Next Monday, when the sleek Metro train debuts in suburban Maryland, its first stop will be in downtown Silver Spring, a tired-looking business district waiting to be born again.
From the $40 million Metro station, poised on a trestle above Colesville Rd. riders will see a main street that went out of style two decades ago: a motley collection of small shops bordered by aging high-rises and garden apartments and vacant lots.
The section was at its peak as a retail and commercial center in the 1950s - "a real estate El Dorado, a Comstock lode right in Washington's backyard" - as one booster called it.
Ideally, it should still be that way. Silver Spring is on a corridor into one of the nation's wealthiest counties - Montgomery - and it is 15 minutes by car from downtown Washington, close to two entrances to the Capital Beltway and midway between the Washington and Baltimore airports. Now, it is on the Metro line.
Planners, businessmen and residents seem to agree with lawyer James W. Tavel "the worst thing that could happen would be for Silver Spring to stay like it is."
Silver Spring has a beautiful name," said Jemes F. Giegerich, head of the Montgomery County Office of Economic Development. "It could be turned around to fit its image, but it needs to know what its image is - there really is no clear concise impression of Silver Spring except what it used to be."
There is a plan. Planners, along with the Silver Spring Development Council, which Tavel heads, foresee new office buildings and apartments, a mall with merchandise tailored to commuter tastes, pedestrian walkways to METRO and a park.
Though full of dreams about Silver Spring's possibilities, many business interests doubt that anything ever will change. "I have a sad, depressed view of Silver Spring. This area had so much promise," said R. Robert Linowes, a zoning attorney and chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade. "Nothing is happening here, that's the point. What can really be said is that we haven't done enough to really get ready for Metro."
Developers contend that the county's sewer moratorium must be lifted before any investors will commit themselves to new construction around the Metro site, where the most intensive building is permitted. Some already have become discouraged and dropped their plans for Silver Spring, Linowes said.
They are tired of "promises, promises and more promises," he added.
The "managed growth" politics, which have dictated Montgomery County development during the 1970s, actually have been "no-growth" policies, complain many developers.
At the urging of citizens groups, the County Council has taken the position that new development should conform to capacities of existing public facilities. That attitude, the prolonged sewer moratorium, new stricter zoning regulations and a lengthy process of approvals and permits for new construction have combined to make building in Montgomery County "a big hassle," according to several developers.
Consequently, the structures that could have drawn thousands more office workers and residents to Silver Spring in conjunction with Metro's opening will not be in place for another decade. Any of the anticipated 30,000 daily commuters tempted to walk to existing shops along Colesville Road and Georgia Avenue will have to contend with six lanes of constant traffic.
In addition, there will be no parking spaces for the estimated 3,000 cars belonging to Metro riders. The county and Metro finally decided last year that parking spaces were necessary in spite of an expanded "Ride-On" bus feeder system through Silver Spring Neighborhoods, but the 1,100 new spaces will not be available for another 12 to 18 months.
"It'll be a mess," acknowledged county planner Donald R. Spivack.
Spivack, one of Silver Spring's enthusiasts, predicts development in the downtown area probably will not take off for "three to five years." "Everyone is waiting for someone else to make the first move," he said.
To prove their intentions, the County Council, the Development Council and the Chamber of Commerce recently joined for a study of the city's future possibilities. "The question the business people have to establish (through the study) is what should be the relative role of Silver Spring," said Giegerich. "They have their businesses at stake and their property, and the vitality of Silver Spring is related to that."
"We do not want urban renewal for Silver Spring," Giegerich said. "Unless the business people take the leadership now, who knows, we may have an urban renewal problem on our hands."
Back in the 1940s, the city was such a hub of growth and promise that retailers talked about "Silver Spring fever."
Never as ritzy as Bethesda and Chevy Chase, Silver Spring's neighborhoods filled with upwardly mobile middle-income residents and homes of colonial brick, frame bungalow. Tudor and rambling Victorian styles.
Public metered parking opened for shoppers in 1945. Hecht's arrived with its first suburban store the next year, followed by Jelleffs, Hahns, Lerner Shops. Giant, People's and Sears. Older smaller businesses pro-Sears. Older smaller businesses prospered. The Jewish Community Center went up and the Elks Club, Moose Lodge and American Legion Post came in. Car dealers converted Silver Spring into the region's auto center.
An estimated 100,000 customers flocked to annual "Shop Silver Spring" weeks, whose promoters awarded such prizes as a trip to Paris and a $22,500 house. "We are building for a city of 500,000," declared developer Sam Eig, who once owned the southeast corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road where the 24-hour Drug Fair stands.
Something went wrong. The open spaces of upper Montgomery County became the land of promise. Shopping centers like Wheaton Plaza, Montgomery Mall and White Flint opened. Downtown stores, eager to expand or flee the decaying center city, leaped over Silver Spring for the outer reaches of the suburbs.
By the mid-60s, the Beltway had locked in Silver Spring as an "inner suburb." In spite of subsequent high-rise construction that briefly suggested a new Rosslyn or Crystal City, the commercial district never quite recovered.
Sears, unable to expand, left for White Oak, leading a retail exodus. Even Eig, enticed by the burgeoning I-270 corridor, eventually sold his corner of Silver Spring.
Meanwhile, residential neighborhoods changed. Less affluent blacks and immigrants from the District of Columbia and Silver Spring's lower rent apartments started shopping along Colesville Road, Georgia Avenue, Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive. An "adult" book store opened; a motel on Georgia Avenue offered pornographic films. Some merchants unable or unwilling to respond to the new clientele, closed their businesses, and for the first time, some storefronts stood vacant.
Today, Silver Spring, a city of 34,000 has all the problems of urban life. "It's not a prime location anymore," lamented Rhoda Lee Burchuk, owner of the Dale Music Co., which has been located on Georgia Avenue for 31 years.
Within walking distance of the business district, Silver Spring's neighborhoods were experiencing transitions of their own.
In the past decade, the population has gotten older, blacker and more ethnically varied than the rest of the county as young white families moved to newer housing outside the Beltway and lower- and moderate-income minorities settled in Silver Spring on their path out of the city or into the United States.
Although Silver Spring is a predominantly white, single-family community, Hispanics, Africans, Asians, Greeks and other minorities are concentrated in apartments to the southeast adjoining Takoma Park and along the 16th Street border with the District of Columbia.
"We have a real international settlement," said Fred Anderson, who directs the county's service center in East Silver Spring.
His neighborhood is a natural gateway because of the low $200 average rents and public transportation.
Buddhist, Chinese Christian and Hispanic churches have sprung up among an assortment of old-world bakeries, groceries, restaurants and nightclubs.
With this migration have come problems of underemployment and language mastery for the newcomers. Apartment owners in turn have struggled to accept tenants with strange habits. One landlord recalled with a grimace the acrid smell of burning chicken feathers that occasionally permeates his buildings and the slaughtering of a goat in the basement for a ritual "coming of age" ceremony for an African youth.
"There is a lot of feeling here that (the new immigrants) have not made it, because the ones who've succeeded have left for better homes somewhere else," Anderson said.
Across Silver Spring in the sprawling Rosemary Hills apartment complex of 15,000 tenants including elderly, blacks and 36 different nationalities, the future is also uncertain.
Here, a 25 cent bus ride or a short walk from the central Silver Spring district, many apartments are vacant and boarded up. Others constantly come under the county's gun for code violations.
Many tenants have the feeling that owners intentionally are letting the buildings run down, so they can renovate them, raise rents and take advantage of the proximity to the Metro station.
"With all the improvements planned for our area neighborhood and the business district, it'll be a very desirable place eventually," said Benda Butler, a community organizer in Rosemary Hills.
"Everyone knows it's not for us, but for a new class of tenants," she said. "There's no place else to go in the county, except to new subsidized complexes way out, and only people with transportation can afford to move there."
The rest of Silver Spring's neighborhoods - the Woodsides, Linden, North Hills of Sligo and parts of east Silver Spring, contain primarily white collar workers or retirees and have larger percentages of single households and families without children than other parts of the county. These homes range from roughly $30,000 to $125,000.
"Some younger families are moving in, but houses are so expensive," said Ben Terner, a lawyer with the D.C. Corporation Counsel. Twelve years ago he bought his home in Woodside Forest for $29,500. Recently, the same sized house next door sold for $88,000.
"The rapid closing of school (because of decreased enrollments) also frightens a lot of people from moving in," he said.
While Silver Spring's neighborhoods have organized to guarantee their own stability and vitality, the business district has been slower to respond to the change in its midst.
Although the six lanes of Georgia avenue and Colesville Road and many narrow side streets threading through the retail center are usually crowded (an average of 35,000 cars pass along Georgia and Colesville each day), the sideways are strangely quiet, especially at night.
"It's depressing," said Arnold Hurwitz, manager of the Drug Fair. "I walk down Colesville many afternoons and there's no one on the street. I don't know how some of the businesses make it."
About 1,000 firms operate in the 350-acre downtown from the renown Eastern Shore-style Crisfield seafood restaurant to florists, venetian blind specialists, printers, paint stores and automotive industries, the main business.
For general merchandise, the varieties are so limited that both the affluent and the less affluent complaint. "If we thought we could get what we wanted, we'd use the stores," said Betsy Taylor, who lives within walking distance of the business center.
Silver Spring has been unable to attract the high class stores of Bethesda because of its clientele, according to some acquainted with the trends there. Though gradually dropping, Silver Spring held its position as the prime retail center in the county until 1972. The opening of White Flint Mall insured its fall to second place behind Bethesda, Giegrich said.
"If there isn't a noticeable pickup in business in the next four or five years, there won't be any large stores left," said F. Brooke Lee III, a realtor and descendant of Silver Spring's founder.
It's hard to generate a new profile for your store," said Henry Hershev, Jelleff's president. In his Colesville Road shop, he has transformed merchandise from traditional wear for distinguished ladies to contemporary items for businesswomen. "We've had nice results, but I'm still not jumping with optimism," he said.
Hershev is taking a "wait and see" attitude before committing himself to a renovation of the store, but the nearby J. C. Penney's and Philipsborn have redecorated.
Flo Solano, Penney's manager gave her store a "facelift" in decor, and merchandise, and her sales rose by a quarter since August.
"I'm quite excited about the prospects of Metro, but something was already happening here. People sre getting more involved in Silver Spring's future. It's contagious," she said.