It’s taken four decades, but Takoma Park may have finally started to leave the ’60s.
After years of flagging interest, the city recently killed its Free Burma Committee. Last month, it made a rare exception to its “nuclear-free zone” ordinance. The city’s corn silo still stands, and Takoma Park still refuses to buy bottled water, but the community tool library is gone, and many of the activists who once defined what has long been called the People’s Republic of Takoma Park are getting older.
In many ways, it is no longer the Takoma Park of decades past, when free spirits flocked to the city, opened head shops and stood in front of bulldozers to prevent encroaching development. There’s a growing sense that its countercultural verve is changing into something else — something still progressive but less showy and ideological.
“Takoma is getting older, or at least the activists are getting older and not as engaged,” said Eric Hensal, who moved to the city in 2003 and who is running for a seat on the City Council. “It’s almost like Takoma really is at the post-hippie phase.”
In the past, Takoma Park officials balanced such issues as national immigration policy and nuclear proliferation with more parochial concerns, such as traffic. But these days, there is a feeling that the city should focus more on issues that directly affect its residents, such as a ban on chemical pesticides, council member Tim Male said.
“People are realizing that there’s places where our voices will really have a big impact and there are places where it won’t,” said Male, who moved with his wife to the city a decade ago. They now have two children.
Takoma Park, one of the first Washington suburbs, has long been far from a typical bedroom community. Its founders espoused the healthful effects of drinking pure water, and shortly after the turn of the century, the community was chosen as the location for the headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which advocates vegetarianism and abstinence from smoking and drinking.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the city attracted hippies because of its proximity to the University of Maryland, said Diana Kohn, a city historian. “Between 1963 and 1980, there was one protest after another,” Kohn said. The fight against building a highway through the city. The fight against Montgomery College’s expansion.
Soon, the grass-roots leaders became leaders in local government. In 1983, the City Council made Takoma Park a nuclear-free zone, meaning that the city wouldn’t associate with or invest in companies that make nuclear weapons. In 1996, it passed the Free Burma Act, which was intended to assist “in the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights in Burma.”
Eventually, the activists started fixing up the houses, marrying, having kids, becoming the “establishment,” Kohn said. Takoma Park residents who once stood in front of bulldozers were fighting to have Montgomery Blair High School relocated and rebuilt on a 42-acre campus. “Now they are homeowners, and they care about the schools, because their interests change,” she said.
In March, the city decided to ax the Free Burma Committee. Then officials said they might also make significant changes to the nuclear-free zone ordinance because it’s just too difficult to enforce.
Meanwhile, it has become harder for young activists to move to Takoma Park. Housing prices started to skyrocket; million-dollar homes started popping up in the 1990s, according to real estate agents. Housing prices have doubled the past decade, to $522,200 from $252,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to Census Bureau data. Since 1970, the median age of the city has increased to 38 from 29.
The incoming generation is made up of mostly younger, more affluent families. “Some days, I feel like everyone who is buying a house in Takoma Park has two children under 5,” said Meg Finn, a real estate agent.
“The younger folks, who weren’t here, who weren’t even alive, should appreciate what had happened,” Kohn said. “But it is a challenge to bridge the gap between the new arriving families and the old folks.”
Michael Robinson and Donna Dietz moved into their two-floor house on Flower Avenue two weeks ago. They have three boys — 6 and younger — and moved to the area because they were hired to teach math at American University. When they looked at homes in Takoma Park and Silver Spring, they felt the communities were indistinguishable.
As they searched, Robinson looked up Takoma Park’s history on Wikipedia and learned about the protests, the activism. But that didn’t figure into their final decision. Dietz, 40, said they just liked the proximity to Metro, the “cute” neighborhood, the large back yard of their new home and its kitchen.
“I slightly preferred Takoma Park [over Silver Spring]. . . . Takoma Park felt more comfortable, just in the way the neighborhoods were laid out,” said Robinson, 32. “But I would’ve been fine either way.”
To be sure, the city still takes pride in its progressive values. A decade ago, the city erected a silo to store corn as an alternative heating fuel, and it started powering city facilities using wind energy. Two years ago, city officials appointed longtime activist Pat Loveless as the city’s “peace delegate.” This year, it rose to the defense of a local voting law — a law that allows resident non-U.S. citizens to vote in city elections — after a Republican state delegate introduced a bill to invalidate it.
The city also manifests its progressive leanings in such annual events as the Takoma Park Folk Festival and the Fourth of July parade. Taking part in last week’s parade were the 9/11 Truthers, activists for same-sex marriage and the immigrant-friendly Maryland DREAM Act, and a Mitt Romney impersonator who caricatured the Republican candidate as a prep school student. The impersonator acted out an incident in which Romney led a group of classmates that forcibly cut the hair of an often-teased student.
John Urciolo, a commercial real estate broker and property manager, said he is happy with the sociological changes in Takoma Park. He said business has started booming now that the “hippies have left.”
A Now and Then store at a property he manages has an expanded children’s section because of the influx of young families. A branch of Bread & Chocolate, a bakery that describes itself as “a higher standard than the McCoffee and Twinkie places that litter the modern landscape,” recently opened.
“Takoma has always been known for its activists, and they’re still living here, but they’ve kind of dispersed,” Urciolo said. “You’re going to see a lot of green stuff coming out because we’re an activist community. But I don’t think it’s quite like it was 20 years ago.”