The old neighborhood is the one people moved away from long ago, some with a firm grasp on its bygone realities, but for others their warmed over memories are coated with a gooey nostalgia. Not that there is any thing wrong with an occasional indulgence in mental cotton candy, which is why I joined an online group devoted to Wheaton, Maryland nostalgia.
From kindergarten through junior high I lived in the Glenmont section of Wheaton, Maryland just outside of DC in Montgomery County. Glenmont was similar to other post WWII working class suburbs that were hastily built or expanded to accommodate what came to be called the baby boomers. Glenmont was also very white and segregated. Maryland is a border state where slavery was once legal and segregation was not hard to find when I was growing up.
My parents moved there from DC’s inner city Shaw neighborhood in 1951. Most of the surrounding Glenmont houses were new, built for young families who qualified for low interest GI home loans from the government. With the new families moving in and new homes going up, there were no real neighborhood traditions around many of us. We had to create our own from scratch.
These traditions became the subject of our online nostalgia. Wheaton’s most famous landmark is its water tower which became a target for generations of graffiti artists, some of whom confessed their art crimes online. Wheaton is in Maryland’s hilly Piedmont country so on snowy days the steep double hill between Weller Road Elementary and Belt Junior High was always crowded with kids on sleds. Sometimes we’d get up to a dozen of us hooked together and slide down in a “train”. It’s a miracle no one was injured when we had sledding “train-wrecks”.
We discussed the Wheaton bowling alley with its long row of colorful noisy pinball machines, the romance of the Congressional Roller Rink and the old world charms of Marchones Delicatessen with its alluring aroma of fresh cheeses and exotic cold cuts. People reminisced about the family excursions to the immense Peter Pan restaurant out in rural Frederick County and the family picnics at Chesapeake Bay beach resorts.
Kids in Wheaton loved going to Glen Echo Amusement Park with it’s jaw jarring wooden roller coaster and its Crystal Pool complete with a towering water slide and multiple high dives. The Milt Grant teen dance show was broadcast from the deck of the Crystal Pool on the local NBC-TV affiliate. You could sometimes see familiar faces of the “big kids” among the dancers. Guitar virtuoso Link Wray was among the frequent guest stars who stopped by.
And who could forget the perpetually sticky floors of the Veirs Mill Theater with its Saturday afternoon matinees, its ill-behaved young audiences and the cheesy live acts between features that involved semi-trained animals and semi-pro magicians.
The reminiscences were frothy fun and it was not unusual for old friends to find one another through our digital chit chat.
A seemingly harmless nostalgia fest turns nasty
One winter day the subject came around to today’s Wheaton which is no longer a white working class enclave, but is now multi-racial, with many recent immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Some people were very unhappy about that.
They described the Wheaton area as a "shithole" that had been "abducted by aliens" who didn't need jobs because they get "welfare, health care and everything else for free." Wheaton was now a "3rd World country" and there was a call to "Occupy San Wheatonio". Wheaton had been "hijacked" and that residents without documents should be "tossed over the fence" so they could come back through the "front door, legally". There was a complaint that the municipal trash and recycling containers were also in Spanish which was “CATERING TO LATINOS"(their caps).
Today's Wheaton residents were criticized for speaking Spanish in public and that they should "learn to speak English the way our ancestors did!". Fox News was quoted as saying that Montgomery County had "the second highest number of illegal aliens". Another person described the situation with "illegal aliens" as "frightening." There was a fear of crime expressed. Wheaton's immigrant population was supposedly "xenophobic" and "anti-american". They were destroying the the "sovereignty of our country" on behalf of "lefty voters" and not "waving the flag" like the previous generation of legal immigrants. The term “La Raza” was defined as spewing racial hate…
Well, you get the idea.
So there you have it. For some baby boomers, Wheaton is no longer the virtually all-white segregated “Garden of Eden” of the 1950‘s -1960‘s. It had become a third world shithole of a slum teeming with illegal immigrants. A few people were very critical of the racist anti-immigrant tone of the discussion, but I think the whole thread made most people very uncomfortable and they quite were happy when the discussion returned to candy covered nostalgia.
I’ve gone back to Wheaton to visit several times and looked for this “shithole” of a Wheaton. Frankly, I couldn’t find it. Sure, most the stores are different. There has been more development. The color of the people is more multi-hued and they speak several languages, but other than that, I was surprised at how little the place had physically changed.
I was very hurt by the comments. Sure today’s Wheaton has crime, including violent offenses. It also has social problems. So does every working class community in this age of high unemployment and an all-out war on wages. But according to recent official stats, Wheaton’s crime rate is below the Maryland average. The official stats should be interpreted with caution though. Immigrants have little reason to trust the police and may not report crimes committed against them.
Crime and social problems are nothing new to Wheaton and its neighboring communities. Let’s set the WayBack machine to Montgomery County and the Wheaton region from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.
Crime in the Suburbs of Paradise
In 1956, police around the DC metro area noted a sharp increase in crime in the rapidly growing suburbs of Washington DC. Ironically this came at a time when crime within DC was decreasing. Montgomery County police chief James McAuliffe reported increases in larceny, auto theft and “all types of assaults.”
Wheaton area teenagers took part in robberies and car thefts. The teenage guy around the corner from me, a championship roller skater, was also a part-time burglar.
In 1963 a Montgomery County grand jury was especially alarmed by a rise in juvenile crime which came with an increase in thefts. The authorities noted the increase in larceny among teenage girls. When drugs moved in during the late 1960’s drug crime went up, thanks to our irrational drug laws. As the drug trade grew, drug dealers began carrying guns as robberies of drug dealers became an issue. In 1974 two Wheaton drug dealers were arrested when they tried to rob customers who were actually undercover Maryland state police.
There were cases of armed robbery, rape and an occasional murder. But crime back in those days, even with the drug trade, did not reach high levels of violence. Unemployment was still relatively low in Wheaton and poverty was not widespread.
Social problems? We had ‘em.
In my kid world, bullying, fighting and vandalism were common. I was ousted from a gang of boys (yes, we really did call it a “gang”) and got into repeated knockdown drag-out fist fights with them. They invaded our backyard and threw rocks at our house, nearly missing my baby sister’s window. Down the street from me were two boys about my age whose favorite activities seem to be fighting and vandalism. Around the corner were two kids who enjoyed setting fires and once started a serious brush conflagration in the field behind our house.
At the junior high there were frequent after school brawls where groups of black leather jacketed kids would circle around a fist fight and cheer on the combatants which led to subsidiary fights among the spectators. The boys washroom could be a scary place and getting slammed up against lockers or sucker punched in the hall were other hazards.
There were families with severe problems. The couple across the street had an altercation where one chased the other out the front door with a butcher knife. A girl I knew was subjected to domestic abuse and by her account, the school authorities covered it up. In my 7th grade English class, one kid made a serious suicide attempt because of family conflicts. A girl came to class regularly with deep cuts on her arms which she would sometimes open up with her fingernails so they bled on to her desk.
A severely dysfunctional family moved in next door to us and stayed there for only a few months. My parents inspected the unlocked empty house after they mysteriously moved away and found the interior severely trashed.They also discovered that the family had a poor understanding of modern plumbing. The smell was overwhelming.
The black and red of racism
On a July day in 1961, two young African American brothers, John and James Giles were brought to the Wheaton-Glenmont police station. Along with their African American friend Joe Johnson, they later went on trial at the newly constructed Rockville, Maryland courthouse for the rape of a young white woman.
“Despite their pleas of innocence, contradictory testimony by the accuser, and exonerating evidence in the state's attorney's office, the three men were convicted and sentenced to death.”— from An American Rape
After years of intense work by the Giles-Johnson Defense committee, all three men were released because they were innocent of the charges. But such was the racial climate in Montgomery County, most whites had simply assumed their guilt from the beginning. They were black. Their accuser was white. What else did you need to know? This even included some members of the defense committee who joined initially solely because of their opposition to the death penalty.
It was Montgomery County’s own Scottsboro case.
Obtaining justice in the Giles-Johnson case was hampered by the Cold War red scare. Communists had been very active in the civil rights movement during the Great Depression and the immediate post WWII period. Segregationists seized upon this to label the entire civil rights movement “communist” inspired.
A lot of people were afraid to sign petitions, join organizations, attend a protest or even talk about their social views publicly. McCarthyism and the persecution of communists sent people to jail or into the blacklisted world of unemployment. Even to associate with someone who had communist, socialist or even vaguely liberal views could put a person under suspicion. A dull gray cloud of fear and conformity hung over Wheaton during that time.
Among my Wheaton contemporaries, the “N word” and nasty racial jokes were just a part of the white boy culture I grew up with. The only black people I ever saw in Glenmont were the “garbage men”, who appeared on a weekly basis with huge burlap sacks to collect the neighborhood trash and dump it in the garbage truck as it rolled slowly down the street. They were unsmiling purposeful men who studiously ignored me as I watched them. Some neighbors locked their doors on such days because it was “well known” that black people were “natural thieves”.
Most Montgomery County black people during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s lived in small isolated communities often without paved roads or running water. Employment discrimination was severe so poverty was a serious problem. Until the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, schools were segregated.
Romeo Horad, a real estate developer and a spokesperson for a black business-owners group, presented testimony to the county Board of Commissioners as reported by the Washington Post in 1948:
“He charged the county government ‘disregarded’ conditions at Negro schools which, he said, include no running water, outdoor privy toilets, schools located far from negro population centers, some beside railroad tracks. All Negro schools, he said, were over crowded.”
Although school segregation formally ended in Montgomery County soon after Brown decision, I had no black classmates until my parents moved away to another nearby suburb when I was 14. Even then, blacks were a small minority of the school and were concentrated in the lower academic tracks. There were almost no latinos in Montgomery County until the 1960’s when Cuban refugees began moving into communities like Takoma Park and East Silver Spring.
However there were a small number of Asian-Americans, including a Chinese-American kid who lived on the next block. He was treated to choruses of “Chink Chink Chinaman, sittin’ on a fence, tryin’ to make a dollar out of 99 cents.” One day he exploded into a terrifying rage and attacked the lead singer. That was last time I heard that little ditty.
Since there was no public swimming pool in Glenmont, I would go to the Wheaton Recreation Center with my swim suit and towel and get bused to Glen Echo Amusement Park’s Crystal Pool which was then white-only. The County continued to send Wheaton kids to this segregated facility until 1960. The entire park was segregated until protests forced its racial integration in 1961. The Chesapeake Bay beaches where Wheaton families went for weekend picnics were segregated. In some Montgomery County neighborhoods, residents created “swim clubs” that continued to segregate because they were supposedly “private”. This remained a problem well into the late 1960’s.
Under pressure from Montgomery County’s civil rights movement, the County finally passed a public accommodations law in 1962 ending segregation in the remaining restaurants and public facilities. However housing segregation and racial steering did not immediately disappear.
Wheaton’s relative white isolation had its effect on kids growing up there. When the civil rights movement hit in the 1960’s, we had a lot of racial mythology to unlearn. I had many wonderful childhood experiences in Wheaton, but the ugly side of the community helped teach me that there was nothing superior about white people.
Some of us became “race rebels” and actively opposed the culture of segregation and white supremacy, seeking out contacts with people of color. Others however preferred to remain in their segregated bubbles, even as the world around them was changing. Some former Wheatonites are apparently still living in their little white bubbles decades later. They repeat ugly stereotypes about immigrants of color that were once applied to blacks.
Face it– white people never had it so good.
For our parents, jobs were plentiful and 1 out of every 3 workers was in a union, which raised wages for everyone, even non-union workers. Small businesses flourished because working class people had money to spend. The best jobs were usually reserved for whites, which gave them an advantage. The National Labor Relations Act left out agricultural and domestic workers, who were overwhelmingly black and brown people, so that poverty began to look increasing non-white.
As far as schooling goes, a lot of our dads qualified for a free college education because of the GI Bill, but since many colleges and universities were still formally or informally segregated, this was not equally shared with veterans of color. The University of Maryland was nearby, but college president Curley Byrd maintained a whole segregated black college system to keep African Americans out of the College Park campus which had the best facilities.
The Montgomery County schools, continued to be informally segregated because of housing patterns. Fair housing was the toughest battle the Montgomery County civil rights movement had to fight.
Housing? The little house I lived in on Weller Road was purchased on generous low interest terms thanks to the Gl Bill of Rights. We lived in federally assisted housing, but no one thought there was anything wrong with that. The government guaranteed low interest loans in suburbs like Glenmont which were often formally or informally segregated, making it tougher on veterans of color. The schools in the community received federal impact funding because of the large number of government workers who lived there. Old country roads like Georgia Ave which went directly into DC were expanded with government money to accommodate the rapidly expanding commuter population.
I could go on but I’ll stop there. Besides Katznelson’s book, you could read Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness if you want to know more about the history of 20th century white privilege. The white working class received generous government assistance during those times.
Boomer white kids were living in a period of white working class prosperity not seen before or since. Despite the threat of nuclear war and the threat of being sent to die in Vietnam after we turned 18, the economy was as good as it was ever going to get for us.
Wheaton today: The battle for economic survival
Wheaton’s present working class population is struggling against the worst economy since the Great Depression, a badly broken social welfare system, our irrational immigration policies and the USA’s persistent institutional racism.
Instead of low interest home loans there is mortgage fraud committed by mega-banks with the accompanying foreclosures.
An inexpensive college education can be tough to find, causing a student debt crisis that may result in another bank bailout. Instead of a strong labor movement to keep wages and benefits up, unions are fighting for their very existence. The gap between rich and poor is the worst ever.
Oh, and the whole thing about “Why don’t they learn English?” Immigrant kids are learning English and hopefully are hanging on to their parents’ languages. Knowing two or more languages is good for the brain and makes people smarter. If somebody wants to speak Khymer, Mandarin, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish or whatever, that’s their business. Check out the 1st Amendment under freedom of speech.
It was the USA who made war on Mexico and took the northern chunk of its territory to expand slavery. The USA also took over Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. The result is that Spanish is now a US language. As I have heard Mexican-Americans say,”We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us.”
And who sent our military and CIA to Latin America to support terrorism and mass murder on behalf of US based corporations, keeping people in desperate poverty and creating massive refugee crises? Mexican peasants were driven off their ancestral lands because of NAFTA even as US industries were seeking cheap labor in Mexico. The USA has never respected the borders of other nations in this hemisphere. What goes around comes around.
Today’s Wheaton reflects the diversity of the American working class
The Wheaton population by race:
Montgomery County as a whole reports a non-hispanic white population of about 47%. In the 1950’s, white people made up about 95% of Montgomery County.
According to a market analysis done for the Maryland Department of Transportation Wheaton’s diversity is one of its economic strengths:
One characteristic that defines Wheaton and makes it unique in the region is its eclectic ethnic restaurant, retail, and food concentration. Building a destination strategy that draws on this asset, such as a public market that incorporated ethnic retail, food stalls, related events, and support for entrepreneurs in these businesses, could be a worthwhile strategy to pursue.
But Wheaton’s diversity has an importance far beyond the possibilities of an ethnic food court and open air market. White supremacy was first developed in the 17th century as a form of labor control. Over the years it evolved into an institutionalized racial caste system, dividing the American working class so that its potential power is stymied. Diverse working class communities like Wheaton demonstrate that the social pathology of racism may not be an inevitable fact of life in the USA.
As a nation we have allowed a wealthy elite almost free rein to plunder resources, exploit labor and make war around the planet. When compared to 20 other developed nations we have the worst poverty rate, the greatest inequality of incomes and the highest infant mortality rate. Recent figures put out by the US Census bureau suggest that almost half of the USA either lives in poverty or is considered low income.
After the 2008 Crash the Pew Research Center surveyed the economic wreckage among black and hispanic households. The average black household had $5,677 in wealth with the average for hispanic households set at $6,325. By contrast, white households had an average $113,149 in wealth. This was 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic. Much of this white wealth has passed down as family capital from the glory days of the immediate post WWII economic boom. But don't forget, that $113,149 figure is an average. With nearly half of the country in poverty or close to it, many of those people in dire economic trouble are white. Still those average numbers suggest one reason why working class unity can be tough to achieve.
Poverty is not an accident. It’s a deliberate policy. So is the racial caste system that is used to keep people in poverty. If we can overcome racial divisions in the working class, than perhaps we can summon the political strength to change those policies. If multiracial communities like Wheaton can make racial diversity work, the lessons of that experience would be a great gift to the movement for social justice.
Montgomery Negroes Ask Better Schools by (Washington Post June 14,1948)
Integration in Maryland Lags Outside of Schools by Lawrence Stern (Washington Post March 4, 1958)
Where did justice go? By Frances Strauss
Maryland’s Mockingbird Case by Patrick Hughes
Twenty Years of Civil Rights Progress by David Brack
Working Toward Whiteness by David Roediger
Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income by the Associated Press
Five Teenagers Held in Series of Robberies (Washington Post May 25, 1953)
District Avoids Spiral in Crime Rate of Nation by Albon Haley (Washington Post April 26, 1957)
Maryland Jury is Alarmed by Juvenile Crime Increase (Washington Post October 10, 1963)
6 Accused of Trying to Rob 2 Undercover Md. Troopers by Gail Robinson (Washington Post July 20, 1974)