Wednesday, May 15, 2013

montgomery housing partnership makes long branch stronger

One of many interactive art pieces made by UMD art and architecture students at the Long Branch Super Block Party, organized by Montgomery Housing Partnership. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

The Long Branch neighborhood of Silver Spring has suffered from disinvestment for decades but is now turning the corner. However, one of the organizations that's helped bring it back to life could lose their financial support.

Located two miles east of the Silver Spring Metro, Long Branch developed shortly after World War II. An influx of immigrants in the 1970's made it Montgomery County's "melting pot," but blight and disinvestment took hold in the neighborhood. Young professionals priced out of downtown Silver Spring and Takoma Park are now moving to Long Branch, while the Purple Line will stop here when it opens in 2020.

Today, there are concerns about gentrification and displacement. One of the organizations promoting a more equitable revitalization of Long Branch is Montgomery Housing Partnership, a non-profit developer of affordable housing that also does community organizing work.

MHP's efforts helped get the Flower Theatre lit up again. Photo by Chip Py on Flickr.

They understand that Long Branch needs new investment, but only if the people who've already made a commitment to the neighborhood can still play a part in it. MHP's neighborhood team, led by Paul Grenier, has helped restart the Long Branch Business League, a group of business owners who seek to draw investment back to the area.

Paul and intern Jeff Gipson have offered their services to the Flower Theatre Project, my organization devoted to bringing the historic movie theatre back to life. With their help, we convinced the theatre's owner to turn the marquee on at night, which neighboring shopkeepers say has already made the streets feel safer.

MHP has also brought the neighborhood's diverse populations together. They organized a series of "Discover Long Branch" events to raise awareness of local businesses. According to a 2002 study, nearly $300 million in retail spending leaves the neighborhood each year, so it's important to let people know what's in their own backyard.

Dancing to local Mexican-American band Grupo Impacto at the Super Block Party.

Last weekend, MHP put on the Long Branch Super Block Party, for which I helped design bilingual posters. Hundreds of people came out to the Long Branch Library to eat from local food trucks, listen to live music from a variety of cultures, and even ride a giant tricycle. There's also a series of interactive art installations, which will be on display throughout the neighborhood until May 20. The pieces were designed and built by art and architecture students at University of Maryland working in a new joint studio led by architecture professor Ronit Eisenbach and art professor John Ruppert.

I was blown away not by the amount of people who showed up, but how diverse the crowd was. This was an event that looked like Long Branch. As Montgomery County becomes more diverse, it's important that we create more shared spaces where people from different walks of life feel welcome.

The Movie Cave
The Movie Cave, one of several art installations from the UMD art and architecture studio on display through May 20.

MHP's efforts may seem small, but they've done a lot to raise interest in a neighborhood that often feels forgotten by the rest of Montgomery County. Unfortunately, MHP may not be able to work in Long Branch much longer.

The neighborhood team receives support from a variety of institutional grants and an annual $100,000 contract from the county's Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which hasn't been renewed for next year. The County Council, which makes the yearly budget, placed it on the reconciliation list, meaning MHP's contract could be cut if the money isn't found.

It's one thing to provide better housing for people of limited means, but another entirely to create a better community for them. MHP's work in Long Branch has made it stronger and more connected, and they deserve the county's support. The County Council should renew their contract and allow the inclusive revitalization of Long Branch to continue.

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