Each decade, the U.S. Bureau of the Census gathers mountains of statistical data to create a profile of our nation and each of our hometowns. The numbers are useful as a measure of clarity, but numbers alone do not bring understanding.
For instance, the 2010 profile of Takoma Park reports a population of 16,715. Dig a little into the interactive census websites, and you’ll discover that this is virtually unchanged since 1960. However, the makeup of the population is radically different. Instead of 96.7% white, we are now: 49% white, 35% black (both African Americans and African immigrants together), 4.4% Asian, 6.5% “other race” (whatever that is), and for the first time, 4.8% who chose to identify themselves as “two or more races.”
Statistics can’t tell you how or why this radical change has happened. That’s what historical records are for.
In 1890, when “the town of Takoma Park” was officially incorporated, it contained a grand total of 164 residents, including children. Unfortunately, this represented only half of the original suburb. The Maryland Legislature had insisted that the official boundaries stop at the edge of Maryland; no parts of DC could be included. Matters were complicated enough given that the town would be split between the counties of Montgomery and Prince George’s.
Although the settlers were white, photographs and oral histories of the early days attest to the presence of a few African Americans who lived along the edges of the General Samuel Sprigg Carroll farm.
By the Census of 1900, new arrivals had tripled the size of the fledging town, which now boasted 756 residents and 200 houses.
Tradesmen and storekeepers were joining the original settlers, most of whom were federal workers. One group of Finnish carpenters happily settled in along several blocks of Elm Avenue, and built a communal sauna.
In addition, the land was now being sold in smaller parcels, allowing families of more modest means to become homeowners, especially as less expensive housing options like bungalows appeared.
Meanwhile, in 1904, the decree of one woman –Ellen White, spiritual leader of the Seventh-day Adventists–set in motion an exodus that brought much of her flock to Takoma Park.
Relocating from their headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan, the church created a new economic presence in town: establishing a college and sanitarium on the banks of Sligo Creek, and setting up a publishing house and general conference at Carroll and Laurel in the District. Church elders were among the first to build houses along Willow and Carroll Avenues. By 1916, one-third of the population was connected, directly or indirectly, with the Adventists.
The growth rate over the next two decades was astonishing – from 1242 in 1910 to 8938 in 1940 as new subdivisions opened up on the old Hodges Farm, along Sligo Creek and especially in the wake of the 1937 extension of New Hampshire Avenue.
African Americans from the South were also part of this wave, though albeit, a small one. The Dawes, Jordan and Warren families who later played prominent roles in Takoma Park date back to those early migrations.
Although building halted with World War II, the population still went up as Takoma residents opened their homes to young, single Government girls flocking to Washington to assist the war effort.
Once the war ended, the returning GIs, black and white, all demanding housing for their growing families, spurred a new round of construction. The old McCormack-Goodhart lands known as “Langley Park” were soon blanketed by garden apartments. Only one of the new complexes was in Takoma Park but the population still rose by a quarter.
The tiny African American segment in Maryland (618 in 1950), moved its children into the white schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education.
By 1960, the population stood at 16,799, where it would remain, with some slight ups and downs. Everything was built up except for the two blocks of Maple Avenue south of the creek, the long-time African-American compound.
In 1962, the city and county began constructing the series of high rise apartments as affordable housing.
Meanwhile, college students from University of Maryland four miles away discovered Takoma Park, when a court victory made it possible for groups of non-family members to turn the Takoma’s aging but roomy houses into “group houses.” Stores like Maggie’s Farm on Columbia (now Stillpoint) and the Bong Works at Takoma Junction opened to catered to the new influx of hippies.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades of decline as the Northcentral Freeway plan threatened to destroy the heart of Takoma Park. The uncertainty and a departing aging population led to a 12% drop in population by 1980. The opening of the Metro, however, and the dedication of a new generation to save the old houses and create a historic district stabilized the neighborhood.
As the 1980s opened, Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing decades of oppression at home, increasingly made their way to Takoma Park. With the Takoma Park Presbyterian Church part of the Sanctuary Movement, and the city declaring itself a Sanctuary City, this became a haven for political refugees. CASA grew up out of the need to provide a support network. Little of this turmoil shows in the census, however, because many of new arrivals settled just over the border in Langley Park.But it signaled big changes.
The U.S. acknowledged the impact of the Hispanics when the census began tracking them in 1980. That year Takoma Park showed a 5.7% Hispanic population, mostly from Central America. Schools were one of the first places to notice the shift.
Takoma Park marked the Millennium by watching white residents slip into minority status (48.7%) for the first time; blacks registered 33% and Hispanics were at 9%.
As the Hispanics began to move on, the pattern repeated itself. A new set of political refugees arrived, this time from Africa. Ethiopians, Somalis and Eritreans drawn by the affordable housing and tolerant community, added their cultural spice to the mix.
And Takoma Park can see the census statistics reflected in the restaurants and shops that line the International Corridor we share with Langley Park.