As the last traditionally black enclave in Rockville, and one of a few left in Montgomery County, Lincoln Park is used to being alternately overpublicized and overlooked.
City officials are often quoted on the problems of drug sales, public drinking and vagrancy in the neighborhood -- reports that residents complain are exaggerated and negatively reinforcing.
A fracas last summer, involving two white city police officers and three black Lincoln Park residents, spawned a vehement propaganda campaign and a series of confrontations between representatives of the Montgomery County NAACP and city officials.
Community resentment soared last month when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals in Annapolis reduced to four years the 20-year sentence of a white man convicted of shooting a black Lincoln Park resident.
And in a move that left residents surprised and concerned for their property values, city and county officials have helped the new owners of the dilapidated Lenmore Apartments put together a package of loans to renovate the units as subsidized housing, in addition to the 65-unit Rockville Housing Authority development a block away.
These "limelight" incidents, as longtime civic leader Norma Duffin calls them, have angered residents and inspired the creation of a broad-based neighborhood coalition that hopes to bring Lincoln Park out of Rockville's closet. It already has spurred city authorities to offer new funds and programs -- a fact that some observers point to as evidence of the politically naive community's potential for clout.
"A lot of bells have been rung over the years, and nobody's answered," said Geraldine Wilson, head of the year-old Lincoln Park Citizens Association. "Or other people have told us what we want . . . . We've got to find our own voice."
"What they need," agreed a Rockville city official, "is to learn to jerk the right strings in classic civic association style."
"We are frustrated over the city government's assumptions about what they think is best for our community," Wilson wrote in an address to the City Council last fall. "Assumptions and decisions are made, concerning the Lincoln Park community, that you would not dare make regarding any other."
But after decades of seeing only the back side of Rockville development, Lincoln Park has emerged with its grudges on its sleeve and a political generation gap that undermines its fragile new assertiveness.
The group Duffin headed for years, the now-defunct Progressive Citizens Association, was a somewhat conservative organization composed mainly of older homeowners who looked with some suspicion on the tenants of the housing authority's Lincoln Terrace project.
Wilson's association is a coalition of younger homeowners, area ministries and tenants of the subsidized projects and Lenmore Apartments that is struggling to overcome internecine class distinctions.
"It's our job as a community to take care of the whole community," Wilson said. "We have to learn to solve our own problems."
The emergence of the new civic association reflects a general political shift by blacks in Montgomery County away from the confrontational, on-the-table tactics of the 1960s toward the more cooperative network techniques of the 1980s. Duffin, whose mother was one of the first presidents of the county NAACP, is viewed as having strong ties to that organization; Wilson, whose husband is a city employe, is considered a link to the establishment.
Although the two women have great respect for one another, their supporters mutter mutual suspicions. Younger activists say they are being ignored by the NAACP; city officials say they are not always notified of community meetings. The citizens association has not learned to attract the attention it desires or deflect the publicity it resents, while more experienced NAACP officials, using what one executive called a "pointed informational strategy," have kept the police incident, and the NAACP itself, in the headlines all year.
"We resent Lincoln Park's being targeted as a high-crime, high-risk area," said Wilson. "And who's doing the talking? I keep seeing 'sources in the community,' but I don't know anybody who's being consulted."
A community of fewer than a thousand -- 2 percent of Rockville's total population, but 27 percent of its blacks -- Lincoln Park has foundered in the wake of the city's 30-year push to prosperity.
Built at the heart of Rockville more than a century ago, the neighborhood is completely cut off by the gray expanse of gravel and railroad tracks east of Rockville Pike. Residents bitterly fought the closing of Frederick Avenue by the Metrorail tracks, and were further stung when funds for a promised vehicular bridge over Rockville Pike were diverted to improve access to the Metro station.
"Every way you get in or out of the neighborhood you go through a depressed area," Duffin said.
A large number of residents are elderly or on fixed incomes. A quarter of the households receive housing subsidies, and if the Lenmore Apartments proposal goes through, the figure will increase to 40 percent.
Any hour of the day, men loiter in the streets and the community center parking lot. The drug dealers are solicitous; the rest are hostile. At night, the air is sweet with marijuana and shrill with the tinny reverb of boom boxes.
It is this street society that has given Lincoln Park a reputation as a haven for drugs and gambling. Of the 1,390 calls the city police responded to in Lincoln Park last year, more than a third were for drunk or disorderly conduct.
The neighborhood's oldest apartment building, a chopped-up movie theater known as the "Red Barn," is part community annex, part flophouse. It is on the now dead-end block of Frederick Avenue, and the permanent floating drug game, which city and county police acknowledge they can only move from place to place, often settles there.
Rockville City Police Chief Jared Stout, who is seeking funds for additional officers, has said he would use new hires to set up foot patrols in Lincoln Park and the surrounding neighborhoods. Wilson is "vehemently opposed" to flatfoot coverage of Lincoln Park "until there are foot patrols all over the city of Rockville. It's just more finger-pointing."
But the proposal is popular with the older residents, who traditionally have blamed the loitering and drug problems on the more transient population. Many, such as 83-year-old Nelson Cooper, who has lived in the same Frederick Avenue house for more than 50 years, look back on the years before the housing project was constructed as a halcyon period.
"Those people come from everywhere in the United States and hang out here," according to Cooper. "You can't sleep at night. I just lock my door and stay in my own house."
Cooper's home is a block from the Red Barn. Across the street, the chain link fence that surrounds his granddaughter's house is sagging; she already had it rebuilt after it collapsed under the weight of the street people who leaned on it.
"They can knock down and drag out, so long as they stay out of my yard," Cooper said. "They bother me, I call the police."
Wilson said the apartment dwellers and housing project tenants cannot be left out of the coalition.
"Everybody who lives in the Red Barn is not an alcoholic or a drug addict or unemployed," Wilson said. "To me, the Red Barn is our hopeless people, . . . who don't have the heart to try anymore. We have to find a way to make them feel involved."
Residents are also concerned that reports of drug activity and dilapidation around the local hangouts have lessened the saleability of the homes in Lincoln Park, just when the proximity of the Rockville subway station may have heightened the community's commercial prospects.
"The land has certainly increased in taxes," Duffin said. "And we know there are a lot of speculators around all the time. We're afraid the community will be destroyed by developers who don't give a darn about it . . . and the people who live there aren't going to get any money for their houses."
Over the years, Rockville and Montgomery County workers have fumbled for what they call "Band-Aid" solutions to the community's problems -- economic patch jobs such as resurfacing parking lots at the housing projects and periodically enforcing code violations. The support by county and city officials for the subsidizing of the Lenmore Apartments, over the opposition of the community, is cited by residents as an example of government's "we know best" attitude.
"We have to admit that government hasn't done everything it should have for Lincoln Park," said a former County Council member. "Partly because it's not 'sexy,' there's no money in it . . . but partly because we have doubts about how much we understand about strengthening the fabric of a community."
And Lincoln Park's own separatism and its low voter participation have made it a politically infertile constituency from a candidate's point of view. The neighborhood is rarely courted and never championed.
But the residents' crash course in political profit-sharing centers on a series of "Know the System" seminars arranged by the city's community resources office, panels explaining how government operates and how to pull the right strings.
Although the city allocated $120,000 in this year's budget for locker room facilities at the community center, Wilson and her husband, Charles, director of the center, hope to set up continuing classes in urban survival techniques: stress management, alcohol and substance abuse, family planning and parenting, computer literacy and tutorials.
An organized, sophisticated Lincoln Park could find itself in surprising demand in the next months: There is increasing talk of running a black candidate for County Council next year, a candidate who would likely pitch hard for the community's endorsement.
And in that case, Lincoln Park would prove hard to overlook. In the 1982 County Council elections, for example, the final vote margins between the fourth and fifth candidates for County Council, and between fifth and sixth, were as slight as 18 and 5.
"If I were ambitious," said one city official, "I'd start spending a lot of time around Lincoln Park -- the only question is who'll get there first."