Silver Spring through a new lens

Gentrification. Few words and subjects can turn a friendly conversation into an argument faster, especially here in metropolitan Washington.

In early 2011 my wife and I exchanged one suburb for another. We moved from Silver Spring to Decatur, Ga.—an Atlanta inner-ring suburb six miles east of the Georgia state capitol. Less than four years later we came full circle when we returned to Silver Spring. My wife’s job took us to Georgia and gentrification returned us to greater Washington and our old Silver Spring neighborhood.

Moving day, February 2011.

Moving day, February 2011.

When we moved to Georgia, greater Washington had become my baseline measure for lots of things, including how I viewed community development, civic engagement, and gentrification. In 2011, I thought I understood gentrification; now, nearly four years later, I see Silver Spring and its changes over the past decade through a new lens — one with a gentrification filter.

The Washington suburb we left had avoided residential disinvestment in its long history and the Atlanta suburb to which we moved had been on the front lines of innovative 1970s efforts to rebuild neighborhoods ravaged by poverty. Silver Spring’s central business district experienced a decline as Washington’s sprawl pushed retail and offices away in the 1970s and 1980s and it rebounded in the first decade of this century with new mixed-use development, higher densities, and greater investment in the Silver Spring brand.

In 2012, George Washington University’s Christopher Leinenberger wrote that Silver Spring had escaped gentrification as the community underwent its recent transformations. I don’t buy all of Leinberger’s assessment that Silver Spring completely escaped gentrification. Parts of Silver Spring have thus far escaped gentrification while others, notably the 20th century central business district, have not.

Downtown Silver Spring, Md.

Downtown Silver Spring, Md.

There are many definitions of gentrification. I prefer the one developed in 2001 by Brookings Institution writers Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard: “The process by which higher income households displace lower income residents of a neighborhood, changing the essential character and flavor of that neighborhood.”

I often invoke Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 opinion on obscenity when I speak with people who have strong opinions about gentrification. People experiencing gentrification know it when they see it. Just as there are many ways to define “gentrification,” there are equally numerous ways gentrification manifests itself in cities and suburbs: commercial, industrial, and residential gentrification.

1930s period revival home, Silver Spring.

1930s period revival home, Silver Spring.

Silver Spring’s residential neighborhoods never experienced disinvestment and blocks of vacant, foreclosed homes never materialized, even during the worst of economic downturns in the 1970s and the depths of the 2008 recession. Silver Spring’s residential neighborhoods have escaped, so far, the widespread teardowns and mansionization that are transforming inner-ring suburbs nationwide. Their character remains intact. And, no reports have surfaced documenting residential displacement in Silver Spring.

Vacant and foreclosed home in Decatur, Ga. (left) rehabilitated under the 1970s H.U.D. Urban Homesteading program (right). For a while H.U.D. was the largest single residential property owner in Decatur. Decatur Housing Authority photo.

Vacant and foreclosed home in Decatur, Ga. (left) rehabilitated under the 1970s H.U.D. Urban Homesteading program (right). For a while H.U.D. was the largest single residential property owner in Decatur. Decatur Housing Authority photo.

Downtown Silver Spring is another story. It comfortably fits within Kennedy and Leonard’s definition and evidence of gentrification abounds. Disinvestment defined downtown Silver Spring’s identity for decades and commercial district upgrading has indisputably changed its character. Like other gentrified neighborhoods Silver Spring’s business district even got a new name when it went from being a lower-case downtown Silver Spring to being Downtown Silver Spring with its own corporation. And, there has been some retail displacement. Familiar stores and restaurants in South Silver Spring have been forced out by higher rents or because their buildings were sold to developers.

Ellsworth Street, Silver Spring.

Ellsworth Drive, Silver Spring.

When we moved to Silver Spring in 2000, the Discovery Communications headquarters was a fallow lot and Downtown Silver Spring was a vacant cut-through from the residential neighborhood east of Colesville Road to the Silver Spring Metro station. Strosnider’s Hardware and Fresh Fields (now Whole Foods) had just opened in a new shopping center. There were only a few Ethiopian restaurants, no coffee shops, and photographers didn’t have to navigate the poorly marked neoliberal boundaries that made some public spaces like Ellsworth Drive less public than others.

Discovery Communications headquarters building, Silver Spring, 2014.

Discovery Communications headquarters building, Silver Spring, 2014.

In a decade, Silver Spring became competitive with its cross-county cousin, Bethesda, as a dining destination and a community where housing near Metro was possible—at a price. As Silver Spring became a newly reimagined place, its older buildings and established cultural landscapes became contested territories in historic preservation showdowns (Falkland Apartments, Perpetual Building, Canada Dry Bottling Plant).

Some buildings were preserved. It would be difficult to imagine Silver Spring without the Silver Theatre and Shopping Center. Others buildings, symbolically seized by passionate preservationists in hostile historic designation efforts trying to impose their own vision of Silver Spring’s future while resisting change, were not.

AFI Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center.

AFI Silver Theatre and Silver Spring Shopping Center.

Silver Spring's future (new library and Purple Line station) juxtaposed against its past (First Baptist Church of Silver Spring prepped for demolition).

Silver Spring’s future (new library and Purple Line station) juxtaposed against its past (First Baptist Church of Silver Spring prepped for demolition).

The Silver Spring to which we returned is getting a new skyline, new economic opportunities, and higher residential densities. Some residents embrace the changes in downtown Silver Spring; others, like the blogger who writes The Great Society, claim they are destroying the community.

After living in rapidly gentrifying Decatur where more than 120 homes were torn down for McMansion construction in a 0.90-square-mile area between October 2011 and November 2014, I see a middle-ground. Decatur is gentrification and change on steroids whereas Silver Spring is experiencing transformations that with notable exceptions—e.g., the Chelsea School site—are meticulously managed (some say too micromanaged) and focused on formerly single-use parcels in the central business district.

This 630-square-foot Northwood Park home built in 1949 would be a prime teardown candidate in Decatur, Ga.

This 630-square-foot Northwood Park home built in 1949 would be a prime teardown candidate in Decatur, Ga.

Decatur teardown, October 2011.

1,100-square-foot home demolished in Decatur, Ga. October 2011.

Montgomery County prides itself on its engaged citizenry. Most of that pride is earned, although it’s also necessary in a jurisdiction where change—good or bad—is mired in process. Planning and development here frequently is described as “paralysis by analysis.” Though costly and mind-numbing at times, the opportunities for stakeholder engagement do improve development projects, even if only by inches rather than yards.

No matter what residents might think about whether officials give them adequate standing in community planning or if individual dissenting positions matter here, I don’t think I ever will see a Montgomery County resident stand in the M-NCPPC auditorium and say more people would participate in land use proceedings if it were not for the fear of reprisals. One Decatur nonprofit leader did say this to the Decatur City Commission in an October 2013 hearing on a proposed moratorium on single-family home demolitions.

Gentrification now dominates my thoughts. Over the past three years, I have done 70 interviews, taken hundreds of photos, and conducted documentary research in Atlanta and Washington. By the end of 2015 I hope to have a completed book manuscript on gentrification in Decatur. Silver Spring and Washington will figure prominently as reference points in the book. An extended absence from Silver Spring and an immersion in a gentrifying neighborhood curiously were just the ticket to get my head around then complexity that is gentrification. In Georgia I was an unwitting advocate and activist for affordable housing preservation and historic preservation. Back home I’m just another writer with a reflexive gentrification story.

For some folks, “gentrification” is a fighting word. For me now, it’s a thinking word.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein