You could ask five residents what Silver Spring’s boundaries are and receive five different answers, ranging from a neighborhood near the D.C. line to a city the size of the District of Columbia itself. But how did it end up this way? The answer involves a railroad, Zip codes and (possibly) Marion Barry.
Unlike Northeastern states, where every square inch of land sits inside a municipality, or Western states where cities compete for territory to access natural resources or tax revenue, much of Maryland and Virginia is unincorporated. Part of the reason is that counties in these states can perform functions such as zoning and schools, reducing the incentive for communities to become a town or city.
Silver Spring is one those places. As a result, most definitions of Silver Spring fall into two camps: one I call “Little Silver Spring,” or areas near its historical center, or “Big Silver Spring,” which comprises most of eastern Montgomery County. To find out which one is more dominant, Silver Spring Inc. will have residents draw their own boundaries in an interactive event at Fenton Street Market this Saturday.
Francis Preston Blair founded Silver Spring in 1840 when he fell off his horse and discovered a mica-flecked spring. It became one of several towns that grew up around the Metropolitan Branch railroad, which starts in D.C. and heads northwest. Meanwhile, the rest of eastern Montgomery County remained largely undeveloped save for a few suburban developments and small villages with names such as White Oak, Colesville and Norwood.
Silver Spring became the reference point for the larger area, and “Big Silver Spring” was born. In the 1930s, homebuilder R.E. Latimer boasted that his new subdivision, Burnt Mills Hills, was three miles “beyond the Silver Spring traffic light” at Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road. Ken Lubel, owner of Tires of Silver Spring and a longtime resident, notes that Silver Spring addresses once appeared as far north as Columbia.
Dan Reed blogs at Just Up the Pike. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.