A few weeks ago, on Takoma Park's municipal election day, the quiet of city hall was broken by a large, irate man who demanded to see someone in charge. He loudly insisted that he was being deprived of the right to vote.
"He was so mad his face was shaking," recalled Herb Gilsdorf, the city administrator. "He said he'd lived in Takoma Park for 29 years, his kids go to the Takoma Park school, he's always gone to the Takoma Park library. He'd never voted before, but this year, he damn well wanted to vote for mayor.
"So we looked up his address, and sure enough, he technically lived in West Hyattsville, across the street from the town limits.
"The guy simply refused to believe us. But it's hardly anything new."
Hardly isn't the half of it. Ever since Takoma Park was incorporated nearly 100 years ago, it has had enormous trouble figuring out just where it starts and where it stops.
For example, two thirds of Takoma Park's 27 square miles are in Montgomery County. The other third of the town is in Prince George's County.
There is a neighborhood called Takoma Park just across the line in the District of Columbia. It has no legal relationship to either county or to the incorporated city of Takoma Park, but it contains a Metro stop named "Takoma." It shares zip code 20012 with the Montgomery section of Takoma Park, and it is home to hundreds of people who would answer "Takoma Park," not "Northwest Washington," if you asked them where they live.
Confused? We've only just begun.
Where is Takoma Park Junior High School?
In Silver Spring.
Where is the Langley Park post office?
In the Prince George's slice of Takoma Park, of course.
And where is the Takoma Park post office?
In the District, naturally.
Speaking of postal puzzlement, didn't you say Takoma Park's zip code was 20012?
It is. But so are 20011 and 20989. It depends on which slice you're talking about.
Suppose you live in Rolling Terrace, a small subdivision just outside incorporated Takoma Park. You have an emergency. You dial 911 for help. And you get.
"Well, the two times I did it," says Mary Maiers, principal of Rolling Terrace Elementary School, "I got the Montgomery County police and the Takoma Park fire department."
What about congressional representation?
Well, all of Montgomery is in the 8th District (Michael Barnes) and the western portion of Prince George's is in the 5th (Gladys Spellman). But all of Takoma Park, be it the Montgomery or the Prince George's part, is represented by Spellman.
"Don't you know by now not to ask?" says Gilsdorf.
"I don't know if any of this really matters or not," says Janet Rosenkrantz, who lives in Rolling Terrace, shops in Prince George's County and pays taxes to Montgomery County, but whose mail is addressed to Takoma Park.
"It's just that, if you start thinking about it, it drives you crazy."
Lately, however, the matter of a $160,000 federal law-enforcement grant has entered into this tangle of borders and overlapping jurisdictions.
Since much of the money will be spent in the communities surrounding Takoma Park, its arrival has spurred talk of annexation. The most likely annex appears to be the two square miles of tree-lined streets called Rolling Terrace.
To look at a map is to understand the logic of the idea. Surrounded on two sides by the incorporated city of Takoma Park, Rolling Terrace is in zip code area 20012, as is most of Takoma Park. Its children attend Takoma Park Junior High.It has the same racial and economic pattern (about one third minorities, about $17,000 mean annual income per household) that has long distinguished Takoma Park.
"Superficially, it (annexation) probably makes a certain amount of sense," says Don Ramsey, a newly elected Takoma Park councilman. "But it's very, very premature.
"It would have to be the subject of an incredible amount of diplomacy. And as soon as the people found out it would cost them $400 or so per household in taxes to belong to Takoma Park, I think I know what would happen."
If the reaction of Evelia Romero is any indication, Ramsey is absolutely correct.
A Cuban who is separated from her husband and is raising two teen-agers, Romero lives in a small house at 8502 Garland Ave., on the northern edge of Rolling Terrace. She earns $164.50 a week cleaning offices at Andrews Air Force Base.
Romero says she likes Takoma Park, and considers herself a part of the city, even though she technically isn't. "For 11 years, I've said Takoma Park, Takoma Park. I couldn't change," she said.
But Romero said she would never sign an annexation petition if it would mean that her taxes would increase.
"Already sometimes, I can't pay everything," she said. She showed a visitor a Montgomery County property tax bill for $837.16. "If I can't pay this," Romero asked, waving the bill angrily, "how am I going to pay city tax?"
Rose Crenca, a Montgomery County Council member who lives in East Silver Spring, within walking distance of Takoma Park and Rolling Terrace, says she believes annexation of Rolling Terrace is unlikely.
"There's very little spirit there (in Rolling Terrace). We've had a hard time getting the vote out. They don't even have a civic association," Crenca said.
A major argument in favor of annexing Rolling Terrace and other nearby subdivisions is the $160,000 federal grant.
Neighborhoods Together Inc., a community organization based in Takoma Park, but with members throughout southeastern Montgomery County, applied to the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration for the grant in 1977.
A dispute about the organization of the staff was settled this spring, and unless there are further bureaucratic delays, the money will start flowing to Neighborhoods Together in June.
It will pay for a job bank for teenagers, educational programs for policemen and community residents, and court liaisons to work with defendants and reluctant witnesses. The money is to be spent evenly, throughout southeastern Montgomery County (including Rolling Terrace) and the Prince George's portion of Takoma Park.
Neighborhoods Together has no formal connection with the Takoma Park or county governments, however -- a fact that has stirred jealousy among some politicians.
Former mayor John Roth, for instance, was a vigorous opponent of Neighborhoods Together. He argued that the organization was trying to circomvent and embarrass the town government by running its own law-enforcement programs.
New mayor Sam Abbott, however, is on record as welcoming Neighborhoods Together's participation. He also favors shifting the Prince George's "piece" of Takoma Park into Montgomery, and he said he would support any annexation "that makes economic sense."
"It's a little like a bride with a $160,000 dowry," said one longtime city activist who asked that his name be withheld. "Who wouldn't want to marry her?"
"I have heard sentiment expressed for annexation on the council, but I haven't heard it in the last few years," Gilsdorf said. "However, I will say that annexation would be a positive thing. With the governmental structure we have now, we would be perfectly capable of handling a 100 percent increase in our land area.
"But the big negative is the buck and a quarter (property tax) per $100 of assessed valuation. We can provide services the counties don't provide. We already do. But it might not be worth a buck and a quarter for a guy to know we'll cart away his old washing machine for no charge."
"To most people who live here, (annexation is) . . . not something that's on their minds a lot," said Janet Rosenkrantz, who is secretary of Neighborhoods Together. "What's more on their minds is that they live in rich Montgomery County and they're not rich."
Still, despite the additional tax it would require, Rosenkrantz favors annexation.
"If it's not one thing, it's another.If it's not the police, it's the fire. I can dial 911 and have a chance at getting (any of) five police departments here," she said.
Officials estimate that almost half the city's 18,000 people live in apartments, double the number in 1970. Many of the apartment dwellers once lived in the District. They tend to be poorer and are more likely to belong to a minority group than the rest of the city's population.
According to 1979 figures, the Montgomery portion of Takoma Park was 22.3 percent black, Asian or Latino -- the highest percentage of any community in the county. Largely as a result, the Montgomery portion of Takoma Park had an average per capita income of $5,976 in 1975, the second lowest among the county's incorporated towns.
The Prince George's slice of Takoma Park, however, was less than 6 percent minority, and its average per capita income in 1975 was $7,096 -- fourth highest among incorporated towns in the country.
According to Tom Gagliardo, attorney for Neighborhoods Together, annexation will help keep Takoma Park's problems manageable, even though the city would become larger.
"The idea behind annexation is to keep the Takoma Parks viable, not create more Montgomery Counties. We've got to keep our jurisdictions small, and we've got to keep them responsive," Gagliardo said.
"It's obviously going to be difficult, but the idea is people taking control of their own lives. I think annexation should happen. I think it's got to happen."