Tuesday, December 31, 2019

ten very silver spring (and montgomery county) things that happened this decade

Clockwise from top left: "The Turf" in 2006, Veterans Plaza under construction in 2010, the first Fenton Street Market in the plaza that fall, and the 2019 Silver Spring Jazz Festival. Click for a bigger version.

If you’ve seen the "Woman Yelling at a Cat"meme, you’d recognize the mural that sat on Ellsworth Drive for all of one day this fall. Normally, the meme is a photo of one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, well, yelling at a cat named Smudge. Instead, the woman, surrounded by raging fires, has a speech bubble reading “I’M FROM D.C.!!” and the cat - now wearing sunglasses and a fur coat - has a speech bubble that just says “Silver Spring.”

The mural was produced by DC-based artists No Kings Collective as part of Silver Spring Walls, a series of permanent and temporary art installations that went up in big-D Downtown Silver Spring this year, the first phase of a larger renovation project in the area.

But it also says a lot about Silver Spring at the end of the 2010s. It’s not just that Silver Spring had a big turnaround from the 1980s and 1990s, when the area was still in decline. It’s that Silver Spring came into its own as a place, with unique attractions and a distinctive culture.

People here might still say they're "from DC," but Silver Spring is giving them even more reasons not to. So, what do we have to show for ourselves after another decade? Let's take a look:

Students took to the streets. Three years ago, students at Blair, Einstein, and Northwood high schools left class and marched through Wheaton and Silver Spring in protest of the presidential election, kicking off a week of walkouts across the county. Little did we know that this was just the beginning. Since then, Montgomery County students have gotten national attention for speaking out for gun control and organized to support Montgomery County Public Schools’ boundary study, which itself was the brainchild of Ananya Tadikonda, then the student member of the Board of Education.

Brewery boom. In 2013, Montgomery County launched a “Nighttime Economy Task Force” to study ways to make the county more attractive to young people and businesses, and an aspiring brewpub owner named Julie Verratti dropped by one of their meetings with a warning: “If the laws don’t change in Montgomery County you’re going to miss the boat,” she said. Six years and one overhaul of the alcohol laws later, Montgomery County’s home to a dozen or so breweries, and Julie owns not one but two locations of Denizens Brewing Company. Denizens put Silver Spring on the beer map, but neighbors Astro Lab and Silver Branch, which opened in 2018, helped make downtown a regional nightlife destination.

In the majority. Montgomery County kicked off the decade as a majority-non-white jurisdiction for the first time ever, and our population is getting older, childless, and less upwardly mobile. The county's diversity has made it a culinary powerhouse and center of the region's Chinese and Ethiopian communities. Meanwhile, it's also tested MoCo's reputation as America's Most Enlightened Suburb, from a proposed teen curfew to the shooting of an unarmed black man and reports of police brutality to the ugly fight over whether to allow more apartments.

Speaking of which: Montgomery County hasn't redrawn its school boundaries in thirty years, resulting in segregation by race and class, a persistent achievement gap, and millions of dollars spent on school additions while nearby schools lose teachers due to falling enrollment. Under former superintendent Josh Starr, MCPS denied the problem even existed, but today, the school system is finally taking a look at school boundaries. Some community members, fearful of a recent boundary effort in Howard County, are organizing in opposition, culminating in a December meeting where hundreds of parents yelled and screamed so much it drove presenters to tears.
The Purple Line is happening. It was going to happen, and then it wasn’t, and now it’s actually being built. After decades of twists and turns and a dope new mural, what more can I say? The next decade will bring the Purple Line’s opening day, and it’s a shame that Harry Sanders, who passed away in 2010, won’t be there to ride it, as we wouldn’t be here without him.

An ongoing housing shortage. During the Great Recession, new home construction in Montgomery County all but stopped in most areas and never really recovered, even as the economy bounced back. Estimates say 200,000 people will move here in the coming years, but a lack of housing options means prices are quickly rising, pricing middle- and working-class families out of many neighborhoods. It's especially acute in close-in, walkable neighborhoods near jobs and transit - the places that are most in demand. Meanwhile, neighbors continue to fight affordable housing, and homelessness remains a persistent issue. But a funny thing happened in downtown Silver Spring during the 2010s: thousands of apartments were built, and rents...went down a little bit. While it's not a total solution, bringing back new homes could make a big difference.

A new generation of community advocates. Go to a community meeting in Silver Spring or anywhere in East County and you might notice that people look a little…younger. As Millennials grow up and get settled down (and Gen Xers finally wrangle the reins from the Baby Boomers), a new crop of activists are taking over the area’s civic groups and political organizations. While these groups historically pushed for the status quo, today’s activists are shaking things up and getting results: more sidewalks and bike lanes, stuff that people can actually walk to, and long-awaited new station entrances at Forest Glen and White Flint.
Montgomery County gets used to it. The county has always had LGBTQ people, but like in many suburban places, they were often in the margins. In the 2010s, queer people made themselves seen and heard, whether it was at house parties in Silver Spring’s Indian Spring neighborhood, at an exhibition of queer art and music, our annual Transgender Day of Rememberance events, the new LGBTQ Democratic Club, or the nascent MoCo Pride Center. The county elected its first openly gay councilmember, and the County Council appointed the county’s first openly gay Planning Board member. It all culminated in Montgomery County’s first-ever Pride Party, giving the community a place to celebrate without having to go into DC - or for that matter, up to Frederick Pride.

It's the economy, stupid. For the third year in a row, Montgomery County is expecting a budget shortfall of up to $130 million, and officials say the county's sluggish population growth and stagnant wages are to blameMany of the office parks and shopping malls that built the county's economy 30 years ago are aging. In the areas that are actually drawing residents and businesses - urban centers like Silver Spring and Bethesda - the county has halted new development due to school crowding. Meanwhile, county executive seems at best indifferent to these communities' needs and at worst hostile to new residents, which doesn't bode well for the future.

A public building spree. This decade alone, Silver Spring got a new Civic Building and public plaza, a new library, a new transit center, and work is beginning on a new recreation and aquatic center. Outside the Beltway, Wheaton also has a new library and recreation center, as well as a new county office building and plaza that'll open next year. While all of these projects had some controversy, they've helped build community, get people to work, and create spillover effects for local businesses. Just look at all of the people who hang out and spend money in Silver Spring before, during, and after shows at the Fillmore.

While we don't know what will happen in the 2020s, our community will continue to grow and change. According to the American Community Survey, Silver Spring inside the Beltway grew substantially, from 71,000 in 2010 to an estimated 80,000 in 2017 - at a rate of 12%, it grew faster than MoCo as a whole, and is just behind DC's 14% population growth. This year, Silver Spring got two new residents, or should I say old ones: my partner and I, returning from our one-year vacation to North Bethesda. This time, we're here to stay - and I'm excited to see what happens next.

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