A Flower Avenue landlord a few months ago rented an apartment to a man claiming to be foreign diplomat. Several days after the man moved in, he summoned the landlord to fix the plumbing. So the landlord drove over to the apartment, walked into the 'diplomat's bedroom, and found it filled with live chickens. Both man and fowl were evicted.
"Hah," laughs Walter Salb. "A typical day on Flowar Avenue."
This, after all, is the Montgomery County street where film actress Goldie Hawn grew up. It is the street where a former Maryland governor's son buys his six-packs, where local punk rockers Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band mingle with flamenco guitarists, where a Jewish deli is run by Iranians, where strict Seventh-day Adventists coexist with aging pot-heads and where winos and weirdos mix with Wasps from Wheaton shopping for taco shells.
"Twenty years ago, this neighborhood was all families," says Salb, a 53-year-old dance studio-talent agency owner who serves as unofficial street historian. "Then the Cubans moved in, then the Chinese, then the hippies, Hispanics, winos and prostitutes, now the Vietamese, Africans and Jamaicans."
Salb is sitting at the counter of Battista's pizza parlor, lunching on an Italian sub. "This is the trashiest neighborhood in Montgomery County," he says with more delight than disdain. "But I've been here so long, I don't pay any atention to it."
Just over the District Line in an area between east Silver Spring and Takoma Park (also known as "Glaucoma Park" in referring to its elderly population), Flower Avenue has become the county's port of entry for low-income, foreign and young white refugees the inner city for the inner suburbs.
Aside from the ethnic flavor of Flower Avenue itself, the drawing cared for the influx of foreigners is the availability of cheap housing. Another attraction is the wide range of services offered by Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the nation.
Flower Avenue does not fit that monied images. In fact, it is the poorest area in the county, with the highest concentration of welfare cases. Its per capital income ($8,088) is less than half the average income for the rest of the county. Almost half of the county's Hispanic population, approximately 14,000 people, live on or near Flower Avenue.
Without this one diverse street, says Elizabeth Gomez del Rio of the Office of Community Development, Montgomery County would be a one-dimensional place, known only for its exclusive country clubs, swanky shopping malls and predominantly white population.
"Flower Avenue," she muses, "is good for the county's image."
To the immigrant shopkeepers, Flower Avenue is a growing area, bursting with the sights and smells of their native lands; women in saris, Latino men in pointy-toed shoes, hanging out on street corners "West Side Story" style; saffron and soy sauce, jalapeno peppers and lotus cake.
But to some of the older, more established residents like Dr. Barry Molnick, Flower Avenue "has gone to pot." A dentist there for 27 years, Molnick describes the decaying shopping center at Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road as "quite seedy, with beer joints, that type of thing. I certainly don't think it's on the rise."
Consider the Flower Avenue theater. Built in 1952, this 800-seat monument to suburban chinema was closed last year after business had trickled down to almost nothing, according to the KB Theater chain, which leased the building. The owner is trying to rent the theater, but so far no takers.
"I remember when there were lines around the block to get into that theater," says Rutledge Hawn, 70-year-old father of Hollywood actress Goldie Hawn. In a telephone interview from his Los Angles home. Hawn -- who owned a gift shop next to the theater from 1959 to 1969 -- recalls, "20 years ago, it was a different area entirely."
His now-famous daughter used to work in the gift shop on Flower Avenue and also gave dancing lessons at Walter Salb's studio across the street. She attended Montgomery Blair High School and then went to American Unversity.
Joe Lee, 32-year-old son of former Maryland acting governor Blair Lee III, has lived near Flower Avenue for much of this life. "It's a super neighborhood," Lee says. "And it's still got the lowest prices for bear and wine in the county."
Lee, the owner of Takoma Park record shop, is also part-time business manager for another Flower Avenue habitue, Root Boy Slim and The Sex Change Band. Flower Avenue, no doubt, provided artistic inspiration for a few of the band's bizarre tunes, such as "You Broke My Mood Ring" and "Christmas at K-Mart."
"There's something for everyone here," says 17-year-old Anna Hill, sipping a Coke at Manny and Harry's on Flower Avenue. "We're an indiscriminating lot."
At two in the afternoon, Manny and Harry's bar is dark and stale smelling.
On the sidewalk outside, two Spanish-speaking women chatter while Chinese women in the Laundromat next door patter over the whir of machinery.
Inside, bartender Harry Zetlin is lecturing on "what's wrong with the neighborhood" while two old men stare sullenly into glasses of beer. Ruby Proffit, wearing plastic haircurlers, lights a cigarette, exhaling the smoke through raspberry-colored lips.
"Did ya hear about Smokey's bar?" she asks, ordering a beer. 'Well, they closed this bar down the the street. I don't know why, maybe for serving to minors. Well," she takes a drag on the cigarette, "the owner took a gun and shot himself right in front of the glass window, right where everyone could see."
Harry Zetlin whips the bar. "It's a little Peyton Place around here," he says.
The Flower Avenue Deli, once the "in" spot for kosher club sandwiches, has been closed for several months, ever since county health inspectors strolled into the the establishment for a check and emerged with a 13-page file of violations.
The sign on the door says "Closed for Remodeling."
Several other immigrant shopkeepers have some difficulty commenting on the rise and fall of Flower Avenue, mainly because they do not speak English.
Two years ago, Chinese immigrant Howard Lee bought Kushner's Restaurant, a neighborhood seafood restaurant opened in 1942. To Lee, Flower Avenue means "a lot of cars coming by."
The county liquor store reports that business has picked up, will Bernstein's Bakery, opened in 1941, is losing its Jewish clientele.
The China Royal Resturant, which opened its doors 20 years ago, has learned to adapt its menu to the new breed of diners. Once heavy on shrimp and lobster dishes, which the Jewish residents favored, the restaurant now serves spicer dishes for Hispanics and vegetarian dishes for the Indians and Pakistanis.
Even the Silver Spring police have accommodated the new Flower Avenue residents, putting a Spanish-speaking officer on the beat.
Like Columbia Road in the District and Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Flower Avenue is a melting pot of a main street, witness to decades of growth, stagnation, decay and rejuvenation.
Montgomery County recently obtained $180,000 in state funds to upgrade a nearby shopping center. A Silver Spring health clinic, scheduled to be closed by the county, in to remain open. Although a 1978 marketing study revealed that Flower Avenue business establishments were not capturing their fair share of the market, "the trend now is toward using the area stores," according to Cameron Tucker of the Office of Community Development.