Where We Live: Proudly progressive Takoma Park
By Amy Reinink,
Those looking for evidence of why Takoma Park is jokingly referred to as “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park” or “The Berkeley of the East” could do worse than to visit the city’s corn silo.
Yes, really. The urban community of more than 17,000 residents operates a corn silo. The public-private partnership was built in 2002 at the city’s public works facility at the urging of several Takoma Park families who use corn-burning stoves as a green alternative to fossil fuels to heat their homes.
Other examples abound. The city doesn’t purchase any bottled water. Public buildings are outfitted with solar panels. The City Council sits at a table made of bamboo and renewable wheat byproducts.
And that’s just the city government. From its wide array of organic or vegetarian restaurants to its housing stock of historic bungalows and Victorians painted bright, whimsical colors, Takoma Park earns its reputation as a hippie haven.
“I use the ‘people’s republic’ line occasionally with elected-official colleagues, and we all chuckle knowingly,” said Mayor Bruce R. Williams, 61, a self-employed general contractor. Williams, the first openly gay elected official in Maryland, has lived in Takoma Park with his partner, Geoffrey Burkhart, for 31 years. “I enjoy and embrace it. I don’t think most municipalities have a corn silo at their public works facilities, and I’m proud of the fact that we’re the kind of city that does.”
Takoma Park has long been considered a progressive, activist community. In the 1960s, residents successfully fought a proposal by the state highway administration to build a freeway through the city. In more recent years, it has declared itself a nuclear-free zone and a sanctuary city where illegal immigrants are protected. Its tree-protection laws are among the strongest in the country, and the city regulates whether residents can remove trees in their own yards.
Unlike many other early Washington suburbs, which were built as summer or weekend escapes for wealthy Washingtonians, Takoma Park had working-class origins. Developer Benjamin Franklin Gilbert, who founded Takoma Park in 1883, aimed to house federal workers who would commute into the city on the railroad, said Diana Kohn, president of Historic Takoma, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve and promote the city’s heritage.
“His pitch was, for the $90 you pay for rent in the District, you could own a house here,” said Kohn, 62, co-author of “Images of America: Takoma Park.”
Gilbert chose land that straddled the Maryland-District border, but at the time, with nothing but farmland surrounding it, the distinction hardly seemed important, Kohn said.
In 1890, the community tried to incorporate, but the Montgomery County government could incorporate only the Maryland side, splitting the community in two. The D.C. side is a neighborhood referred to simply as “Takoma,” though the two communities continue to share many functions and events, such as the Fourth of July parade, which started in 1889, Kohn said.
Takoma Park’s early history explains a great deal of its current character, Kohn said. The city is still a haven for commuters, though today’s residents use Metro — the Takoma stop, on the D.C. side, sits across the street from the historic train station. Most residents can walk to the Metro stop from their homes.
Flowers teem from many of the city’s yards, a legacy of one of its earliest residents, azalea cultivator and former National Arboretum director Benjamin Morrison, who reportedly gave his castoff azalea hybrids to his neighbors as gifts, Kohn said.
Even the city’s vegetarian tendencies can be traced to the 1903 arrival of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members’ focus on wellness brought the city not only a hospital but also an emphasis on healthy, vegetarian living, Kohn said.
Most of the grand Victorian mansions and quaint bungalows built by Gilbert in the 1880s still stand today.
The relative affordability of those houses attracts many young families to the community, said Meg Finn, an agent with Long & Foster who has lived in Takoma Park for 25 years.
“If you want to live in a nice place close to the District line in Montgomery County, there isn’t any place more affordable,” Finn said. “Chevy Chase is great, but you’re basically looking at a million and up. Here, you’ve got affordability, proximity, Metro, a sense of community, and a progressive, activist community where people really care about each other.”
The city’s multiple parks, its weekly farmers market and its library serve as gathering places, in addition to a host of annual events, such as the Folk Festival in September and the Takoma Park Street Festival in October.
“These are friendly, progressive people who want to live in and contribute to a community,” Finn said. “They want to live an urban life, but they care about the environment and each other.”
After the 2010 blizzard, John and Dee Bratton, both 71 and retired, woke up to find that someone had shoveled their driveway and sidewalk and cleared off their car — and had built a snowman near their white picket fence.
“You cannot imagine how wonderful our neighbors are,” said Dee Bratton, who grew up in Takoma Park and has lived on the same street since 1945. “We’re in bed, fast asleep, and someone is outside taking care of us.”
Dee Bratton said she also likes that “the fire station is three blocks away, the police station is three blocks away and the hospital is three blocks away.”
“How much better can you have it?” she said.
The downside of all those services: The city’s taxes — 58 cents per $100 of assessed value for real property taxes — are among the highest among incorporated municipalities in Montgomery County.
But Finn said it’s a small price to pay, considering that “people feel like they get a lot in exchange.”
Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.