Silver Spring or Colesville? North Bethesda or White Flint? With large swaths of unincorporated land and few official place names in some densely populated areas, Montgomery County residents frequently debate what, exactly, to call their homes. That’s becoming especially important as areas that were once just part of larger commercial strips, like White Flint, develop their own identities.

Growing up, numerous cousins and summer camp friends hailed from Montgomery County. I often wondered why they all seemed to live in four towns: Bethesda, Rockville, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring (and at that time, mostly not Silver Spring). The answer is that as far as the U.S. Postal Service is concerned, the bulk of Montgomery County’s population is is in a place with one of those four names. The USPS was remarkably uncreative when naming postal areas in Montgomery County.

Despite a number of historic town names like Cloverly, Colesville, and Norbeck, seven whole ZIP codes stretching 13 miles from the DC line bear the name “Silver Spring.” And, as Dan Reed explains, many people who live there — or even outside of there — still say they live in “Silver Spring.” Matt Johnson once made a humorous Metro map poking fun at this.

Above: Matt’s humorous Metro map renaming most Montgomery stations “Bethesda” or “Silver Spring.”

Left: ZIP codes designated “Silver Spring, MD” (20901, 20902, 20903, 20904, 20905, 20906, and 20910).

But which is the chicken, and which the egg? Many people have started to call the neighborhood around Van Ness Metro “Van Ness”; do folks in eastern Montgomery County say they live in Silver Spring because the USPS says they do, or did the USPS name all of those areas Silver Spring because that’s what the residents called it?

At a recent gathering, Dan and I discussed the topic of fluid place names. I pointed out the San Francisco Neighborhood Project, which used Craigslist listings to identify neighborhood boundaries. Many listings contain a neighborhood name and a precise street intersection, allowing the Neighborhood Project to map those and try to determine where, exactly, the Mission turns into Noe Valley. Dan was inspired to make his own Craigslist-based map of Silver Spring.

Left: The Neighborhood Project map of San Francisco. Right: Dan Reed’s map of “Silver Spring” listings.

The area between Bethesda and Rockville, too, lies in a nomenclature no-man’s land. Rockville is an incorporated city with actual city limits, but the Postal Service designates addresses as “Rockville” even 7 miles northeast of the city limits. The area around Grosvenor, White Flint, and Twinbrook Metros was once “Rockville,” but at some point in the last 20 years the Postal Service and many residents started calling it “North Bethesda.” Realtors embraced the name early, wanting to associate with trendy Bethesda instead of less hip Rockville.

North Bethesda is an official Census Designated Place, though it too is pretty big. Does the walkable center deserve its own name? And as the Friends of White Flint point out, the North Bethesda CDP spans ZIP codes the USPS calls Kensington and Garrett Park, both also incorporated places of their own.

The Gazette reviews the debate about what to call the area. Will people follow the Van Ness pattern and name the neighborhood White Flint, after the Metro station which was itself named for a mall? If plans continue, one day there will be no White Flint Mall, but the name may live on.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.