Silver Spring's 'Turf' Hangout a Dream Cut Too Short

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I n the heart of Silver Spring's instant downtown, now that the stores and restaurants are built, Montgomery County is set to spend $22 million on a civic building and a public plaza featuring an ice skating rink, a veterans memorial and public meeting facilities.

This is a long-awaited reward for many residents who weren't too happy about the scale of the development that the county fostered to make Silver Spring spring.

But for $96,000 worth of Super Poly 100, a "tufted, lifelike" artificial turf product, the county has already -- if inadvertently -- created more community than its multimillion-dollar project might ever generate.

If you start hearing whispers of a grass-roots campaign to "Save the Turf," this is why: What started out as a cheap way to cover up a vacant lot until construction could begin has turned into a remarkable gathering spot. The Turf, a 35,000-square-foot expanse of spongy plastic on the former site of a parking garage, has become the venue for some of the best people-watching in the region, attracting a crowd with a better spread of ages and backgrounds than Dupont Circle, the Georgetown waterfront, Old Town Alexandria and Reston Town Center.

At the Silver Spring Jazz Festival this fall, the Turf was completely covered with thousands of young families, old couples, groups of 20-somethings and clots of high school kids. On any given weekend evening, the Turf is host to family picnics, kids showing off their tumbling skills, teens making out, and impromptu games of soccer, Hacky Sack and football.

"People come and bring blankets and hang out," says Susan Hoffmann, marketing director for downtown Silver Spring. "Young people come specifically to the Turf to have a place to be, to hug and kiss and have some privacy even in the middle of the busy downtown. The open space and the ease with which you can see your surroundings creates a place where everyone can feel comfortable."

The Turf is not without its tensions -- kids complain that security guards and police often get after them for skateboarding, publicly displaying their affections or just hanging out -- but the space has become such a powerful people magnet that a delegation of youths recently approached the county's top official in Silver Spring about scrapping the ice rink plans and keeping things as they are.

"We just couldn't get through to him," Lisa Jaeggi says of Gary Stith, director of the county's Silver Spring Regional Center. "It was all just, well, we have this plan and we have your best interests at heart and you're just kids."

Jaeggi, 21, is a senior at Guilford College in North Carolina who grew up in Silver Spring and spent last summer leading a group of teens who chronicled life on the Turf in a video documentary.

The movie is a window onto the lives of kids who, before the Turf, had no place to hang out except in each other's homes or, heaven help us, the mall. "They just want to be able to see other kids and have them see them," says Jaeggi. "They're from D.C., Bethesda, Silver Spring, Wheaton, and they come because you can meet people from other schools and you don't have to have any money to hang out."

Stith contends that kids will love the new project, which will include "a variety of activities, with a lot of landscaping and the ice rink."

But Jaeggi says the Turf draws people exactly because "it's such an unprogrammed space. You can't play Frisbee and soccer on a terrace with grass and trees."

No matter, county officials counter. There will be no Turf battle; construction on the new project will commence in the spring, and the Turf will be no more. "It's just a wistful wish to keep it, because in the long run, the Turf doesn't hold up," Hoffmann says. "It's already showing its age -- tearing, gum on it. The hope is that what comes next will be a welcoming gathering place."

A rink is a lovely amenity. And nobody hates trees and benches. But the Turf is something rare: a naturally occurring people magnet. It will be a shame to see it go.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company