When many Montgomery County residents want to say something is “far” but “still in Montgomery County,” they invoke the name of Damascus, a town way out where Montgomery County shakes hands with Frederick, Carroll and Howard. It seems as physically and psychologically far as you can get from the glitz of Chevy Chase or the grit of Silver Spring. Comments about bus riding and “the City” from my former roommate, who grew up in Damascus, demonstrate the strong psychological divide.
Before I went there on an obscure errand last weekend, I knew three things about Damascus. First, there’s nothing to do there. That’s because, second, it’s illegal to buy or possess alcohol there, and has been since the 1880. Therefore, and third, people hang out at Jimmie Cone. At the driving school I attended, the police instructors told stories about kids who died in horrible accidents going to and from this ice cream stand. Surely Jimmie Cone must be good if kids are willing to die for it.
In the business district, three roads meet at an awkward intersection. There’s an elementary school and a library, a CVS and a McDonald’s, and two strip malls. At the center of Damascus is Jimmie Cone, an unassuming little box with a big green canopy and a parking lot surrounded by picnic tables. What sets it apart is that, on a Friday night, it looks like the entire town showed up for ice cream. The menu is simple: two flavors of soft-serve, two flavors of frozen yogurt, and a list of toppings, including jimmies. (For those not from the handful of areas that use the term, jimmies are another word for “sprinkles.”) A small ice cream is $1.66.
This place is worlds away from Rockville, where I spent a year and a half at Gifford’s selling four-dollar scoops of ice cream. But both places are community institutions, gathering places made relevant when the temperature rises and the schools let out. While it doesn’t scream “city” like Rockville Town Square, Jimmie Cone does contribute to the urban realm as well.
Why do people come here for ice cream and not the McDonald’s across the street? It’s cheap. It’s close to home. But, most importantly, it’s community. You may know the family who started it in 1962. Your kids, your neighbors’ kids, or your friends’ kids may work behind the counter. Or you expect to run into people you know. This place fosters those relationships in a community more so than any chain could because it is a product of its location. You can only experience Jimmie Cone in Damascus or their second store in Mount Airy, a few miles away.
For the younger set, Jimmie Cone is a place to see and be seen. There are two sets of picnic tables here: one next to the stand itself, under the canopy, and another next to the street. I saw the teenagers in the latter area, where they’d be in plain sight of anyone who drove by. It’s the same reason kids hang out in front of the movie theatre on Seventh Street in Chinatown, a far more “urban” locale than Damascus. But were he still alive, sociologist William H. Whyte could do a whole Social Life of Small Urban Spaces-style review of Jimmie Cone.
Places like this are what I find so exciting about suburbia because they dare to challenge the status quo created by big cars and big houses. They encourage and often force us to interact with other people, and to embrace our innate social urges. It’s no Dupont Circle; it’s not even “the Turf” in Downtown Silver Spring. But places like it are integral to creating stronger communities.