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  •   Crime Makes Silver Spring Stores a Tough Sell to Merchants

    Maria and Marco Fortini, the mother-and-son owners of Italia Deli in downtown Silver Spring. Maria and Marco Fortini, the mother-and-son owners of Italia Deli in downtown Silver Spring, say they plan to close or move when their lease expires.
    (By Carol Guzy/The Washington Post)
    By Brooke A. Masters
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, April 6, 1998; Page A15

    When Diep Nguyen, 37, looked for a place to open a nail salon, downtown Silver Spring seemed right: The store would be close to his home and the Metro, and might draw office workers and shoppers.

    Nine months later, he's still optimistic about his business, Nice Nails, but fear of crime has made him a lot less enthusiastic about this section of Silver Spring. Seven of the 19 storefronts on his block of Colesville Road are empty. So is the movie theater across the street.

    "After 7 o'clock, only my shop is open. ... Nobody is walking around," Diep said, adding that his customers are afraid to walk south on Colesville at night. "We're pretty scared."

    Next door at Italia Deli, Marco and Maria Fortini say they're waiting for their lease to expire in 1999 so they can close or move.

    "We've been here since 1982, and it's gotten worse. Business is awful," said Maria Fortini, 48. "Customers are afraid to come to Silver Spring."

    Their concerns are well founded. About 7 and 1/2 percent of Montgomery County's violent crime took place in this half-square-mile section of Silver Spring in 1996, though less than 2 percent of the county's population lived there.

    That's partly because the business district draws shoppers and workers from elsewhere, increasing the daytime population. But the section along Route 29 on the District line is also more dangerous than most other parts of Montgomery. County officials conceded as much when they applied last year for a $110,000 state grant targeted at high-crime areas.

    "We have entire blocks of abandoned buildings. All the lights and vibrancy are gone," said police Lt. William O'Toole, who runs the anti-crime program funded by the grant. "When people aren't walking from one area to another, you don't have the safety in numbers."

    Compared with troubled areas of the District or many other urban cores, downtown Silver Spring's problems are mild. Weekday mornings bring streams of well-dressed workers to gleaming office towers, and many shops and takeout restaurants do a healthy business.

    And government officials and business groups are trying to stop the decay. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and other leaders are working on a $326 million town center project that would mix retail, office and housing development. Businesses have taxed themselves to pay for a uniformed corps of young people who patrol the parking garages, carrying radios, to make shoppers and others more comfortable.

    The police, meanwhile, have beefed up walking and bicycle patrols and sought to prevent graffiti by planting shrubbery and ivy. They've also expanded an after-school homework program and worked with community groups to improve services for the homeless.

    So far, they've met with mixed success. Sonia Danches said that when a drunk pedestrian stole a pair of pants from her clothing store in February, police caught him within minutes. But last month, a 19-year-old Wheaton man was stabbed to death down the block from her store.

    "I feel pretty safe, but I stay on the main streets," said commuter Jeff Frank, 37, who lives in Sligo Hills and walks through the downtown area on his way to work at Lockheed Martin. "I wouldn't go to the side streets. Unfortunately, it's just a 1990s urban problem."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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