Call to Arms: Activists defend a community under seige

In many ways, Takoma Park owes its reputation as a liberal bastion of activism to the period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when its citizens protested loudly and vociferously to save the town from destruction in the name of progress. Much like the anti-war movement then occupying the national headlines, they employed the same tactics: marches, petitions, sit-ins, and found the same sense of cameraderie and empowerment gained from shared struggle.
Takoma Park’s origins are linked with the railroad, but by the 1960s automobiles were the primary mode of transportation and  were threatening to engulf the community.
Both Piney Branch Road and New Hampshire Avenue had been extended in the 1930s, pushing out from the heart of Washington DC. But these were on the outer edges of town and didn’t much alter the lay of the land. Takoma Park slumbered on its tree-lined streets of aging family homes until construction of the Capital Beltway forced it to confront the issue of development.

The impetus was the 1956 Capital Highways Act that funded a freeway encircling DC. The ink was barely dry on the design plans before Maryland (and Virginia) State Highway folks conceived of a grandiose scheme to run several additional freeways like spokes linking the Beltway to the National Mall.
In 1964 Takoma Park got wind of the plan–as the story goes, Ed Hutmire learned of the plan for the North Central Freeway while reading the Sunday Post and, alarmed, he called up his good friend, Sam Abbott. Abbott was a long-time labor organizer and knew how to rally the troops in opposition.
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The poster above was Sam Abbott’s call to action. Is your house safe?

From the first public meeting where 150 people showed up to testify, he began building a coalition of outraged citizens that linked blacks and whites across the DC region in opposition to all things concrete.
Horrific design maps surfaced showing eight lanes of traffic barreling smack through the center of Takoma Park, in complete disregard for the Victorians and bungalows that had long stood there. The Save Takoma Park Committee which formed around Sam Abbott, Etta Mae and Ben Davis, and a host of others, had little trouble finding allies to make a lot of noise. Petitions and flyers (most of them the handiwork of Abbott, a professional graphic-designer) served as that decade’s version of the Internet spreading the word.
As if the freeway alone wasn’t bad enough, there was a 1963 Master Plan that called for widening East-West Highway (or Philadelphia Avenue, to those of us here). As the major east-west thoroughfare across Montgomery County it made a certain logical sense–until you took into account that in Takoma Park, for instance, it would mean the demolition of 218 houses in order to make room for the extra lanes.
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The so-called “Mustard Sheet” transit plan targeted the blocks closest to the Metro for high rise development.

Roads weren’t the only threat to homeowners. Montgomery Junior College was looking to expand its campus and the same Master Plan gave the college permission to look toward the block immediately north–Block 69.
While the freeway struggle was in full swing, the college quietly began buying up houses with the intention of removing all 22 houses on the block.
To further complicate matters, a new factor entered the mix–mass transit (soon known as “Metro”). Although many experts favored mass transit over freeways, the road people were not convinced. In 1968, both ideas were lumped together in one grand scheme – double the width of the railroad track to accommodate both Metro and trains and then add three lanes of freeway on either side. The end result was more than 300 feet wide.
The introduction of the Metro led the County to consider what would happen to the land next to the proposed Takoma Metro station. In June of 1971, the Takoma Park Transit Impact Area Plan suggested tearing  down the nearest 50 houses to make way for highrise apartments and offices. The hard-to-miss bright yellow fold-out brochure was quickly labeled the “Mustard Sheet.” Opposition was so intense at the first meeting of the County Planning Board, that officials abruptly withdrew the plan.
Residents throughout Takoma Park were threatened but those on Block 69 were wedged between the college campus at the railroad’s edge and the expected widening of Philadephia Avenue. They reacted in the strongest fashion.
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Forty years ago, flyers like this were the direct lines of communication to the citizens. These were the days before xerox machines, so most flyers were produced on hand-cranked mimeograph machines.

When Etta Mae Davis, resident of Block 69 and a leader of the Save Takoma Park Committee, heard bulldozers on the morning of September 23, 1972, she rushed next door to confront the demolition crew. Eight hours later, ten Takoma Park residents were arrested, the only arrests inside the city limits in ten years of resistance.
About this time Dolores Stowell and Maureen Thompson proposed a new tactic–getting the most vulnerable blocks listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This would effectively bar the city and state from using federal funds for any of the construction projects there.
Schools were also at risk. The County Board of Education closed down Silver Spring Elementary School across the street from Block 69 (at Chicago & Philadelphia Avenues). Decades before it had served as the senior high until Montgomery Blair was built. Diminished in importance, its students were shifted for the last time once Piney Branch Elementary was opened.
Then the School Board targeted Takoma Park Elementary and the community fought back, pushing a compromise to construct a replacement building on the adjacent playground.
In 1975 the freeway money was finally transferred to the Metro fund, closing the door on freeway expansion. There were still issues to hammer out over the Metro site, especially the size of the parking structure but moderation prevailed and the station opened in February 1978.
One remaining incident proved the power of community activism. The School Board forced the closure of Takoma Park Junior High. But the years of solidarity helped the community pull off a miracle– a reprieve that reopened the school after the teachers had been reassigned and the building emptied of furniture and supplies.
Finally the Save Takoma Park Committee could take a few deep breaths. Thanks to the vigilance of the Committee and hundreds who had raised their voices, Takoma Park had weathered the assaults.
But new stresses arise–whether it is the arrival of a CVS Pharmacy, Metro efforts to build townhouses, the continued expansion of the college, or the County Council’s push to dismantle the protections of historic preservation status, a new generation of activists needs to ready to step forward.
Diana Kohn is Education Chair of Historic Takoma, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to preserving the heritage of Takoma Park MD and Takoma Park DC.
Histori
c Takoma is seeking photographs that capture Takoma Park’s history for use in producing a photo history with Arcadia Press. If you have photos you would like to share, please contact her at diana@takoma.com.

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About the Author

Diana Kohn
Diana Kohn is president of Historic Takoma, Inc., which is dedicated to preserving and celebrating the heritage of both Takoma Park MD and DC. Diana is co-author of Images of America: Takoma Park, a photo history of the town.