Tuesday, July 7, 2009

“Hometown week” … and the tentative success of diversity ….

     I’m spending July in my old hometown of Silver Spring, Md., which in my humble opinion is a rich locale for examining topics of land use law.  Accordingly, I introduce “hometown week.”
SilverSpring-downtown     Silver Spring is a large suburb in Montgomery County, just north of Washington, DC.  While Montgomery County used to be nearly all white and had the highest median household income in the nation when I was young, the eastern half of the county – including Silver Spring – has become far more racially diverse over the past few decades, in part because of migration of black and Latino families from Washington, DC, and elsewhere, and in part because of Montgomery County’s famously inclusive zoning laws, which have encouraged the construction of large numbers of moderately priced apartment buildings in the eastern part of the county.
    I have been critical of the county’s expenditure of millions of dollars over the past decade to foster the building of a new planned “downtown” shopping district – Starbucks, Borders, a mainstream movie center, and a number of independent restaurants – which was called a “revival” of Silver Spring by proponents, but by others (OK, me) as a way for the county to encourage affluent white people to return to  downtown Silver Spring, whose old retail stretches were patronized for the most part by non-whites by the 1990s.  Earlier, smaller-scale efforts at “revitalization” were less than successful, in part because the number of white patrons tipped below sustainable levels (in my opinion).  A couple of years ago, however, it was apparent that the big new planned “downtown” was quite successful, in sheer numbers:  the sidewalks teemed with people all days of the week, and even less popular retail outlets, such as the kabob place, seemed to be doing well.  What fascinated me most was the racial makeup of the crowd:  My rough estimate placed a typical cross-section of the patrons at about 50 percent black, 30 percent white, and 20 percent Latino (with some Asians as well, of course).  Some social commentators have suggested that this kind of community patronage is inherently unstable – that many if not most white Americans (even non-racist ones) will discontinue (in other words, “flee”) social situations in which they are the minority.
    Returning to downtown Silver Spring last week, I endeavored to see whether the crowd had “tipped” beyond the point of ensuring diversity.  To my pleasure, the patrons seemed to reflect the same mix as two years ago.  The bulk of whites do not appear to have decamped elsewhere for their entertainment.  True, Silver Spring may be not reflect mainstream America:  White residents here tend to be rather liberal, and by their presence in the area, with schools that reflect a deep diversity, they presumably tend to be the more tolerant type.  But it is still satisfying to see what so far has been fairly unusual, but will slowly become more common in our changing nation:  the voluntary acceptance of white people as being a minority in a community setting.  Stay tuned …

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I must agree. I lived in Silver Spring for 4 years as I attended law school in the District. I selected the area because of the cheap rental apartments but I was present for the revitalization. I echo your comments on the diversity of groups who patronized the new downtown. I believe that it was supported by not only Silver Springs own diversity, but also the red line metro bringing people from the District as well as the very diverse areas to the north in Wheaton. Practicing land use in Florida I find that kind of integration severely lacking in even the most diverse areas of the state and continue to look to Silver Spring as an example of how to do it right.

Posted by: Derek Rooney | Aug 4, 2009 11:44:46 AM