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Takoma Park alcohol battle has dried up

By Steve Hendrix
Saturday, September 18, 2010; A1

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."

A representative of the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op said the store would explore selling organic wine and beer if the ban is lifted. Roz Grigsby, head of the Old Takoma Business Association, says she hears regular interest from entrepreneurs hoping to capture some of the foot traffic that flows each night from the Takoma Metro station.

"We'd have someone call and say, 'I want to open a wine shop,' and I'd have to say, sorry, that's a non-starter," said Grigsby.

There is significant opposition to easing restrictions on alcohol sales, and several opponents testified last week, most pointing out the ample supply of beer and wine available at shops across any border of the small town. Objections centered on the nuisance risks of litter, loitering and rowdy behavior, and political observers say it's not clear how the council will vote - and it could pass on the issue entirely.

The church's influence in Takoma has waned to the point that no one at the hearing spoke as an Adventist (and no one on the council is an Adventist). "I think fewer people identify themselves as Adventist now at hearings or talking to town staff," said Deputy City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, a 16-year city worker. "It's a real shift."

Adventists originally came to the Washington suburbs in 1903 to escape factional infighting in Battle Creek, Mich., the church's birthplace. Seeking a site near the capital, they picked a settlement of Victorian houses and muddy streets on the D.C. border. For a denomination that put healthy living at the center of its spiritual doctrine, Takoma Park's celebrated high elevation (relative to the swampy miasma of downtown Washington) and the clean waters of Sligo Creek were perfect. But the temperate reputation of town founder B.F. Gilbert was even better.

"There is no saloon in the town," wrote Adventist co-founder Ellen G. White to a friend. "Not one of the members of the Town Council drinks liquor, smokes or chews tobacco, or uses profane language."

On the banks of Sligo, the Adventists built a sanitarium, now Washington Adventist Hospital. A training center for missionaries followed, which is now the university. For years, Adventist institutions were the largest employers in town. In an enclave of less than three square miles and fewer than 20,000 residents, the Adventist footprint included multiple office buildings, a massive printing facility, an insurance company, three churches, three schools and a seminary.

The novelty and quality of the community's vegetarian cooking attracted notice throughout the region, and not just from the '60s counterculture.

"People would come out from D.C. to eat dinner at the hospital the way they go to the Inn at Little Washington now," says Kohn. "You could buy tofu here when other places had never even heard of it."

Adventists from across the country relocated to Takoma Park. "We used to call it the New Jerusalem," said Mack, who came from California to run the church's global purchasing operations. "Now, we call it the former New Jerusalem. It's really not the same."

The decline of the Adventists in Takoma Park has been a slow withdrawal as newly arriving church members, seeking cheaper housing, settled in more distant suburbs. Church institutions began to follow in the 1980s when the printing plant moved to a roomier facility in Hagerstown, Md. In 1989, church headquarters decamped to northern Silver Spring.

"One part of it, quite frankly, was that Adventists had been developing a kind of anti-urban bias," said Sahlin. "And at that point in time, you could buy a house in Hagerstown for half of what you could in Takoma Park."

Determining how many Adventists have lived in Takoma Park are hard to come by. Kohn thinks about a third of the town's population was Adventist in the 1970s. Sahlin's estimate in 2000 that the figure was down to about 15 percent.

There are still Adventist schools and churches in Takoma Park, but most congregants drive in for services. The old seminary is now a branch of Strayer University, and the print shop is now rehearsal space for the Washington National Opera. In 2007, Washington Adventist Hospital announced plans to move six miles out of town.

Slowly, the Adventist feel has ebbed, said Carol Stewart, an Adventist and onetime member of the city council. "So much has gone," Stewart said. "I have that feeling in my church, but not much else."

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