It’s hard to watch that little boy and know his family is losing their home," she says. "They want me to take their hand, and I want to as well, but all I can do is put them in the arms of God.”

what's up the pike: brunch edition

'Golfers Tee Off On Purple Line'
- Purple Line opponents in Chevy Chase are gearing up for a fight to stop the proposed sixteen-mile transitway now that O'Malley wants it along the popular Capital Crescent Trail. Both the Town of Chevy Chase and the Columbia Country Club, who straddle the proposed route, are rumored to file a lawsuit against the project. "That trail is not coming in here as long as I'm alive and as long as you're alive, either," the Examiner quoted golfers at the country club as saying. (Thanks to The Thes for the heads-up.)

- The heat's gotten a little too unbearable in Olney, where last week residents spotted a man running while "wearing only sneakers" in the Norbeck Grove neighborhood off 108. Police arrested the 23-year-old man but, unaware as to why he was streaking, released him shortly afterwards

- If you believe this Gazette story, you'd think East County's crazy for Chick-Fil-A, even if the place it's going - in the WesTech Village Corner on Tech Road - was originally meant for a steakhouse. Much as I love Chick-Fil-A, I know I'm not the only person on the east side who will still be going to Columbia/Rockville/Downtown Silver Spring for a nice meal.

- A portrait of the late Councilmember Marilyn Praisner was hung in the library named for her last weekend. Mourning Praisner, who passed away last year, painter and Layhill resident Hava G. Seltzer says "it was very emotional" to produce.

- Robin Ficker's trying to save the Sligo Creek Golf Course, writes Adam over at MPW, but he's getting a chilly reception from supporters of the cause. "Your heart holds hate for me," he wrote on Facebook when they gave him the cold shoulder. Meanwhile Del. Ben Kramer, who's also jumped into the fray with some expert letter-writing, has been eagerly welcomed by the Save Sligo Golf crowd.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

the kennedy shriver mansion

Kennedy-Shriver Mansion, Potomac

When I found out that Eunice Kennedy Shriver - sister to JFK and founder of the Special Olympics - passed away earlier this week, the first thing I thought was, "I have been to your house." I guess that normally wouldn't happen with someone so famous. But two summers ago, I was fortunate enough to work at the Kennedy Shriver Mansion on River Road in Potomac for an event hosted by Most Valuable Kids, which brings underprivileged youth together with sports and entertainment figures.

I remember that members of D.C. United were there giving a soccer workshop, along with the Redskins cheerleaders, who were there to . . . well, I'm not quite sure. And I was there, scooping ice cream (this being with my former job) from a little cart whose contents rapidly went to soup in the summer heat.

This was my first time ever in Potomac, and every time we passed a house I'd have a near-heart attack because it was the biggest house I'd ever seen, and then we'd pass another house that was even bigger. The Kennedy Shriver Mansion seemed kind of unassuming after all of that, but looking back I really appreciated that they would open up their house to events like this so kids who come from far, far worse circumstances than I did could spend a Saturday afternoon in a big yard with games and ice cream and their heroes. It was miserably hot, and I was getting frustrated (I'd end up working, like, fourteen hours that day between this and another job that evening) but when I saw the smiles on their faces I knew it was all worth it.

So, whenever I hear about Eunice Kennedy Shriver, I'll think about all of this, and know she made it all possible, and remember that I'm not too young to have never known what the name Kennedy meant.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

meta-highway, or thinking about the intercounty connector

'Road Closed 500 Ft'
Michael Dresser, who writes the "Getting There" column for the Baltimore Sun, has been talking a lot recently about the proposed widening of I-270, which has many in the environmental and urban planning communities worried about more traffic, more pollution, and more sprawl. His advice? Foes of the $4.6 billion project should take advantage of the InterCounty Connector, which can be used to justify new development in eastern Montgomery and Prince George's counties rather than sending it out 270 to Frederick and beyond. So now that the shovel's long since been put in the ground, it's time to ask: how will the ICC change the way we view our area, and what's it going to look like as a result?

At the very least, the InterCounty Connector will be a line on a map. You can use maps to get ideas about a place: gridded lines denote the streets of an older, urban place; squiggles and loops suggest cul-de-sacs in newer suburbs. As a particularly big line, a highway can be used as a spine, forming connections between different and disparate uses, or a datum that separates and organizes them. Since it passes through existing neighborhoods, the ICC will redefine the way we conceive places and the connections between them, whether we like it or not.

Currently, we use phrases like "outside the Beltway" or "I-270 corridor." Will the ICC become a "corridor," defined by one's proximity to it, or a sort of Maginot Line separating the suburbs to the south from the still-rural areas to the north? Or will we start referring to a place "Between the Beltways," home to "a race of clear-thinking individuals untainted by either Inside the Beltway parochialism or Outside the Beltway naivete," as the Post Magazine's Tom McNichol once predicted.

I see Olney, proud of its isolation from the rest of the county, dragged kicking and screaming from its exurban orbit and thrown into the fray. You left the city, the highway says, but now the city's coming to you. Or perhaps, eastern Montgomery County slams into I-270 like shifting tectonic plates, finally able to snag a little of the prosperity so long kept for Rockville and Bethesda. Business executives, seeking to keep home and office no more than eight miles apart as William H. Whyte discovered, find that the ICC's opened up lots of affordable land for new corporate headquarters, with snooty white-tablecloth restaurants to follow.

But in many places, the InterCounty Connector closes more doors than it opens. Some residents in Tanglewood, against the ICC's interchange at Route 29, are happy about the highway because it will block people living in the apartments on Briggs Chaney Road from reaching their community on foot. But in Longmead Crossing, a neighborhood literally built around the ICC right-of-way, it is an unwelcome intrusion dividing friends and neighbors. And it's not surprising that the State Highway Administration has to build little underpasses for the deer and turtles whose habitats are being affected by the construction.

A 2010 U.S. road atlas depicts the InterCounty Connector (the dotted green line at top right).

There will be so much pressure to build at each of the highway's new interchanges that one conservative writer proposed not building any at all to reduce opposition from smart-growth advocates. We've already seen the first of what will be many proposals to build at the on-ramps in places that to most are just names on maps: Norbeck, Bonifant, Layhill. To the outsider, these are all just different ways of saying "Silver Spring," but you can't put that on every exit sign. Does the ICC suddenly make all the rural hamlets that drowned in suburban sprawl relevant again, if only as new marketing tools?

This new world that we're creating brings no good or bad tidings, but simply the anxiety that comes with knowing that change is inevitable. If only it were so simple as drawing a line on a map, my questions could've been answered many, many years ago.