Street performers in downtown Silver Spring draw a crowd in this photo taken in 2017 by the author.

Editor’s note: This article is part one of a two-part series exploring Silver Spring, Maryland’s historical and contemporary role as a Black space.

There are a lot of conversations going on right now about the future of downtown Silver Spring. Here’s one we should be having: Silver Spring is one of the region’s most significant Black business districts.

This winter, Montgomery County planners are working on recommendations for the Silver Spring Downtown Plan, which will guide the business district’s growth and evolution over the next twenty years. And a few months ago, the Montgomery County Council voted to move forward with the Silver Spring business improvement district, which would create a private non-profit to handle marketing and promotions for the downtown area.

While both of these efforts have discussed the role of small businesses in downtown, there hasn’t been a huge focus on specifically Black-owned or oriented businesses. A recent study found that of downtown’s 100+ “minority-serving” businesses, the majority of them focus on Black, Black African, and Caribbean patrons.

What does that look like in practice? In Silver Spring you’ll find a coworking space for the African diaspora and a hub of Black interior designers. On the weekends you’ll find Ethiopian, Jamaican, and Ivorian festivals, as well as the region’s only Black Pride event. And in the evenings you’ll see lines outside Black-owned clubs and bars like Society Lounge, Republic Garden, and Kaldi’s Social House, immortalized in a Tostitos commercial.

Silver Spring’s Ethiopian restaurant scene is well-known, but it’s Senegalese, Caribbean, and Southern barbecue restaurants are getting attention too. Not only were there several Black Lives Matter protests throughout Silver Spring last summer, but two designers painted a Black Lives Matter mural outside their downtown clothing store.

Georgia Avenue at Bonifant Street in Silver Spring, Maryland by Elvert Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Silver Spring as a “Black Space”

Silver Spring is usually depicted as a place with no majority race or ethnicity. As of 2019, Silver Spring inside the Beltway was 31% white, 32% Hispanic, 28% Black, and 7% Asian. Yet it has extra significance for Black residents: a 2018 study from Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau found it was one of the few places in the US where little Black boys do as well as their white counterparts as adults.

Armando Sullivan, an architect who grew up nearby, sits on the board of BlackSpace, a nonprofit that promotes places that center and support Black people. In an interview with GGWash, he calls Silver Spring a “Black space,” which he defines as “a feeling and an energy…if you feel your community reflected in your space, that gives you a sense of ease and tranquility.” He adds, “There are a lot of Black people [in Silver Spring] and I’ve always felt more comfortable in school because of that. I appreciated it culturally and from a safety standpoint.”

So even though Silver Spring isn’t majority-Black, many Black people claim it as their own.

Still, others don’t see Silver Spring’s larger contribution to the culture. TikTok user Coco J posted this viral video describing “the DMV” - a term that originated in the region’s Black community - as “DC, Prince George’s County, part of MoCo. We barely go past Silver Spring.” She adds, “We don’t even really bang with Silver Spring for real for real, we just use it for their little center area.”

It wasn’t always like this.

A brief history of Silver Spring’s Black middle class

Lyttonsville is a Black neighborhood in Silver Spring that dates to the 1850s, and DC’s historically Black and affluent Gold Coast lies just across Eastern Avenue from Silver Spring. But like most of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, the area was predominantly white and heavily segregated. Silver Spring had a concentration of jobs and shopping, growing housing stock, and access to transportation, but was largely off-limits to non-white people.

In the 1960s, Silver Spring became home to one of the region’s first integrated apartment complexes, and a subdivision a few miles away called Tamarack Triangle that intentionally welcomed Black homebuyers. But the area’s Black community was still small enough that comedian Dave Chappelle, who grew up here in the 70s and 80s, joked about how isolated he felt in a 2017 comedy special. Dry cleaner Samuel Myers, better known as Jim Dandy, is credited as the first Black small business owner in downtown, opening his shop in 1972.

By 1981, however, Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg called Silver Spring a “landing spot for a burgeoning Black middle class and the immigrants.” Another Post story in 1986 noted that 17 schools in Silver Spring and Takoma Park were at least 30% Black, twice the countywide rate. And in the 90s Prince George’s County, two miles to the east, emerged as the nation’s most affluent majority-Black county. This is pretty unusual: Rice University counts exactly 19 prosperous majority-Black zip codes nationwide, 11 of which are in the DC area. These comfortable Black communities form kind of a ring to the east of Silver Spring, stretching from eastern Montgomery County across Prince George’s south to Waldorf in Charles County, then looping back up through Wards 4, 5, and 7 in DC.

This presented an opportunity for businesses either for or by Black people. whether you’re Muhammad Ali trying to launch a chain of rotisserie chicken restaurants in 1994, opening a streetwear store named Ward 9, a nod to DC’s majority-Black suburbs, or launching the Black-owned media network TV One, which joined Discovery Communications in 2004 because of the area’s concentration of film production companies. In 1996, sisters Lene and Abeba Tsegaye opened Kefa Cafe, one of Silver Spring’s first Ethiopian businesses, which helped the area become a hub for the region’s Ethiopian community, the largest African immigrant group in the DC area.

900 block of Ellsworth Drive in Silver Spring by Elvet Barnes licensed under Creative Commons.

Silver Spring’s bright but fragile relationship with Black businesses

A few years ago, researchers at George Washington University noted that Silver Spring has remained racially diverse despite redevelopment that in other parts of the region has been associated with gentrification and displacement. There hasn’t been a lot of research as to why this is, but Silver Spring’s hub of Black businesses is a big part—and is arguably the big story in the downtown area right now. If you don’t believe me, just look at the lines of people outside the bars on Georgia Avenue most nights.

But this is fragile. Research for the Downtown Plan suggests that the area’s Black population is decreasing. Meanwhile, some Black business owners say they weren’t consulted in the creation of the BID, and in response, state legislators are looking at ways to make it more inclusive.

So how can we ensure that Silver Spring’s role as a Black space gets the attention and support it needs? I’ll talk about that in part two.

Dan Reed (he/they) is a writer, urban planner, and community advocate. Dan works with communities all over the United States to make their streets safer, enjoyable, and equitable. Their writing has appeared in publications including Washingtonian Magazine, the New York Times, CityLab, Architect Magazine, and Shelterforce. A resident of Silver Spring, Dan has written neighborhood blog Just Up the Pike since 2006.