Friday, March 14, 2014

Where is "Silver Spring"?

"Hi, where are you from?"

"Silver Spring"

"Me too!  Which part are you from?"

"Near Olney."

Silver Spring sign on Georgia Avenue... in actual Silver Spring.

That excerpt above is from a conversation I had with someone last year at college.  It highlights an issue that has always annoyed me: The vagueness of "Silver Spring".

Silver Spring is not an incorporated city.  It raises no taxes.  It has no police department.  It has no municipal services.  It is just a Census Designated Place (CDP).  While Silver Spring may be one of the most urbanized areas in the DC region, it shares it's name with numerous suburban and rural communities in eastern Montgomery County.  In most people's minds, a farm in Colesville and a 17 story high rise on Ripley Street are both in "Silver Spring".  In my opinion, this level of misidentification is a travesty.

The postal service is primarily to blame for this mistaken identity.  They are the ones who asign the zip codes that people all too commonly use to determine location.  In Prince Georges County, Hyattsville suffers from the same postal service inflicted damage that Silver Spring does.  Areas miles away from the real Hyattsville (like Landover) are frequently identified as Hyattsville, and it has hurt the city's image greatly over the years.  Silver Spring has not been as negatively affected over the by the mistaken identity, but news networks will frequently identify crime in places like Aspen Hill, Wheaton, and Burtonsville as occurring in Silver Spring.  But misplaced crime locations are not the reason I dislike the Silver Spring misnomer.

The blame for the ambiguous "Silver Spring" can not all be laid at the feet of the postal service.  I place the blame on everyone who doesn't actually live in Silver Spring, because it is they who intentionally perpetuate the misnomer.  My gripe with the consistent misidentification of Silver Spring is this:  The lack of pride people have in their individual communities.  I find that a lot of individuality and community spirit gets wasted when people from a diverse geographic area solely identify with the larger area.

Many of the Zip Codes on this map are called "Silver Spring" but the original Silver Spring is on the bottom left.  I had to tilt the image because the area is so broad.  North is the top right corner.

I'm not saying it's bad thing for a diverse group of people to identify with one large geographic area, since we all do so on July 4th (Patriotism).  I'm saying its bad for people to only identify with that larger area when they could identify more accurately with a local area most of the time.  Imagine if you were introducing yourself to someone from another American city and you said "Hi I'm from the United States".  This would definitely earn some odd looks and maybe a chuckle from the person you were introducing yourself to, since it is vague to the point of being comical.  A much more appropriate response would be stating your hometown or city.  People from east county do this all the time when introducing themselves to each other.  They may live 10 miles away from each other and several communities apart, but they both claim to be from Silver Spring

For an example of a place that was previously lumped in with Silver Spring, which has now found some community pride, take a look at Long Branch.  The community roughly centered on the intersection of Flower Avenue and Piney Branch Road is considered Silver Spring or Takoma Park by most, but the people that live there have developed pride in it's unique identity, and it has started to be recognized for the place it is: Long Branch.  The community has several events and programs devoted to celebrating it's local flavor and vibe, such as the Long Branch Block Party and Flower Theater Project.  I think all communities in "Silver Spring" should have events like this to celebrate what makes each one different.

The Flower Theater is a historic building that is unique to Long Branch.  Buildings like this should help each east county community establish a unique identity, just as the Silver Theater and Discovery Building have done for Silver Spring.  Photo by Chip Py.

Places all over east county have events that bring together their own specific community, but they only occur a few times a year, and they are not enough to "break from the mold" and foster a consistent community identity.  In Prince George's County, there are dozens of small municipalities (especially on the Route 1 corridor) that have their own community feel and pride.  Someone from Riverdale Park doesn't say "I'm from Bladensburg"  just as someone from Mount Rainier wouldn't say "I'm from Hyattsville" (I have high school friends from all these places, and they always identify with their own communities, not the most well known ones nearby).  This is because all of these communities; although small and very close together, have successfully fostered a sense of community pride to the point where their residents almost always identify as being from there, and not from some well known regional destination miles away like Silver Spring.        
Original Silver Spring; which is the area most people refer to as "Downtown Silver Spring", is a great place (Downtown Silver Spring is actually the brand name of the development along Ellsworth Drive, the name has since been adapted to cover all of original Silver Spring to avoid confusion with the rest of the communities who claim to be "Silver Spring").   Because it is such a great place, many people latch on to it and inaccurately identify with it because they feel that there own communities are not as good.  This only serves to make their actual communities even less known and to make Silver Spring more homogeneous.

Below is a map of what I view as real Silver Spring, and anything outside of it is a completely different place as far as I'm concerned.  I guess you could call this an "originalist" interpretation of Silver Spring, but I think it is the most accurate.  Most of the land inside the boundaries I drew was owned by the Blair family as part of their Silver Spring Estate, which affirms it's legitimacy as real Silver Spring (shoutout to Jerry McCoy for teaching me this stuff through his book).  

Silver Spring, Maryland
If you live in Four Corners, Long Branch, Forest Glen, Montgomery Hills, Wheaton, White Oak, Olney, Hillandale, Kemp Mill, Glenmont, Aspen Hill, Colesville, Cloverly, Fairland, Briggs Cheney, or Burtonsville... say so.  There's no need to call someplace 10 miles away your home when it's not.  If your worried about people "not knowing where that is" maybe your saying the name will cause them to look it up, thus increasing the recognition of your community.  If your concerned about the negative image of your community from crime, tell people your from there.  Meeting a nice non-criminal from a place like White Oak, Wheaton, or Briggs Cheney will cause the person your speaking with to reconsider their preconceived notions of that area.  

Just for fun, if we are going to call everything within a 10 mile radius of Acorn Park "Silver Spring" (Acorn Park is where the mica flecked spring was), then the following communities and places are also in "Silver Spring": Muirkirk, Glenn Dale, Mitchellville, Landover, Suitland, Anacostia, Barry Farms, Del Rey, National Airport, Bailey's Crossroads, Seven Corners, Falls Church, Tysons, Corner, McLean, Potomac, and Rockville... just to name a few.  Also; going by the same standard, the White House, Capitol, and all of Northeast and Northwest D.C. are in "Silver Spring".  

If you live more than a mile from this spot, you probably don't live in Silver Spring.  
I encourage everyone reading this who lives in eastern Montgomery County to think of a way you can make your own community better by fostering a unique identity for it.  If you live in Four Corners, embrace it and make it the best place it can be.  We already have some great community events, but lets have even more.  Same goes for Wheaton, Fairland, Long Branch or any other community.  It's fine to take pride in Silver Spring proper, but don't ignore the area you actually live in.  The best way to make each community great is to get involved, and have some pride.      


  1. I've been meaning to write a post about this for a while. As someone who spent several years growing up in downtown Silver Spring, and then in what you call "not Silver Spring," I subscribe to the notion of "Big Silver Spring," that you can have the name refer to a large geographic area and still be proud of your particular corner of it.

    After all, even people who identify with Long Branch don't say they live in Long Branch or give their address as Long Branch, they say they live in Silver Spring. But that doesn't diminish the neighborhood they live in. (And in fact, the US Census designation of Silver Spring is everything inside the Beltway from Rock Creek Park to the Prince George's County line.)

    The "power" of Silver Spring as a place comes from its bigness, and taking away "Silver Spring" from people who live outside of one person's personal definition of Silver Spring diminishes it. It's because it serves as a regional draw for such a large area (including many areas that don't have big draws of their own) that Silver Spring is one of the region's biggest activity centers.

    As far as I'm concerned, this is a problem in search of a solution. Embrace Big Silver Spring, because it won't go away, and my experience is that people who live outside of Little Silver Spring will get confused or offended if you try to tell them where you think they actually live.

    1. Dan,

      I must respectfully disagree with you. The "Big Silver Spring" is a result of the Postal Service (lazily) assigning zip codes to areas that were not as established at the time as they are now. This resulted in the beginning of the Sliver Spring misnomer. As my post alluded to, The same thing happened to Hyattsville in Prince George's County.

      My grandparents house in New Carrollton was assigned a Hyattsville zip code before the community incorporated in 1966. New Carrollton has never and will never be part of Hyattsville, and it was built as a completely separate place a century after the City of Hyattsville was. Hyattsville is a nice place, but my grandparents never claimed to live there, because they lived in New Carrollton.

      It is my opinion that the "power" of Silver Spring does not come from its size, but from what is in "little" Silver Spring. When my friends say "let's go chill in Silver Spring" they are not talking about Wheaton, White Oak, or Burtonsville. They are talking about Ellsworth Drive, the Majestic, and Veterans Plaza; places in what I call the real Silver Spring. Tysons Corner is also a "powerful" community in the DC area, but if you go a mile down the road (VA 123), people identify with Vienna or McLean, not Tysons. It's relative small size (when compared to Big Silver Spring) has not served to diminish it's draw as a regional employment, entertainment, and retail destination.

      I do not view "little" Silver Spring as my personal interpretation of it, I view it as history's interpretation of it. If you pick up Jerry McCoy's book Historic Silver Spring, the only pictures and info you will find will be of the area now known as downtown Silver Spring, and the adjacent residential neighborhood of Silver Spring Park (the farthest out location that is mentioned is Mrs. K's tollhouse). This is because any communities past downtown Silver Spring were always considered to be separate entities, and I think they still should be considered as such. I do not view my definition as "taking away" Silver Spring from anyone, since they only "have it" as result of a misnomer in a federal numbering system that has only existed since the 1960s, I'm not trying to tell people where they live; the Postal Service is, and I think they are the ones confusing people who live outside of "little Silver Spring"..

      As for the Census boundaries, they are clearly more accurate than the Postal Service's, but they still include places that were never considered to be in Silver Spring (such as Oakview, which is much closer to the commercial districts of Hillandale and Adelphi than it is to downtown Silver Spring).

      You may have noticed that I always identify myself as being from Four Corners during the intros at ACT meetings. I do not say that because of this blog, I say that because I identify with Four Corners much more so than I do with Silver Spring. When I run errands, I go to the Woodmoor Shopping Center. When I get groceries, I go to the Four Corners Safeway. The school I attended for 9 years (Saint B's, where my mom still works) is in Four Corners. My daily existence always involves the people, business, and institutions of Four Corners (but not while I'm away at college of course). As far as I'm concerned, Silver Spring is a cool place 2 miles away that I go on the weekends for entertainment, but It is not my home.

      I respect and understand your opinion, Dan. I simply had to take this opportunity to further explain my reasoning and thought process. I did not mean to offend, so I'm sorry if it seemed that way. I like Silver Spring, but I stick to my "originalist" interpretation of it because I want my community to be viewed as the unique "sovereign" place that it is, and not just an area of some broader city.