School hasn’t been dismissed for long, but the small playground on 15th Avenue in Langley Park is already crowded. Young kids have taken over the swings, and a game of futbol is underway at the mini soccer field nearby.
Outside the aging apartment buildings, neighbors are hanging out with neighbors, and the sound of Spanish music is in the air.
It’s a typical afternoon in Langley Park, a small community in northwestern Prince George’s County that over the years has gained a reputation as a hub of gang activity and violence.
But some community leaders say this area at the crossroads of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard has a unique cultural soul that they worry could be lost amid plans for the construction of a 16-mile light-rail line connecting Bethesda and New Carrollton.
Area residents generally welcome the idea of a Purple Line stop to help expand transportation options, but some fear private investment might lead to the elimination of affordable housing and displace residents. About one in five residents in Langley Park lives below the poverty level, according to census figures.
People here represent more than 40 countries and speak dozens of languages. Nearly 80 percent are Hispanic, according to the census.
“It is so amazing the diversity that we have here,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, the state’s largest Latino advocacy group, based in Langley Park. “There’s a sense of neighborhood, a sense of community.”
Here, people are constantly crossing the busy roads and huddling to wait for buses. In the parking lots of some commercial plazas, men in construction gear wait for someone to drive by with an offer of a day job. People from all over come to shop for ethnic food.
The Maryland Transit Administration says the Purple Line would help relieve some of that congestion. The MTA is also planning a transit center that would consolidate bus stops in one of the busiest transfer points in the region.
Prince George’s has approved a redevelopment plan that calls for additional mixed-use spaces, more businesses and improvements to the residential areas in Langley Park. The county is still determining how it will implement the plan.
In fact, it remains uncertain when any change would take place. The $1.93 billion Purple Line would require both federal and state money and is still awaiting federal approval to begin preliminary engineering. But it’s unclear where that construction money would come from.
“As a community, we welcome efforts that would strengthen economic development in Langley Park. However, we believe that it will be morally wrong to do it in a way that will result in massive displacement,” said the Rev. Jacek Orzechowski of St. Camillus Catholic Church, which is based in Silver Spring but offers Mass in Langley Park.
Orzechowski said that some residents seem worried about the future of the neighborhood and that many are not even aware of the proposed plans.
“Somehow the people who are living there have been excluded” from the redevelopment conversations, he said. “There is a lack of awareness of how the plan will impact them.”
Robert Duffy, a planning supervisor with the Prince George’s County Planning Department, said the county wants to preserve affordable housing and the small businesses in the corridor while guiding future growth.
In the long run, the Purple Line will bring new investment to the area and new clients for the small businesses in the corridor, said Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), who represents the eastern part of the county that borders Langley Park.
“My perspective on this is that if you don’t redevelop that area, it will never improve,” Ervin said. “I believe that all the residents of Langley Park deserve to have a beautiful community with amenities, with walkability and nice bike trails and parks, and all these things come with redevelopment.”
Whatever the changes, residents say they don’t want to lose a place that has become as familiar as their native countries.
“We don’t feel at home anywhere else,” said Eva Yesenia Martinez, 40, who has lived in a 15th Avenue apartment complex with her husband and children for a decade.
Four years ago, Martinez lost her eldest son to gang violence in the neighborhood. Ferdy Martinez, 16, was killed in a July 22, 2007, shooting just a block from his home.
Almost every afternoon, Martinez sits for an hour or so on the steps where her son played when he was young. She chats with neighbors and watches kids play.
“In a way, I feel that I am close to him here,” she said in Spanish.
Despite the tragedy, Martinez said she is at ease raising a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son in the neighborhood and remains optimistic about Langley Park’s future.
The atmosphere in the neighborhood, she said, reminds her of her native Chiquimula in Guatemala, where the neighbors know each other well and take afternoon breaks at the plaza.
Her afternoon ritual is an extension of those traditions. She buys snacks from street vendors and walks to the Latino markets on University Boulevard to buy the groceries she needs to cook dinner and the meals she sells in the neighborhood.
When she wants to send money to her family in Guatemala, she wires it from nearby businesses.
“Everything is around the corner,” Martinez said. “It is so convenient.”
Some things have changed here in the past few years. The vendors that used to be on just about every corner selling traditional Latino meals such as pupusas (a traditional Salvadoran dish of corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork, refried beans or a combination) are gone.
They left after a police crackdown following an outbreak of violence in 2007. A handful of people still sell food, either out of shopping carts or, like Martinez, from their homes.
“When the [food] trucks were there, almost every truck had some people around it,” recalls William Hanna, a professor with the University of Maryland’s Urban Studies and Planning Department, who has been studying Langley Park for more than a decade. “They served as center places for socialization. And the streets were lively. There was a lot of people just hanging out.”
Now, the enforcement of a law banning the trucks has “cut the heart of the socialization,” Hanna said.
But that spirit still lingers. Many businesses double as informal community centers, and in residential areas, kids play while adults watch and socialize.
“The people who live here, live happy here,” said Dora Escobar, 42, a native of El Salvador who came to Langley Park in the 1990s.
Escobar, who owns eight small businesses in the area, said she started out selling food from her Langley Park apartment nearly 20 years ago.
“In this country, if you want to do something with your life, you can. I learned that in Langley Park,” said Escobar, who owns a beauty salon, a restaurant and several businesses that wire money, including La Chiquita Express on University Boulevard.
Escobar moved to a bigger home in Annapolis four years ago, but she still worries about redevelopment.
“If the rent goes up, the people who live here will have to leave,” she said. “Some people here earn $350 a week. They have a hard time paying their rent now. It is nice to bring other transportation options, but how good would that be if you can’t live here?”