The bottles on the wine shelf of Jose Veiga's Flower Avenue food market in Silver Spring run the cultural gamut, with kosher Manischewitz next to T.J. Swann next to Dubonnet of Paris next to Spanada and Argentine Trapiche.
Veiga, a Cuban immigrant from the early anti-Castro wave of the 1960s, keeps his international grocery store well stocked with red palm cooking oil for his West African clientele; Ile De France Moroccan-style couscous for the North Africans; goat meat for the Asian Indians, and various corn flours for his Venezuelan, Cuban and Ecuadoran customers.
"It's unbelievable how cosmopolitan this neighborhood is," said Veiga, sweeping a burly arm across the panorama of small markets and shops at the Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road intersection. "You have a Cuban restaurant, a Jamaican bakery, a Chinese restaurant and a Chinese market," Veiga said. "In Washington, you'd have to put 15 blocks together to get the diversity we have on this one corner."
Veiga's corner, a block from Takoma Park, is the center of a largely Cuban neighborhood. To the west and north closer to Wheaton is a growing concentration of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants. There is a long-established Jewish community, with three orthodox synagogues at Kemp Mill. The Riggs Park neighborhood is home to a large middle-class black population. Scattered throughout are the blue-collar workers of Washington, the ones who fix the cars, drive the trucks and repair the leaky plumbing. And at the center of it all is a tired-looking, battle-scarred downtown business district that went out of style with the Edsel.
That mixture came together quite accidentally. Since World War II, Silver Spring's colonial brick-and-frame bungalows have lured successive waves of newcomers -- government and blue-collar workers searching for the suburban dream, Jewish professionals completing their journey up 16th Street to the suburbs, and more recently blacks and immigrants unable to find affordable housing in the city.
But now Silver Spring is bracing for yet another wave of immigrants, mostly young, white and professional, moving in for many of the same reasons as their ethnic and blue-collar counterparts. The housing is cheaper, the schools are considered superior, and Metro has put Washington only minutes away.
To some residents and urban experts, the trend is similar to what has been underway for some time in city neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan, Capitol Hill and Shaw, where young white professionals are buying older houses to renovate, and in many cases displacing older residents who can no longer afford to live there.
Now some older residents are wondering whether the same problems will come to Silver Spring. Will the Central American and Indochinese immigrants and working-class families be pushed out and replaced by an onslaught of button-down collars and briefcases? Will chic boutiques replace mom-and-pop markets? And will Washington's suburban professionals drive up the prices in one of the area's last prime locations for cheap housing?
"I'm hoping that it doesn't become homogeneous," said Jane Reeves, a resident who bought a single-family house in Silver Spring after living in Glover Park in Northwest Washington. "We value the diversity. There are some older people who have lived here for years and years who are being displaced by a lot of younger people."
Reeves said, "The people moving into our neighborhood are almost exclusively young, white professional couples, average age about 30, with one child."
Housing statistics tend to confirm those observations. Renay Regardie of the Bethesda-based Housing Data Reports, which compiles statistics on housing trends, described the new Silver Spring homebuyers as "people under 30, with two incomes and few children. They are looking for price and close-in convenience."
"There's a recycling trend," she added. "Fixing up those old houses is very attractive to young people."
Where the average single-family house in Northwest Washington typically sells for over $150,000, some older, larger victorian homes in Silver Spring still sell for just over $80,000. Between the District line and University Boulevard to the north, and between the Prince George's County line to the east and Georgia Avenue on the west, the median house price is a little more than $84,000, according to real estate consultant Alfred W. Jarchow.
"It's basically the same phenomenon that's called gentrification in the city," says urban researcher George Grier of the Greater Washington Research Center. "These are young professionals looking for good buys in housing. With people moving in, the housing prices go up and the next thing you know the office buildings start going up -- I hope that doesn't happen to Silver Spring."
So far it hasn't happened, for a number of reasons. The downtown business district has continued to sag, without the promised building boom that Metro was supposed to bring. And Silver Spring still remains in many ways Montgomery County's stepchild -- a working-class suburb where one goes for car repairs or to buy tools and plumbing supplies at a neighborhood hardware store.
Silver Spring has managed to hold on to its character through all its transitions by absorbing all the various cultures and lifestyles that landed there. From middle-class and upwardly mobile blacks to orthodox Jews of Kemp Mill, from the Cuban refugees of Mariel to the Cambodian and Vietnamese boat people, Silver Spring has become the closest thing this area has to the great American melting pot.
The question is whether the two groups -- the young urban professionals moving in and the less affluent older residents and immigrants who were there before them -- can continue to coexist as the competition intensifies for a dwindling housing stock. Already, some apartment building owners have chosen to cast their lot with the affluent newcomers, by converting to condominiums or taking low-income units off the market in favor of more affluent tenants.
"Some people like to live in a neighborhood where there's some ethnic culture and some ethnic restaurants," said researcher Grier, a Silver Spring resident himself. "It's a melting pot, absolutely. Silver Spring and Takoma are the most interesting parts of the county. Silver Spring has a lot of vitality."
According to 1981 census figures, the Wheaton election district that includes Silver Spring and stretches all the way to Takoma Park is home to 8,271 Asians, more than 9,700 persons of Spanish origin, and more than 27,400 blacks out of a total population of 199,376.
Illeana Herrell, head of the county's Office of Minority Affairs, said that there are now over 200 Nicaraguans in the area, a dozen Afghani refugees, some Lebanese Christians, and a large number of Russian Jews who have settled in the orthodox neighborhood outside the beltway east of Georgia Avenue.
It wasn't always so. From the time the area served as a family farm for the ancestors of Col. Blair Lee through the second world war, Silver Spring was just an underdeveloped bedroom for government workers.
But in the post-war housing building boom, the colonial brick homes and town houses filled up rapidly with Montgomery County's working class, the upwardly mobile lower-level government employes and service workers. At the same time, Washington's Jewish community, which had been pushing further up 16th Street and up Georgia Avenue finally pushed right over the District line and established the Montgomery County Jewish Community Center near East-West Highway.
The developers followed the new residents, and in its heyday in the late 1940s and early '50s, Silver Spring was a retail and commercial center in the area. But then everything changed.
First came the shopping mall, the bane of old downtowns everywhere. Next some diabolical highway engineer developed the modern freeway, and the Capital Beltway opened the faraway shopping malls to a generation of housewives in station wagons.
As businesses followed the outward migration, blacks and ethnic minorities started moving in from the District of Columbia, taking advantage of the lower rents. The new wave of minorities and ethnics at first stayed primarily in the apartments in the southeast of Silver Spring, at the border of Takoma Park and the 16th Street border of Washington.
As Silver Spring began taking shape as a landing spot for a burgeoning black middle class and the immigrants, many Jewish families near the District line moved on to Potomac and Bethesda, leaving their synagogues behind to the elderly and the orthodox, concentrated in the Kemp Mill area. "What was left behind were the less affluent and the more observant Jews," said Silver Spring Rabbi Herzel Kranz.
Meanwhile that first rush of ethnic immigrants began estasblishing the businesses, the dental practices and the restaurants that would later give many of them the mobility to move out themselves.
"They become educated, make some money and then move away," said Korean Hang J. Chun, who has run an oriental food market on Piney Branch Road for 10 years now. He has seen most of his Korean customers move away, to be replaced by Americans experiencing wok cooking and oriental chic.