Takoma Park alcohol battle has dried up

By Steve Hendrix
Saturday, September 18, 2010

Erwin Mack remembers a time when any effort to lift Takoma Park's ban on alcohol sales would have sparked a fight. When Mack arrived in 1977 to work at the world headquarters of the alcohol-shunning Seventh-day Adventist Church, Takoma Park was both a company town and a dry one.

The prohibition on carry-out booze had been on the books since the Adventists arrived a century ago and became the chief influence on the Maryland town's culture and identity. Any change "would have been absolutely a major concern to us," he said.

But when Mack alerted local Adventist officials that a move was afoot to allow beer and wine stores within city limits, the proposal provoked little more than a shrug. The response "basically was that most of us don't live here anymore anyway, that the community has a right to choose what to do," said Mack, 79, now executive director of the Takoma/Langley Crossroads Development Authority. "We're not weighing in at all. But it's sad. It's another loss of Adventist identity around here."

By the end of this month, the Takoma Park City Council is expected to decide on a proposal from local business leaders to scrap the ban on carry-out alcohol sales. The measure would have to be approved by the state legislature. Whatever the council decides, longtime Adventists say the lack of controversy over the idea shows how low their influence has declined in a town that church members around the world once looked to as a kind of Adventist Vatican City.

"I feel like the church has just run out of gas on this thing," said Ron Wylie, a retired lawyer who runs Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington, a charity in Silver Spring. "It would have been different in an earlier, more Adventist age."

That Adventist era stretched across most of the town's 127-year history, putting a church stamp on everything from cuisine to politics and demographics. For decades, church doctrine helped keep the town one of the few alcohol-free pockets of suburban Maryland. In the 1960s, the Adventists' vegetarian tradition and attendant natural food stores helped attract the hippies who would shape Takoma's liberal, activist character. Adventists, members of a church founded in 1863, observe a Saturday sabbath and dietary restrictions rooted in Jewish law but extended to include a recommendation of vegetarianism.

The steady inflow of Adventists from missions across Asia, Africa and Latin America - the church now claims about 25 million adherents around the world - laid the groundwork for the town's reputation as a haven for immigrants.

"I think the kind of global awareness that Takoma Park residents have, and the number of immigrants who have chosen to settle there, is related to the global perspective of the Adventists," said Monte Sahlin, a former professor at Washington Adventist University (formerly Columbia Union College), who wrote a centennial history in 2003 of the church's presence in Takoma Park.

Diana Kohn, president of the heritage group Historic Takoma, says much of the town's civic rhythm can be attributed to an Adventist pulse. The weekly downtown farmer's market and the annual Takoma Park street festival, for example, are held on Sundays to accommodate the church's Saturday sabbath.

"On years that the Fourth of July falls on a Saturday, we always hold the parade on Sunday," said Kohn. "There are lots of parallel traditions."

But the anti-alcohol tradition has begun to wear thin for some local businesses. In 1983, the city voted to allow restaurants to serve alcohol at tables. But Edward Gossin, a co-owner of Roscoe's Pizzeria, two blocks from Takoma Adventist Church, said he's missing out on take-away sales.

"We're in a position to go ahead and start beer and wine sales right away," said Gossin, who testified in favor of lifting the ban at a council hearing last week. "I'm hearing it from my customers. Takoma Park is ready for this."

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