Wednesday, June 26, 2019

we moved to rockville pike and if you're surprised by that, I am too (13 years of JUTP)

Today marks 13 years since I started writing a blog about Silver Spring and East County. And until recently if you'd told me that I would move out of Silver Spring, I wouldn’t have believed you. I grew up there, I moved back there as an adult, I bought a home there, I work there, and I even helped start a neighborhood association there. Now, if you’d told me that my partner and I would move to North Bethesda - well, I definitely wouldn't have believed you.

rockville pike rainbow
Home, for now. All photos by the author.
So last November, we signed a lease for an apartment off Rockville Pike. It’s been a real learning experience! Let’s break it down:

We sort of got priced out

At first we decided to move because the one-bedroom condo I bought in 2014 had gotten too small. I bought through Montgomery County’s Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit program, which was the only way I could afford to buy a home in the county as a single person with an entry-level salary and student loans.

On the one hand, as a homeowner I didn't have to worry about rising rents. On the other hand, the county sets the resale price for MPDUs (it's what you paid for it, plus inflation). That means sellers like me don't walk away with a massive windfall the way some of my neighbors had, which is a worthy trade-off to keep the homes affordable in the future, but it makes it hard to buy a market-rate home here.

With limited money for a down payment, a small budget, and a historically low housing inventory, and we had very few options to buy anywhere in Silver Spring or East County, and what we could find and liked was really competitive. On top of that, my partner works near Georgetown, which was already an hour-long commute by bus, and doesn’t drive for health reasons.

We decided to sell anyway and rent a new place instead, and to explore other neighborhoods that might be more affordable. We considered apartments further north in Wheaton or further east in Hyattsville, which were more affordable, but would make my partner's commute even longer.

Then we looked at the west side of the Red Line, where my partner would actually have a shorter commute, and while rents weren’t drastically lower than Silver Spring, we could get considerably more space for the money. (It also helps when you move in November, as landlords have more vacancies and may offer rent specials or lower rates.)

Garden [apartment] of Eden

I grew up in a big apartment building, and if you haven’t done that, I highly recommend it. There were lots of kids around, being around the building staff teaches you how to interact with and trust adults, and if you’re lucky you get things like a swimming pool that make your friends in houses jealous. So it goes here, in our new home in a 1990s-era garden apartment complex just off Rockville Pike in North Bethesda.

toys in the front hall
Toys in the front hall of our apartment building.

(Why am I calling it that? There is such a vast area between downtown Bethesda and downtown Rockville, and enough stuff in that area to justify giving it a separate name - and one legally recognized by both the US Postal Service and the Census Bureau. That said, my partner literally gives our address as "North Bethesda or Rockville, Maryland," so to each their own.)

All of the apartments in our complex have two or three bedrooms - and, to reference an ad for this complex from a May 2001 Apartment Shoppers Guide I have in my possession, "dynamic lofts and dens." Right now I’m working in my dynamic den overlooking this massive courtyard with cherry blossom trees, a pool and a playground and a picnic table where these middle-school kids usually plunk down from 3pm until sunset. Just beyond them, the little kids are chalking the sidewalks, and out by the dumpster, the older kids are skateboarding.

deck overlooking pike and rose
This is a photo of Pike + Rose, which is a nice place to go near Rockville Pike.
These kids go to schools in the vaunted Walter Johnson cluster, where some parents grumble about their presence. We don’t have kids and don’t plan to. But I'm glad they're here and I'm glad we're here, for the suburban summer soundtrack of laughter and birds and lawnmowers, the skyline of Pike + Rose poking through the trees, a little piece of the city out here.

Rockville Pike is very weird

We picked this apartment because it was across from a grocery store. But to walk there we pass, in order: the Jewish community center, a weed dispensary, my partner’s therapist’s office, a store that sells military tactical clothing, an urgent care clinic below a hairdresser that sounds like a nightclub, and a lice clinic above a pancake house.

cuban corner
Each plaque in this Cuban restaurant is dedicated to a famous (or not-so-famous) Cuban.
Jane Jacobs talks about how “new ideas must use old buildings,” or that aging buildings are cheaper to rent and allow niche businesses to flourish. She meant New York in the 1960s, but it’s also here on Rockville Pike, where the chain restaurants and big boxes my family went to growing up are giving into entropy, creating a random, messy, and often beautiful mix of experiences.

It all feels like a city, with its own culture, albeit one where the pieces are arranged very differently.

We can walk from the apartment in either direction, north or south, and find these two- and three-story wedding-cake-looking strip malls, competing to mash together the most disparate businesses: fan store, Polish grocery, battery store, funeral home. My best friend from high school just got a job here at a woodworking studio below a store that sells “designer binders,” and to celebrate we found a Cuban restaurant up by Montgomery College whose dining room walls are covered floor to ceiling in little plaques about “famous” Cubans, from Pitbull to each of the owners’ children.

secret garden
A "secret garden," invisible from Rockville Pike.
When I go for a walk or grab one of the dockless bikeshare bikes, I find actual people out on the streets here: a boy and his dad walking their dog between the strip mall parking lots; teens on bikes with string lights through the wheels so you can see them; a little kid playing in the "secret garden" beneath a strip mall; skateboarders weaving in and out of traffic; four older guys in Skins jerseys smoking and shooting the breeze outside 7-Eleven.

mason summers stickers by best buy
I see these stickers on Rockville Pike all the time. They are over a decade old.
My favorite part might be the Mason Summers stickers. I went to architecture school at Maryland with him; his friends named a band after him with the tag line "Friends don't let friends get emo" (he was pretty emo, I will admit) and printed stickers. This was in 2007. I see them everywhere on Rockville Pike, even today, and if you look hard enough you will too.

"I am a visitor here, I am not permanent"

My mother is the youngest of thirteen. Fifty years ago this summer, her two oldest sisters emigrated here from Guyana. They first settled in a garden apartment not unlike ours, a few miles north on Rockville Pike, preparing to send for each of their siblings one by one. I often wonder what it was like for my aunties Rena and Rona, two brown women living alone in a new country and in a then-new, lily white suburb. As my relatives arrived here, the family eventually moved to DC, but I still consider Rockville the start of our story in the United States.

crossing the parking lot off old georgetown road
People! Walking! (This is an official path now.)
I started writing this post in October, after we'd signed the lease. The first several drafts were very angry. Our county is growing and changing, and as a young queer person of color trying to build a life here, I often feel like people are reluctant to embrace this at best and openly hostile to it at worst. I've given the past 13 years of my life to celebrating and improving my hometown, and I don't think I'm entitled saying I should be able to put down roots here.

But I'll also acknowledge the pleasant surprises I've had living in a new neighborhood. It feels good coming home to our apartment, and that's the least we can hope for. We have seven months on our lease, and I don't know happens after that, but I'm looking forward to whatever may come.

*SIDE NOTE* I want to have another birthday party for the blog this summer! Keep an eye out for an announcement soon.

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