Veterans Plaza in downtown Silver Spring. Photo by author.

Urban spaces thrive on spontaneity. We might want to impose rules on a park or plaza to make it seem safer or more pristine, but excessive regulations could kill the vibrancy that people go there for. Sometimes, we have to let people police themselves.

Millions of dollars of public and private funding have gone into downtown Silver Spring over the past ten years, bringing with it new businesses, new residents and no shortage of programmed events, from an annual documentary film festival to weekly concerts on Ellsworth Drive.

But the most invigorating scenes I’ve witnessed here were largely spontaneous: Hare Krishnas gathering on Ellsworth Drive; a weekly drum circle; skateboarders doing tricks before a crowd. In recent weeks, I’ve seen all three take place within the new Veterans Plaza at the same time.

And a funny thing happened: people got along, setting norms for how they and other users should share the space, and enjoyed themselves. That’s possible in a safe, well-designed urban space like Veterans Plaza.

Reemberto Rodriguez, director of the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, understands this. He’s been tirelessly working to help organize activities in Veterans Plaza, both in meetings and on his blog. “No government initiative can do this. No institution or organization can be expected to solely lead the charge,” he writes. “This is something that must grow organically, from within the community, for the community, by the community.”

Over 70 attended a barbeque at the Woodside skate spot last weekend. Photo by author.

Yet his goodwill is shot by County Executive Ike Leggett’s decision to boot skaters out of Veterans Plaza and into the newly-opened Woodside skate spot, located in a quiet residential neighborhood several blocks away. Neighbors are already complaining about noise, trash, and misbehavior, while skaters say the space is far too small for them to use, with over fifty kids there on a normal afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Regional Services Center hasn’t really made a case for the ban, only talking to skaters protesting the ban after after it took effect. I spoke to Gwen Haney of the Regional Services Center, who told me that skateboarding “damages” the concrete covering the ice rink, yet last week I saw a concert in the same space with a big, heavy stage and multiple SUVs parked behind it. Couldn’t a 3,000-pound truck create more damage than a kid with a piece of wood?

Haney also told me that she “heard the thumps” of skaters in the plaza and was annoyed. But that noise is easily drowned out by rush hour traffic, idling trucks, passing trains, planes flying overhead, sirens, the screams of young children, and loud music from live concerts. This isn’t a library, it’s a plaza in the middle of an urban area. Noise is to be expected.

And even Rodriguez’ own statement on the decision insists that there’s no way to “consistently and successfully [regulate]” skateboarding in the plaza. Yet I’ve seen a security guard hustling eight-year-olds with rollerblades out of the plaza, and cops regularly patrol the space. It appears that regulation is possible, so why isn’t the county willing to consider it?

Though there’s been a lot of talk about letting spontaneity rule in Veterans Plaza, Montgomery County has firmly led the charge on how this public space is being used. It’s a very suburban response: if we don’t like something, we’ll send it somewhere else. While it hasn’t necessarily made the plaza a less vibrant place - as Cavan Wilk pointed out yesterday, people continue to flock there - it sets a bad precedent for dealing with future conflicts in the space.

Rodriguez talks to police officers who confiscated two teens’ skateboards

after a meeting last month. Photo by Chip Py.

The great challenge of Veterans Plaza, its predecessor “the Turf,” or any urban public space is that people will do things in it you do not like, and we still have to accommodate them. This area is vibrant, sometimes messy. Of course, no one wants to see people getting hurt or robbed there. But concerns about crime shouldn’t prompt us to try and control how our public spaces are used.

Ever since the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring began, I’ve had to defend it from people who complain that it feels “fake,” “sterile,” or “commercialized.” As I always say, “the buildings are fake, but the people are real.” Public spaces like Veterans Plaza allow us to create our own culture, drawing people who aren’t interested in places like Bethesda and Clarendon where redevelopment has made them less diverse, not more so.

To me, skaters are a representation of Silver Spring’s local culture. In downtown Silver Spring, skaters from affluent Chevy Chase and Kensington rub elbows with skaters from poor Langley Park and Petworth. Like the filmmakers who come here for the SilverDocs festival each summer, our skaters have built a pastime for themselves and those who watch them. The skaters I’ve met are smart, well-spoken and trying to become engaged in the community, which sounds right in line with Silver Spring’s history of liberal activism.

Yet County Executive Ike Leggett’s sent a message to them, and to all of us, that it’s not worth fighting for something you care about. Those in charge won’t listen to you, and they won’t give you good excuses, either.

A good square is a democracy - it gives people a place to call their own, but hopefully gives them a conscience about how their actions affect others. Users of Veterans Plaza deserve a chance to show they can take care of it. So far, they haven’t been given one.