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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Imagined: Downtown Silver Spring

There are certainly a lot of controversies in downtown Silver Spring. There's the historical landmarking of the Falkland Chase apartments, which I am avidly against. There is the Purple Line, which I cautiously support. The Paul Sarbanes Transit Center is often the source of debate as well.

And Silver Spring has it's foibles as well. Forest Glen Metro station, separated by the Beltway, is markedly less useful than it would be if it were built about a quarter mile south of it's current location. The Georgetown Branch trail has failed to make it's way into Silver Spring. Colesville Road is a traffic disaster.

But for all its issues and controversies, something very good was done there.

I grew up in Silver Spring, near University and the Beltway, about 2 miles from the downtown. in the '80's, it was a blighted area. it was ugly, unsafe, unfriendly, uninviting, and downright scary. Ellsworth Avenue, now home to the famed Silver Plaza (aka Silver Sprung) was boarded up building well into my post-college Army days.

But yesterday, I had the luxury of experiencing how a little urban planning can create a truely cultural experience. I was killing time after work at the Borders in the plaza area, purchasing a few books (including Suburban Nation by Andres Duany et al, which I am halfway through already!) and I decided to sit at the Lebanese Taverna cafe and do a little reading... something I'm rarely compelled to do in my behind-the-strip-malls Laurel neighborhood where I currently reside. It was a sunny pleasant setting, with kids of all types happily playing in the fountain.

But out of nowhere, a torrential storm came through. All that we were missing was the wicked witch on a bicycle. So much for that. Guess I'll head out, this place is dead. I'll just wait for the rain to pass... And pass it did, but with the sun out came even more people than were in the plaza before. A rock band from Blake High School prepared to play on the stage in the center of the plaza.

Then it got really interesting. A fire alarm (which would later turn out to be a dumpster fire at the Wayne Av garage) cleared out the entire east side of the plaza. All the buildings were vacated, including the movie theater. With half the shops closed, a bunch of teenagers playing loud rock music in the middle of it all, and hundreds of probably annoyed movie goers, I was sure a riot was on the horizon.

Instead, crowds formed around the stage, and around a street performer banging on a set of drums made of kitchen utensils. Another small crowd gathered to watch few skater kids doing tricks near the Chik-Fil-A. despite the horribly inconveniece of being locked out of their stores and movies, everyone there seemed to be having a good time doing something.

And what really impressed me was the overall diversity of the crowd. Young dreadlocked hippies in long flowing skirts, amputee war veterans from Walter Reed, yarmulke-clad group of young men, men in business attire, families with young children, old couples, average joes. It was a tapestry that spanned racial, cultural, socio-economic, and religious boundaries. And the shops at the plaza encourage it. Lebanese, Tex-Mex, Persian, Vientamese, Irish, Thai, Mexican, and Western cuisine as informal as Potbelly's and as first-datey as Red Rock Canyon Grille. And that's just in the plaza area.

Everyone was making the best of an inconvenient situation, all getting along beside each other. The only reality check was when a police car that had responded to the fire was driving down Ellsworth, which was otherwise closed to vehicles, and slammed on the brakes when a young girl ran in front of it. Simultaneous boos from several people in the crowd ensued.

The sight was not lost on me. I know what would have happened if the theater at any isolate location (even a mall) had been evacuated and movie goers were forced to wait in the parking lot. Shouting, complaining, frustration, fights. Hopefully a cop or two might show up. Hopefully there were no little kids that would start crying and create more of a scene.

This was a project borne of wise urban planning, giving Ellsworth Drive back to the people, not the car. This is why the plaza as a centerpiece for a town is such a community asset. In Silver Spring, it is a great unifier, a great equalizer, and a haven from beltway traffic life. I imagine that one day, every town will have a plaza where all types can interact in such a positive cultural experience.

Well done, Silver Spring.

Update 6-29: Sligo of Silver Spring, Singular was also present that day, and he had a decidedly different experience than I did. Of course, he was trying to see a movie when the fire occurred.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ha I was there too on Friday. I bet that would have been a riot if it happened most other places.