Is Montgomery County Planning tainted by racism?

Montgomery County, Maryland, goes to great lengths to promote its communities as diverse and progressive. Yet, actions by such institutions as the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission undermine those assertions with racialized land use policies and historic preservation plans that omit, marginalize, and alienate the county’s communities of color. Patterns apparent over the past 20 years suggest that the agency, which was founded by a white supremacist real estate developer and Democratic Party boss, structurally hasn’t moved very far from its 1920s origins as a machine for building suburbs where power and authority remain concentrated among the white middle and upper classes.

Framing Structural and Institutional Racism

In September 2016, a historic preservation planner with the Montgomery County Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Office approached a group of residents from the  Lyttonsville community in the lobby of the Montgomery County Council Building in Rockville. The planner and the residents of the historically African American community were there to attend a hearing for the Greater Lyttonsville Sector Plan.

The planner began speaking enthusiastically about her research in a neighboring community that had been developed by Jewish developer Sam Eig: Rock Creek Forest. She told the Lyttonsville residents that in her research on Eig and the subdivision she found that Eig did not attach racial restrictive covenants to the properties.

The following morning I emailed the planner and asked her about what she had told the Lyttonsville residents. She replied:

What I was telling [Lyttonsville resident] was that Sam Eig developed Rock Creek Forest, without restrictive covenants. He also donated land there for two churches and the Jewish Community Center (?and maybe for the Red Cross). MCHS has  information on Sam Eig.

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Silver Spring’s newest visual junkyard

This … is not written in anger. It is written in fury … it is a deliberate attack upon all those who have already befouled a large portion of this country for private gain, and are engaged in befouling the rest. — Peter Blake, Preface to God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (1964)

Ellsworth Place Mall, Colesville Road and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Ellsworth Place Mall, Colesville Road and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

After more than a decade of false starts involving redevelopment plans and rebranding campaigns, an urban mall in Silver Spring, Maryland, has a new name, new look, and new stores. Ellsworth Place, née City Place, was completed in 1992 in an effort to jumpstart redevelopment in Silver Spring’s central business district. The mall was built as an addition to a historic Hecht’s department store, which was completed in 1947 and which left Silver Spring 40 years later for a new regional mall in nearby Wheaton.

Rebranding City Place involved converting its worn and bland suburban commercial spaces and “re-tenanting,” a process the owner described as attracting more upscale merchants to attract millennials and other new middle class residents moving to Silver Spring.

Montgomery County’s historic preservation law was one hurdle owners had to clear. The former Hecht’s building is a protected county landmark and the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission has regulatory jurisdiction over changes to the building’s exterior. Changes like new entrances, windows, and signage.

Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht's, Ellsworth Ave. and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

Ellsworth Place Mall/Former Hecht’s, Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street facade, September 2016.

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McMansions and community character in Montgomery County (Updated)

[See below for updates to this post]

Teardowns and mansionization are a nationwide problem and Montgomery County has few regulatory controls to prevent property owners from demolishing older homes and building new houses that are out of scale and character with neighboring buildings.

Although Montgomery County has a historic preservation ordinance, not all old homes are historic and there are few tools currently available to residents to prevent speculators from building McMansions like the one under construction in my Silver Spring neighborhood. Continue reading

Silver Spring Drum Circle: Starting the Groove

August 28, 2010

Since July 2010, when the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza opened, a drum circle has gathered Saturday evenings. I wanted to see how the drum circle forms each week so I arrived at 6:30 PM to see how it comes together. Performances are complex social events. The activities leading up to the actual event can be as significant as the music or drama performed during the performance. With that in mind I tried to catch how the Silver Spring drum circle comes together as a performance. This video is compiled from clips I shot while watching the drummers and their audience gather between 7:00 and 8:20 PM in Veterans Plaza.

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MoCo Board says Kensington Cabin Historic

The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously tonight  to recommend to the Montgomery County Planning Board that the Kensington Cabin be added to the county’s Locational Atlas of Historic Sites and that the property be designated in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The HPC serves in an advisory capacity and makes recommendations to the Planning Board; final designation decisions are made by the County Council. Continue reading

Architectural Adaptations: Silver Spring’s 1939 World’s Fair Home [Updated]

Update: See this later post on the home’s inclusion in a National Building Museum exhibit.

I am slowly getting around to revising my 2010 Vernacular Architecture Forum paper on Silver Spring’s 1939 World’s Fair Home. One of the areas that I was unable to deal with in the VAF paper was how the Silver Spring house differed from the one built in the World’s Fair Town of Tomorrow. This brief post is drawn from my ongoing work.

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Frankenpines, Monopalms, and the Jolly Green Giant

I have been interested in concealed telecommunications sites since I first began working on regulatory compliance for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licensees struggling to understand the complexities of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. This is the first of a series of posts on concealed telecommunications infrastructure and the American landscape.

Monopines. Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania.

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Creating Community

Last night my BlackBerry and I stumbled through near-100-degree heat into the second weekly drum circle convened in the new Veteran’s Plaza by Impact Silver Spring.

Silver Spring is an interesting place. I’ve lived here for nearly 10 years and I still feel like a newcomer. It is an unincorporated place in southern Montgomery County (Maryland) that hugs Washington’s angular northern boundary line. Unlike other places I have lived (e.g., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta), there is no cohesive Silver Spring identity for the community as a whole or its various neighborhoods. It’s a place in search of a culture, it seems.

Two years ago the space where the new Veterans Plaza and Civic Building now sit was a patch of artificial turf that became a community gathering place. One year ago the spot was a construction site.  County planners envisioned the new space as a performance space and a formal and informal gathering place. I wonder how this is going to develop and if Silver Spring will get the culture planners hoped for in building the new space. Okay, they’ve built it and people are coming: skateboarders, loafers, nappers, and voyeurs. And the drummers. Are the drum circles a transitional phase helping (through music therapy?) to move Silver Spring into a new direction? Or are they something else? I look forward to watching how things turn out.

I spent about 45 minutes at last night’s drum circle (it was more of a rectangle with an amorphous fringe) and I wish I could have stayed longer. I enjoyed the improvisation and watching the diverse crowd. I wonder how things turned out with the Krishnas who set up an informational table a few dozen yards away, complete with their own drum.

Expert Testimony

Last night I visited my former colleagues: the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission. The HPC held a hearing to determine if a 1950s Silver Spring movie theater and shopping center met the criteria for designation in the Montgomery County Master Plan for Historic Preservation. The proposed designation is supported by local preservation groups and was initiated as part of a Planning Department sector plan review. The property owner opposes designation because he feels that it limits his options to redevelop the property to take advantage of new economic opportunities sprouting throughout Silver Spring.

Leaving aside the merits of the designation and the tensions between historic preservation commissions as regulatory bodies and private property owners, I would like to focus on the role of the historic preservation expert. The property owner’s land use attorney retained a large consulting engineering company with a cultural resource management division to make the case that the property does not merit historic designation. The person who appeared at last night’s hearing brandished her credentials — 14 years of professional experience and title as “architectural history team leader” — to establish her credibility as an expert in historic preservation. Continue reading

Silver Spring and a “Socialized Medicine” Sidebar (Part I)

Shall Government Help Pay Nation’s Doctor Bills? Sharp Fight Aroused by Program.

This headline could have appeared in any of the nation’s papers in 2009 or 2010. Instead, it was published in San Jose, California, in August 1938. That year one of the country’s first managed health care entities, Group Health Association, Inc., went head to head with the American Medical Association and the District of Columbia medical establishment in a legal battle over patients’ rights and affordable health care for low-income families.

Dr. Mario Scandiffio (1902-1996), a Washington pediatrician employed by GHA, found himself in the center of the imbroglio when his hospital privileges were revoked along with those of other GHA practitioners. My research frequently veers off into unanticipated territory and last year’s encounter with Scandiffio and his wife, Pauline (1903-1989), is becoming one of those side trips. The Scandiffios were the first owners of Northwood Park’s 1939 New York World’s Fair Home, the subject of my paper at this year’s Vernacular Architecture Forum conference.

GHA was founded in 1937. This was a time during which the American health insurance industry was an emerging business. The model was simple: a monthly premium payment bought access to a network of specialists and generalists and hospitalization plus necessary diagnostic tests. The idea for founding GHA grew from discussions by managers in the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a part of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. By attempting to minimize absenteeism and other costs associated with employee illnesses while also improving the quality of those peoples’ lives. According to a 1941 article by Dr. Scandiffio, GHA sought to eliminate the economic barriers separating the poor and access to healthcare and make practicing medicine more efficient by sharing lab and x-ray facilities in a large urban clinic. The AMA perceived GHA as a threat and moved aggressively against the new medical cooperative which was being accused of trying to socialize medicine. The medical establishment, i.e., the AMA and the District of Columbia’s District Medical Society, swiftly began marginalizing GHA’s physicians by revoking their hospital privileges and memberships.

This being Washington, D.C., legal action was quick in coming. The Justice Department opened an investigation into the AMA and the Medical Society of the District of Columbia for violating antitrust laws. Indictments followed and the case wound its way through the federal courts until 1943 when the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion upholding the lower courts’ decision that the AMA and Medical Society had acted unlawfully.

Dr. Scandiffio was one of GHA’s first medical professionals. The son of Italian immigrants to New York City, Mario V. Scandiffio graduated from The George Washington University medical school in 1928 and did his residency and internship at the New York Post Graduate School. Scandiffio’s medical school roommate introduced him to Pauline Loria, a Bureau of Engraving employee and singer with her own show on local radio station WOL. Married in 1930, the Scandiffios lived in Washington where he worked in private practice. Dr. Scandiffio’s first day of work for GHA was November 1, 1937, the day GHA’s Eye Street clinic opened to the public.

One day after starting work at GHA Dr. Scandiffio received a registered letter from the District of Columbia Medical Society directing him to appear before the group’s Compensation, Contract and Industrial Medicine Committee to answer charges that he had engaged in unprofessional conduct by practicing for GHA. Scandiffio responded by first resigning from the Society and then rescinding his resignation. The Society expelled Scandiffio in early 1938 and the case began attracting national attention. The AMA opposed GHA because the new model threatened the institutional framework of professional medicine. The struggles to reform healthcare in the United States in 1994 and again when President Barack Obama took office look remarkably similar to the issues faced by GHA and Dr. Scandiffio. In his 1941 paper on the GHA, Dr. Scandiffio described GHA’s most fundamental beliefs:

It was felt that there should be little or no economic barrier to securing competent and adequate medical care. All of us are gamblers at heart and, unfortunately, one of our most vital possessions – good health – is too often gambled with. It is almost a universal characteristic to delay seeing the doctor until all other means at our disposal have failed. The result is that the private practitioner sees only advanced illness and has little time for the care of early illness or for preventive medical care. Care of early illness and preventive care are, to me, the primary advantages of prepaid group medicine for it is distinctly to the best interests of both patient and physician to know how to achieve good health and how to maintain it. Then too, early care results in lower morbidity and mortality and in a marked reduction in the number of serious or advanced illnesses. [1]

Scandiffio resisted the medical establishment’s pressures and remained with GHA. In the spring of 1939 he became GHA’s medical director and a few months later he and his wife bought Northwood Park’s 1939 World’s Fair Home. Scandiffio left GHA in May 1944 and opened his own Silver Spring practice on Georgia Avenue. The Scandiffios lived in Silver Spring until 1952 when they moved to Miami, Florida.

The Washington Post, August 20, 1939.

Pauline and Mario Scandiffio outside their Silver Spring home with their daughter Ann.

Note

[1] Dr. Mario Scandiffio, “The Program of the D.C. Group Health Association,” Social Security in 1941, 145-149.

Look for Part II: a closer look at Group Health Association, Inc.

Thanks to Ann Scandiffio for sharing her family photos.

© 2010 David S. Rotenstein