Downtown takes a down-turn


May 22, 2003, midnight | By Amina Baird | 17 years, 8 months ago

Revitalization and rejuvenation in Silver Spring are bad news for Mom and Pop shops


With millions of dollars, brand names and buildings stacking up on the streets of downtown Silver Spring, it's no wonder that people are calling it the next Bethesda. But with the title comes a doomed future for the diverse, affordable and quirky culture that makes Silver Spring unique.

Nail salons, corset shops and quaint family-owned restaurants, like Thai Derm and Bombay Gaylord, make up the distinctive atmosphere of the area. However, it is these businesses that are in danger of being pushed to the wayside by Silver Spring planners who have their sights set on Red Lobster, Panera Bread and Starbucks, chains that already exist in Bethesda and in every other white, upper-class "revitalized" city on the East Coast.

Already, local businesses have been forced to close. Yolanda Frazier, a former employee of Silver Spring's Bowl America, was told in March that despite recent renovations to the bowling alley, Atlantic Realty had bought out the owner. This means that now Frazier needs to find another job. "I went home one night, came back the next day, and my job was gone," she says. She adds that countless patrons of the alley have approached her lamenting the bad news, including some that had been bowling there for over 50 years.

Silver Spring's City Place Mall, with its plethora of discount shopping, shoe stores and five-dollar mainstream movies may be facing its last days as well. In its place comes the new American Film Institute cinema, where tickets cost $8.50 and where, instead of Barber Shop and 8 Mile, films include subtitled independents and black and white classics. "How many of us black people want to see John Wayne and Clint Eastwood?" Frazier questions.

While all of the snazzy, upscale rejuvenation is good for the city's economy, the increase in cost of living will be enough to drive some current residents away from their Silver Spring homes. Though County Executive Doug Duncan says there is "a lot of affordable housing funding," expensive housing projects, such as the newly built Cameron Hills, which will bring in $350,000 for each townhouse, are sprouting up all over Silver Spring.

According to the Washington Post, the average price per square foot in Silver Spring has increased from approximately $15 in the mid-90s to current rates between $25 and $28. That price is only rising and might even reach the Bethesda range of $35 to $45 per square foot in the next few years.

The cost of basic living will also escalate when local stores are replaced with chain retailers such as Borders Books and Music, Pier 1 Imports and Office Depot.

Whole Foods, the area's new chain grocery store, charges considerably for their organic goods. "I went to [Whole Foods] and I had to leave," Frazier said. "I couldn't even afford a paper bag."

Many lower-middle-class minority residents, a 53 percent majority in Silver Spring according to Census 2000, will not be able to afford the high-rise condominiums and $100 grocery bills that the changes will bring. While Duncan claims there was "lots of input and guidance" from minority citizens, William Leary, a member of the Citizens Advisory Board, estimated that there are only seven or eight non-white members on the 30-person committee. Purposefully or not, minorities have been left out of the planning process, and their lot has been chalked up as collateral damage to a shiny new downtown.

According to an informal Silver Chips poll, 90 out of 100 people who walked through City Place Mall's doors were non-white. On the other hand, 66 out of 100 shoppers at Whole Foods were white, a frightening step toward Bethesda's 86 percent white population and away from Silver Spring's treasured diversity.

From its rich cultural background to its unique stores and people, Silver Spring can stand alone without following some blueprint for a modern city. Bethesda already exists. Why should we make Silver Spring just a carbon copy? In scoring flashy lights and a T-rex replica, we risk losing the diversity, affordability and distinctiveness of our past.



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