Two weeks ago, former Montgomery County Councilmember Rose Crenca was quoted by the Examiner as saying that people who don’t want to live in a suburb should leave the county.
I watched her testimony at a recent County Council hearing on the CR (Commercial-Residential) Zone, where she first made the comment, and this exchange afterwards between her and sitting Councilmember George Leventhal:
Councilmember Leventhal: This [question] is for my neighbor Rose Crenca. You’ve given so much to the county over the years, but I wanted to make sure I understood you correctly. Did you say that people who disagree with you on a zoning issue should please leave the county?
Rose Crenca: (Laughs.) Did I- Did I disagree with what?
Leventhal: (He repeats the question.)
Crenca: Only if they want to live in an urban area. Montgomery County is defined as suburban. All the people I know saved their money to go buy houses in suburbia, the perfect suburbia, Montgomery County. Now somebody’s decided we’re not suburbia anymore, we’re gonna be urbia. And I’m saying no, we’re gonna be suburbia. If you want to live in urbia, there are plenty of those places around. And there’s some good ones. Go.
Leventhal: You’re part of the tradition and history of this county, but civility and respect for people’s opinions is also part of the tradition and history of this county.
Crenca: True. But I’m talking about is change - changing what is here. And I’m saying that we din’t have any process to vote on changing what is here. This being a democracy I thought there’d have been a plebiscite or something. I don’t recall that and I’ve been here since 1949.
Councilmember Nancy Floreen: (Interrupts.) I think Mrs. Crenca was using her pulpit to make a point, and she made a point.
It’s kind of tragic to hear Crenca lament a world that doesn’t really exist anymore. I always wonder if, after a certain age, people lose their capacity to accept new information in their lives and just revert back to whenever they decided they were happiest.
In the 1940’s, when much of Montgomery County was farmland, some people were probably upset to see their communities transition from rural to suburban. Others might have been excited at the prospect of new amenities, new neighbors, and the county’s emerging reputation as an affluent bedroom community.
But no one really voted for that change to happen. It happened because of market demand for new housing, a lack of buildable land in Washington (and the declining status of the inner city), and a county government who, much like today, saw that people were coming and wanted to accommodate them appropriately.
Sixty years later, Montgomery County is a very different place. It’s a majority-minority county now. The Post did a story just yesterday about the gigantic Asian community in Montgomery County. Though many of those Asian immigrants have settled in so-called “suburban” places like Rockville or Germantown, studies show that they’re interested in a greater sense of community, including the ability to walk to shops and amenities. For people who grew up in dense Asian cities, Montgomery County is the “perfect suburbia,” but not in the same way that Crenca describes it.
Not to mention, of course, that Crenca is 85 and part of a growing population of senior citizens in Montgomery County and the region as a whole. Many of these retirees will want to stay in their homes and communities, but those who can’t drive anymore are essentially trapped in the “perfect suburbia.” That’s one reason why retiring Baby Boomers are flocking to urban neighborhoods.
That raises a bigger question, though: if retirees are going to live in Montgomery County, how do we pay for the services they need? If they’re not working, the county doesn’t get their income tax revenue. And if we send away all the people who might like an urban lifestyle in Montgomery County, like young professionals, immigrants, and retirees, then we’re losing that money as well.
Montgomery County became the “perfect suburbia” because people were invited in. We could turn people away who don’t look like us, who don’t think like us, who want to live in apartments, who make less money than us or get around on foot or by bus. But we wouldn’t suddenly go back to 1949 as a result. In fact, the county that would result would be far, far worse than what we have today.
Many people worry that plans to encourage urban development in Montgomery County is “imposing” a way of life on them. In fact, the opposite is true. Those, like Crenca, who still cling to a “perfect suburbia” which may or may not have existed, are the ones telling other people how to live.