Tuesday, August 26, 2014

how did silver spring get its boundaries? and how would you define them?

You could ask five residents what Silver Spring's boundaries are and receive five different answers, ranging from a neighborhood near the DC line to a city the size of the District of Columbia itself. But how did it end up this way to begin with? The answer involves a railroad, zip codes, and possibly Marion Barry.
Silver Spring, as the Census Bureau sees it. Image from Wikipedia.

Unlike northeastern states where every square inch of land sits inside a municipality, or western states where cities compete for territory to access natural resources or tax revenue, much of Maryland and Virginia are unincorporated. Part of the reason is that counties in these states can perform functions like zoning and schools, reducing the incentive for communities to become a town or city.

Silver Spring is one those places. As a result, most definitions of Silver Spring fall into two camps: one I call "Little Silver Spring," or areas near its historical center, or "Big Silver Spring," which comprises most of eastern Montgomery County. To find out which one is more dominant, local organization Silver Spring Inc. will have residents draw their own boundaries in an interactive event at Fenton Street Market this Saturday.

Big Silver Spring

Francis Preston Blair founded Silver Spring in 1840 when he fell off his horse and discovered a mica-flecked spring. It became one of several towns that grew up around the Metropolitan Branch railroad, which starts in DC and heads northwest. Meanwhile, the rest of eastern Montgomery County remained largely undeveloped save for a few suburban developments and small villages with names like White Oak, Colesville, and Norwood.

Silver Spring became the reference point for the larger area, and "Big Silver Spring" was born. In the 1930s, home builder R.E. Latimer boasted that his new subdivision Burnt Mills Hills was three miles "beyond the Silver Spring traffic light" at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Ken Lubel, owner of Tires of Silver Spring and a longtime resident, notes that Silver Spring addresses once appeared as far north as Columbia.

"Big Silver Spring." Image by Christy Batta.
The invention of zip codes in the 1960s made Big Silver Spring official right as suburbanization took hold. The first three digits of each five-digit zip code referred to a larger region.

Naturally, Silver Spring got its own prefix, "209," and with it the rest of eastern Montgomery County. (This may have been due to then-DC mayor Marion Barry demanding that Silver Spring and Takoma Park give up the DC zip codes they were originally assigned.) New residents thus identified with Silver Spring and participated in activities there, like these students at then-new Springbrook High School marching in the 1970 Silver Spring Thanksgiving parade.

The US Postal Service assigns Silver Spring addresses to all of zip codes 20901, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 10, and parts of 20912, which is mostly in the city of Takoma Park. This definition stretches from the District line to the Patuxent River to the north, and roughly from Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue to the west to Prince George's County to the east, and even dipping into Prince George's in a few places. At its widest point, Big Silver Spring is about 12 miles long.

Big Silver Spring has over 306,000 residents, comprising 30% of Montgomery County's population, and covers 62.4 square miles, almost as large as the District of Columbia. If it were an incorporated city, it would be larger than St. Paul, Minnesota or Buffalo, New York. The Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce likes to use a version of Big Silver Spring.

Little Silver Spring

"Little Silver Spring" usually refers to what's now downtown Silver Spring, where Blair fell off his horse, and other areas inside the Capital Beltway. The Census Bureau generally uses this definition, claiming the area from the Beltway to the north to the District line and Takoma Park to the south, and from Rock Creek Park in the west to Prince George's County in the east.

Little Silver Spring has about 71,000 residents in just under 8 square miles. (Incidentally, this definition includes an area between Grubb Road and Rock Creek Park that has a Chevy Chase address.)

Sean Emerson's map of the "Real Silver Spring."
Proponents include the Planning Department and the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, which also counts Four Corners as part of Silver Spring. Local bloggers Silver Spring, Singular and Sean Emerson of Around the Corners argue that a narrow definition of Silver Spring protects its identity while encouraging other communities to distinguish themselves as well.

And communities in Big Silver Spring are doing just that. Citizens associations in Colesville and Glenmont erected signs to set themselves apart. Montgomery County has worked hard to brand Wheaton as a distinct place from Silver Spring.

What do boundaries mean, anyway?

However, many people still identify with their mailing address. Landlords on Craigslist are more than willing to claim Big Silver Spring. And earlier this year, a concertgoer showed up at the Fillmore with a Silver Spring sleeve tattoo. All of the familiar landmarks were there, like the Lee Building and Chompie the shark, but so was the sign for Snowdens Mill, a subdivision 6 miles away in zip code 20904.

Jarrett Walker writes about the "emotive power" and "resonance" of a place name that often transcends boundaries. Silver Spring has historically been one of the DC area's biggest cultural and activity centers, and by drawing boundaries, you're commenting on how much that destination "resonates."

In other words, Silver Spring could be whatever "feels" like Silver Spring to you. I tend to believe in Big Silver Spring, if only because I went to Blake High School, a full 10 miles from downtown Silver Spring in a place once called Norwood. But we hung out in downtown, and its diverse student body looked way more like Silver Spring than it did Olney, which was much closer.

What does your Silver Spring look like? Join me and Silver Spring Inc. and draw your boundaries this Saturday from 10 am to 1 pm at Fenton Street Market, located at Veterans' Plaza in downtown Silver Spring.


Unknown said...

I would define Silver Spring as the "little Silver Spring," which really should be called downtown Silver Spring. I think the other communities with 209 zips should stop identifying as Silver Spring because it muddles the real estate and rental markets which then turns off potential buyers and renters.

I am not involved in real estate or renting in anyway. I have just heard this from many friends looking for places to live int he DC metro area.

Plus, "big Silver Spring" areas are great in their own way and should not be ashamed of their identities. Except maybe Aspen Hill.

Dan Reed said...

To play devil's advocate: Dupont Circle and Deanwood are both in DC, but several miles apart, and one is very sought-after, while the other is less desirable. Does the presence of Deanwood muddle the perception of Dupont Circle? I doubt it. Of course, this isn't a perfect example because DC is a municipality. But I don't think the presence of areas like Aspen Hill is really hurting real estate values in or near downtown Silver Spring.

Unknown said...

To be specific, I think the problem happens when rent and real estate ads claim to be in Silver Spring, or just 10-15 minutes from the metro. Buyers and renters new to the DC metro area (which is a large proportion of the buyer/renter) assume this to mean that the place is in downtown Silver Spring, near the metro.

But often buildings as far away as Aspen Hill make these types of claims, much to the dismay of the potential buyer/renter who takes the red line to Silver Spring in hopes of checking out an apartment, only to find out that he/she now needs to get on the Y8 or Z6 bus and ride for another 40 minutes to reach his/her destination.

Unknown said...

But to your point, you are correct, I don't think Aspen Hill in itself hurts Silver Spring property values any more than Deanwood hurts Dupont.

Ben Schumin said...

I subscribe to the "little Silver Spring" definition. I live in Aspen Hill, approximately seven miles from downtown Silver Spring. I am within walking distance of the boundary between Silver Spring and Rockville addresses, and the "Welcome to Olney" sign on Georgia Avenue is four miles to my north.

The reason that I subscribe to the "little Silver Spring" definition is practical, more than anything. If I tell people coming to visit me by Metro that I live in "Silver Spring", despite my mailing address, they automatically assume that I'm meeting them at Silver Spring station, and I have to correct them, and explain why they need to meet me not at Silver Spring, but at Glenmont. Likewise, friends and family that drive up from Virginia see Exit 31 on the Beltway and want to take 31B towards Silver Spring, and I have to correct them as well, and point them towards 31A towards Wheaton. When I tell people "Aspen Hill", they don't assume as much because they're less likely to know the Aspen Hill name, and are more apt to listen to me when I describe where I'm located. In other words, the "big Silver Spring" definition is more trouble than it's worth.

In addition, because of my location near Olney and Rockville, and closer to the centers of Rockville and Olney than I am Silver Spring, and because traveling south towards downtown Silver Spring by car is far more cumbersome than traveling west or north, I will go to Rockville before I will go to downtown Silver Spring for shops and services.

So in short: I live in Aspen Hill, not Silver Spring, and I identify with Rockville and Olney more than I do downtown Silver Spring.

jamesdonoghue said...

When I first moved north of the Beltway, my address was "Colesville," which is what the sign on the post office near Randolph and New Hampshire said. A few years later, around 1995, we became Silver Spring, as did the post office branch. Then we moved five miles west, just off of Layhill Rd. NORTH of Wheaton, and our address was still Silver Spring. We were far closer to Olney than Silver Spring. It makes no sense, and, more importantly, it has become meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Colesville was always part of the Silver Spring post office, even when it was 20904, just as it is now as 20905. Each ZIP code is Silver Spring, but most have alternative names that the post office accepts for the primary neighborhoods in that area. 20902 can use Wheaton. 20903 is Hillandale. 20904 and 20905 are Colesville. 20906 is Aspen Hill. It's all Silver Spring, which is a non-descript, unincorporated area with no legal boundaries. Similarly, the parts of the Chevy Chase area that aren't incorporated are mostly called Bethesda. There is a defined business district referred to as "Little Silver Spring" in the article. Everything else is Silver Spring proper, or as one blogger calls it "SSINO" (Silver Spring in Name Only). Silver Spring is a large collection of neighborhoods, none of which has any legal jurisdiction, each with its own name and character, much like Arlington, VA. It's still Arlington, but it has neighborhoods like Bluemont or Rosslyn, Crystal City, Pentagon City, etc. The real estate "perception" is by neighborhood (in defense of Dupont vs. Deanwood), not the name of the post office.