Brief History of Downtown Silver Spring

by MCS Staff

Montgomery Planning provided a brief history of Downtown Silver Spring in the recent  Public Hearing Draft of Silver Spring Downtown and Adjacent Communities Plan.

It can be seen below:

Indigenous peoples have lived in Montgomery County and the surrounding region for over 10,000 years. The Piscataway and Nacotchtank appear to have used the river valleys mostly for occupation and relied on the adjacent uplands for temporary camps associated with hunting and obtaining materials such as workable stone, until European colonization.

In the 1800s, Silver Spring consisted of a crossroads community and plantations, including that of Francis Preston Blair, built upon enslaved Black labor force. The opening of the Metropolitan branch of the B&O Railroad (1873) and the Washington, Woodside, and Forest Glen Railway & Power Company (1897)allowed for more housing and commercial opportunities in the area, limited primarily to whites. At the start of the twentieth century, developers of residential neighborhoods in Silver Spring often included racial restrictive covenants to bar Blacks (and people of other nationalities, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds) from the housing market. De jury and de facto segregation permitted Blacks to work in the plan area, but excluded them from owning or renting property within its boundaries.

The opening of the Silver Spring Shopping Center and Silver Theatre (1938) and Hecht’s Store (1947), along with associated infrastructure improvements, transformed Silver Spring from a bedroom community a regional retail center with offices, shops, hotels, and other businesses, and a successful manufacturing and light industrial area near the train station. Segregation and discrimination in various forms continued to exclude non-white residents from many of the benefits of his growth.

During the Civil Rights movement, County residents, Black and white, fought for fair access to housing and public accommodations. Notable individuals during this period include: Mary Betters who served as President of the local branch of the NAACP, J. Charles Jones who directed the Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in the Suburbs (ACCESS), David Scull who led the County Council to pass the Fair Housing Ordinance, Morris Milgram who built the first integrated apartment housing in greater Silver Spring, and Roscoe Nix who challenged business owners and held the County accountable for upholding its public accommodations law.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Silver Spring’s dominance as a regional shopping center waned with the opening of suburban malls. However, the arrival of new industries (such as financial institutions), increased federal services and reliance on contractors, and the shift of federal office space away from Washington, D.C. led to the rebranding of the plan area as a regional office destination, with several federal agencies establishing office buildings downtown. This office space, along with ample county-owned parking, and accommodating zoning led to the construction of several high-rise apartment buildings in the downtown. The Silver Spring Metrorail station opened in 1978, but its location away from the historic center of downtown limited additional development in the surrounding blocks.

The closing of major and mid-sized white-owned retailers in the 1980s and 1990s created commercial vacancies that began to be filled by the establishment of a rich, ethnically diverse, local- business community that continues today. While there are many immigrant communities in the plan area, the Ethiopian community has had particular success in Silver Spring and regards this urban area as a center for Ethiopian life and culture in the region.

Since 2000, revitalization efforts envisioned by the Sector Plan have seen the redevelopment of the Downtown Silver Spring retail core, the promotion of an arts and entertainment district and the reopening of the historic Silver Theatre, and the opening of the Discovery corporate headquarters. With this, the former light industrial areas west of Georgia Avenue have been redeveloped with multi-family housing and the Paul Sarbanes Transit Center has been completed at the Silver Spring Metro station. Planning and initial construction for the Purple Line light-rail system connecting Bethesda to New Carrolton in Prince George’s County has created new opportunities.

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1 comment

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John Doe November 2, 2021 - 2:42 pm

The picture is of Downtown Bethesda!

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