"My sister and I were brought up in an old house on part of a 200-acre farm that is now downtown Silver Spring," said Acting Governor Blair Lee III in his speech before the Takoma Park-Silver Spring Community Congress Sunday. "There was the commercial area - a feed and grain store . . . white houses, then farms. Things sure have changed."
Things in Takoma Park and Silver Spring have changed a lot since Lee and his sister, county council vice-president Elizabeth Scull, were growing up in Silver Spring, as the convention "delegates" at the founding Community Congress could attest to. For the past decade, the people of the two heavily populated areas of lower Montgomery County and part of Prime George's County (the city of Takoma Park spans both counties) have wrestled with their own problems of zoning, housing, taxes, and unwanted freeways through tenacious civic groups that have organized, fought, and, in many instances, won their cases.
"We're always fighting, because someone wants to change us," said Takoma Park resident Delores Stowell, whose job was handling the press for the convention. "Takoma Park is pretty unique - it has individual houses, trees, shade, a quiet and placid atmosphere. I guess we really don't have time to enjoy it," Stowell said with a laugh.
The reason is that Takoma Park is always organizing groups. These groups fought the proposed North Central Freeway that would have run through Takoma Park. The fought proposed commercial zoning for the area around the Metro shop under construction in Takoma Park. Their biggest issue is multi-unit housing - the single family homes that have been converted into multi-apartment houses. There are more than 500 of these units that have been allowed to remain illegally for more than 20 years, as long as they were registered, in single-family-zoned areas of Takoma Park. Takoma Park is the site of 90 percent of these houses; Silver Spring has most of the other 10 percent.
Now the Montgomery County Council, which has authority over zoning for Takoma Park, is trying to decide whether to enforce zoning and phase out the units, many of which are convenient for the elderly and people with lower incomes because of their lower rents. Many residents have fought the converted houses because, they charge, they are not kept up by their absentee landlords and they intensify the density and parking problems of the community. Others - the landlords and the residents of the multi-unit most noticeablys - have fought to keep them.
The Community Congress, the groups say, will be the organization of all these organizations, ecompassing all of the protesters, their issues, and their view points.
"All these people have been running around doing their own thing," said Stowell. "It's time we got together and worked for each other's benefit."
So 118 groups, ranging from ordinary to esoteric, agreed to send delegates to the convention of the Community Congress that was complete with by-laws, a constitution, resolutions, and candidates running for offices of president of the congress and first vice-president, second vice-president secretary, etc. Groups with names such as CUT (Campaign against Unfair Taxes), ZONE (Zone Our Neighborhoods Effectively), PLUS (Please Let Us Stay) were present. the more predictable groups like the Highland View PTA, the Catholic Daughters of America, the Montgomery County Tenants Association and the Takoma Park Co-Op Nursery were also there.
Most observers agreed that the congress was well-organized. "It's set up beautifully," said Elizabeth SanFilippo, a community organizer from Brooklyn, who flew in to watch Takoma Park and Silver Spring organize their congress. "It's really done with care."
A modest supply of multi-colored balloons was in the auditorium-turned-convention center. Red, white and blue banners adorned the stage and podium. The Montgomery Blair stage band revved up at the start of the convention with a draggy version of the "Star Wars" theme.
Public officials from the county council members, school board members, state delegates - wandered about the convention area talking to residents and taking in the whole show.
The speakers commended the effort of the convention. "This is milestone in the neighborhood movement, Midge Constanza, the chief of the public liaison office of the Carter administration, told the delegates. Constanza said she would make the problems of neighborhoods one of the priorities of her office. After her speech. Constanza noted that the congress must be care ful to represent all area view points.
"What would be sad would be if one area was to represent the whole congress," she said.
Although that may not happen, whether or not the diversified view of all the residents could congeal into a unified bloc seemed uncertain to most of the residents involved.
"What will happen I don't know," said Silver Spring resident Harold Frank. "My concern is just to have all parts of the communities represented." Frank said that he had encouraged lower-income tenants from Silver Spring to come to the convention.
"I see too many lions attempting to lie down with the lambs." said veteran Takoma Park activist and "freeway fighter" Sam Abbott. "I think some people are trying to homogenize and gloss over the differences here. Landlords and tenants united?" he asked, referring to one group's sign saying as much "Who the hell are they kidding.?"
When the congress did attempt to vote on a position on multi-unit housing and the zoning question, the issue was tabled because of extreme disagreement among the delegates.
"It's hard to say how strong they are," said Takoma Park resident John Albee. "We have the PLUS faction (for multi-unit housing) and the ZONE faction (against multi-housing). They represent different points of view, but they're both here, instead of staying home in their neighborhoods being mad at each other."