Monday, February 09, 2009

Who are the Real MoCo Progressives? Part One

Many people believe that Montgomery County is a one-party jurisdiction. They are wrong. Montgomery has two parties. One party calls itself the progressives. The other party calls itself the progressives. These two parties are radically different and, on some issues, diametrically opposed. This series explores both of them.

Prior to World War II, Montgomery County was primarily agricultural with a few pockets of commuters to the District of Columbia. But the war changed everything. David Brinkley’s Washington Goes to War tells the story of how America’s great military-industrial triumph over Germany and Japan permanently transformed Washington into a large city. The return of the veterans and the establishment of the national capital bureaucracy immediately spilled over into Montgomery County. The county’s population doubled between 1946 and 1950 and doubled again in the following decade to 341,000. The inner suburbs were developed with red-brick capes, colonials and ramblers while most of the outer towns remained quiet hamlets.

Many residents in their 50s and 60s who grew up here remember this period as a golden age. I often ask them about what the county was like back then and most are very nostalgic. I am amazed by the stories they tell of my own neighborhood, Forest Glen. The land that would later become the Beltway was a large forest. Georgia Avenue north of Forest Glen Road had just two lanes. And the area around what is now known as the Intersection of Death was occupied by cattle pastures and sage fields. It is impossible for a person my age to imagine this. And then, after finishing their reminiscences, many of the long-timers will sigh and say something like, “And look at it now...”

No matter how much of the county was developed, it seemed to never be enough. The ever-increasing growth of the federal government, the flight of the middle class out of Washington, repeated real estate booms and, eventually, the establishment of a native business community produced steep increases in population and density. In 1960, the county had 689 residents per square mile; by 1980, it had 1,170. (Today it has 1,885.) In 1980, the county established its Agricultural Reserve to protect farm land in the northern third of its acreage. But while the reserve has, for the most part, achieved its purpose of land preservation, it has also channeled population density to Downcounty and the I-270 corridor.

Office space construction shows change in the county even more dramatically than population. Prior to 1950, the county had only 98,126 square feet of commercial rentable office space. In the 1950s, 1.6 million square feet were constructed, followed by 5.7 million in the 1960s, 12.1 million in the 1970s and 22.5 million in the 1980s. (Only about 11 million additional square feet have been built through 2002.) Rising population, rising employment and more accompanying development, all driven by broader economic forces outside the county’s control, banished the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s forever.

But many in the county do not believe that this change was driven by economics alone. Adam Smith’s invisible hand does not apply for building permits or obtain rezonings. For decades, Montgomery County’s dominant homegrown industry has been development. The hundreds of thousands of new housing units and millions of square feet of new commercial space have made some in the county’s real estate industry fabulously rich. And the greatest urge of new money is to create more money, and that means more development. But this is impossible without the cooperation of the government. And so, in the view of some, the development industry set out to conquer the county’s political life through a combination of political contributions, establishment support and grooming their favorites to rule.

Soon enough, a backlash began. One of the earliest campaigns was not against a developer, but against the government. In 1968, the State Roads Commission announced plans for a “North Central Freeway” that would run through Takoma Park and alongside Sligo Creek, connecting the new Beltway with I-70. The freeway would have destroyed Sligo Creek Park and displaced 1,300 families. Led by firebrand Takoma Park mayor Sam Abbott, hundreds of activists in Maryland and the District united to stop the road.

Revolt against the government fell in line with war against the developers because they were linked. Developers influenced the politicians with contributions and cultivated support inside the local government bureaucracy. Road projects were designed to promote development, which created profit, which in turn led to more political donations and a perpetuation of the system. Abbott and his modern-day successors saw themselves as progressives because they were “little guys” fighting the business/government establishment. For the first time, Montgomery County had an indigenous left – the neighborhood progressives.

These progressives have an ideology built around an opponent: the development industry. Capitalism is fueled by greed. That greed promotes endless development, endless traffic and endless pollution by corrupting the local political system in a quest for endless profit. The only solution is for neighborhood activists to stand together, perceive their individual struggles as skirmishes in a larger conflict and reject political candidates supported by the enemy. Only when the people triumph over the developers and establish accountability over the government will they be able to control their destiny and create a less polluted, less congested, more livable county. These people are neighborhood patriots. They are progressives and this is their creed.

But these progressives are only one group laying claim to the name. We will meet their rivals in Part Two.