Saturday, June 6, 2009

At Stake, a Community's Identity - Washington Post

Purple Line, Other Issues Galvanize East Silver Spring

By Jim Brocker
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 6, 2009

When East Silver Spring residents realized that the Purple Line could be tracking through their community, they formed lobbying groups, flocked to forums and peppered public officials with testimony about potential routes for the transit line. In the process, the residents discovered one another and rediscovered their neighborhood.

"I think standing up for our community when we were threatened with being divided by the Purple Line really made us realize how lucky we were to have what we have," said Hannah McCann, a Silver Spring Avenue resident whose back yard lies in the path of one of the proposed routes.

McCann and other residents of the century-old neighborhood took another look at what initially drew them to East Silver Spring: affordable homes near ethnic restaurants, shops and public transit; a diverse mix of cultures; and camaraderie with neighbors that includes play groups for children and Friday evening happy hours.

"I know neighbors now that I would not probably have known," said Ernest Bland, an architect who lobbied against a Sligo Avenue route no longer being considered that would have affected his home and his business a few blocks away. "We coalesced as a community. We're very conscious about what's going on."

Homeowners are still monitoring the Purple Line talks as the state continues to evaluate options, including a route along Wayne Avenue and Bonifant Street on East Silver Spring's northern border.

In the meantime, as development in Silver Spring's central business district spreads toward the Fenton Street corridor in East Silver Spring, residents are focusing on ways to retain the existing businesses and restaurants.

"The biggest challenge is to not lose what we have," said Karen Roper, an officer of the East Silver Spring Citizens Association, which includes 1,200 households. "How do you add without gentrifying to the point where you lose the small businesses, lose the diversity?"

Roper, the county and local businesses helped produce a brochure highlighting the neighborhood's eateries and services, and other residents, including author Jerry McCoy, are working to raise awareness about the homes and the history.

McCoy, the president of the Silver Spring Historical Society, has lived in the neighborhood since 1992. He praised its bungalows and foursquare homes, box-shaped two-story structures with dormers and front porches, calling them almost like "farmhouses sprinkled through the neighborhood." McCoy said a committee has formed to consider requesting designation as a historic district.

Deb McCormick and Stevan Lieberman say they purchased their older Silver Spring Avenue home from owners who were born in it. McCormick said they enjoy the house's character, although Lieberman added with a smile, "The floors creak, so you always hear somebody coming." Owning an older home means "always fixing it and changing it -- making it your own," he said.

But residents say the homes are worth it. McCann and her husband, Jonathan Witte, lived in a smaller home in the neighborhood before they moved into a bungalow. The couple now has two sons, ages 2 and 4. Though the house sometimes "does feel too small with rambunctious little boys," McCann said it actually contains "well thought-out livable space," with bigger living areas and smaller sleeping areas, a welcoming front porch and windows that provide cross-ventilation.

McCann's neighbor Laurie Breen also moved from a nearby house with her husband, Robert Rosenberg. Their daughter, Emma, 6, goes to East Silver Spring Elementary School, and their son, Harry, 4, will also attend school there. Breen said it's important for her children to meet youngsters from varied ethnic and economic backgrounds. "My kids don't come home saying they need the five newest toys every day," she said.

Residents say they are wary of crime, particularly just north of the neighborhood in the central downtown area. Roper, a 25-year resident, now hesitates to walk after 9 p.m. from the commercial areas to her home, and said the new development nearby has also brought new concerns.

But residents say they feel safe at home. East Silver Spring's houses sit snugly on small lots, allowing neighbors to look after one another. They enjoy strolling along the tree-lined streets, creating opportunities for what Nancy Nickell called "great spontaneous conversations on the sidewalks."

Jim Higgins, an East Silver Spring resident and an agent for Weichert Realtors, said only a few houses have recently come on the market. One sold in 14 days and one sold in a week. "People have come to realize that the neighborhood is more affordable and it's still close in," he said.

Bob Colvin, 76, the president of the East Silver Spring Citizens Association, has resided for about 50 years in a house where his parents once lived. He would like to see improved lighting and is concerned about the potential for high-rise, high-density development for the Fenton Street commercial corridor known as Fenton Village.

Colvin and Roper also noted the importance of the neighborhood's industrial area that includes several auto repair shops that provide jobs and services for residents. "I don't see why we can't have an industrial area and high-end condos," Roper said.

Business owners appreciate the support. Daniel Goodwin, owner of Silver Spring Books, said he enjoys the "good exchange of information" with local customers. That conversation often carries over to the area's local restaurants and coffee shops. A co-owner of Kefa Cafe, Lene Tsegaye, noted that her shop does not feature Internet access because she wants to encourage chatting.

Kefa is one of several Ethiopian-owned businesses in the neighborhood. Tsegaye and her sister Abeba have operated their Bonifant Street shop since 1996. "The nicest thing is that the people who came in 1996, they still come," she said.

If the Purple Line is built, residents hope the transit will not attract the density that might displace existing businesses. Standing on Bonifant Street on a recent afternoon, Roper wondered: "Where else are you going to find a gun shop, a tattoo parlor, a used book store and high-end restaurants all in the same block?"

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