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Black And White In Potomac's Play Places

Just as Candy Binson Smith was telling me about life without indoor plumbing or electricity in the 1960s in Scotland, the tiny black neighborhood tucked away along a dead-end street in affluent Potomac, the lights in the gymnasium next to us flickered and died.

Eight boys who had been playing hoops on the too-small court under a leaky roof slowly left the pitch-black gym, dropping the basketball and wandering outside to hang out in the street. The gym went dark as if to illustrate exactly what Smith and several other lifelong Scotlandites had been telling me about: the sad neglect Montgomery County has shown this and other community centers in the county's black neighborhoods.

Montgomery's 18 recreation centers include spectacular, modern facilities such as the one three miles away in the affluent part of Potomac. But conditions are grim at this decrepit, leaky building in Potomac's unseen back lot.

Many blacks in the county, Maryland's most affluent, wonder why evidence of official neglect pops up primarily at centers in places such as Scotland and the black sections of Sandy Spring and Silver Spring. Montgomery's population is 17 percent black, according to the census.

Led by organizers from the faith-based advocacy group Action in Montgomery, students, parents and church leaders are pushing to get the centers renovated pronto, and the County Council is now offering early support. The county acknowledges that conditions have deteriorated at some centers, but officials say the sliding economy makes it hard to launch projects right now.

Scotland's center has no full-time director, no weekend hours, no place for kids to hang out after school, none of the spiffier amenities available down the road where the rich people live.

While Olney and South Germantown sport spacious, well-equipped centers with extensive programs -- and while the county has set aside millions to build centers in North Bethesda and North Potomac -- at Scotland's center, all four of the computer printers that kids use to do homework are dead. Neighborhood youngsters must use the building in shifts; teens literally wait out on the street for three hours at a stretch while the little kids are inside getting tutoring or after-school care.

Those who grew up in Scotland, where until the 1960s residents had to get water by carrying buckets to a nearby spring, gave up their houses and land in exchange for the county coming in to build a housing development where many of the settlement's original families still reside. "Growing up, it wasn't like I was ashamed, but we knew it was different here," Smith says. At school in the 1950s and early '60s, "I knew I was different because my clothes smelled like kerosene," which Scotland families burned for heat and light.

Smith and others moved away while Scotland was being rebuilt; they returned to see that their one road had been paved, and county services extended into the neighborhood, just off Seven Locks Road between Democracy Boulevard and Tuckerman Lane. The community center was the county's expression of regret for the many years in which Scotland was wholly ignored, residents say.

"Finally, we had a place to go," Odelia Dove Cooper recalls. "We used it for dances and church events, bingo, game night, Weight Watchers classes."

Today, although the Potomac center is open 76 hours a week and is fully staffed and stocked with summer camps and programs for seniors, kids and others, Scotland's center is open only 45 hours a week. Kids are bused to Potomac for many activities.

"We can't bring our friends here," says Aida Sow, a senior at Churchill High. "They make the high school kids leave the building every day from 3 to 6 while the little kids use it. So all we can do is hang out outside, and everybody looks at us and thinks we're doing something illegal."

"It's a pattern," says Deborah Martins, 16, a junior at Sherwood High who has been rallying fellow students to lobby the county to fix up the Ross Boddy center in Sandy Spring. "In the more predominantly African American neighborhoods, they're just not up to par with the centers in more affluent communities."

Some residents of a new subdivision near Ross Boddy where houses go for $900,000 have wandered by to check out the center, says Janay White, another Sherwood junior. "The new people come and take a look and they don't come back," White says. "It's not a race issue. Our center just doesn't suit their needs."

After County Executive Isiah Leggett, facing a budget deficit of more than $300 million, recommended delaying the renovation of the centers, hundreds of supporters gathered this month to press the County Council for a quicker fix. When Council member Roger Berliner of Potomac proposed to set aside $17 million to rebuild the neglected centers, a majority embraced the idea. The plan awaits final approval May 15.

The irony here, of course, is that those with the greatest needs get the least, while those whose means grant them plenty of alternatives -- private sports clubs and the like -- get the best public facilities as well. This is the opposite of the approach in the District, which is nobody's idea of a recreation center paradise, but still: The city has put its newest, best-outfitted recreation centers in poorer parts of town, while affluent neighborhoods go entirely without publicly-supported facilities.

That's hardly a good solution either, but you'd think a wealthy community such as Montgomery could find a way to keep the lights on where they are most needed.

By Marc Fisher |  April 20, 2008; 10:17 AM ET
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I grew up east of Potomac and would run into the strange, underdeveloped areas of the county periodically in the 1980s, such as Scotland, but also rural white areas. What we never quite understood was why the Scotlandites didn't visit the nicer, newer, facilities "3 miles away." Scotland is NOT a big, populace neighborhood and the fact it has a local facility at all when so many Bethesda neighborhoods have no rec center, is really quite a feat in itself. I grew up with no rec center I could bike to because IT'S MONTGOMERY COUNTY, IT'S SPREAD OUT!!!

Posted by: DCer | April 20, 2008 4:05 PM

Montgomery's government greases the squeakiest wheels. Those who have time to squeak are almost always people who live lives with enough money that they don't have to scramble for it.

Posted by: Lindemann | April 20, 2008 4:29 PM

Marc - Many of us grew up in rural areas where, heaven forbid, we had no swank rec centers. Yet, amazingly, most of us grew up to be decent folks.

Apparently the county provides regular bus service the three miles to the new swank rec centers?

If so, I'm not really sure what the complaint here is. Taking a 15 minute free ride to a rec center hardly qualifies as a horrific hardship that needs immediate redress.

Posted by: Hillman | April 20, 2008 4:37 PM

First of all, I wouldn't call the Potomac Recreational Center "swank". Obviously it has services that perhaps the other rec center doesn't have. So this article is a bit of hyperbole. Also, the Potomac Rec Center is much less than 3 miles from the Scotland community so why doesn't the Scotland inhabitants use the Potomac Rec Center? Do the persons who live in Scotland not want to interact with other Potomac residents?

With all of the unfair disparities in this country, you choose to highlight what could be conceived as a non-issue. I don't know what the situation is like in other parts of the county, but in Potomac, it seems to be much ado about nothing.

Posted by: anonymous | April 20, 2008 5:03 PM

It's also the same residents in the more affluent parts of the county that pay the majority of the taxes that go to build the nice centers and secure the amentities that are available to ALL residents. You state in the very beginning of your article that the neighborhood is a "tiny, dead end" neighborhood where running water and electricity are relatively recent innovations, and then you rant that the same place doesn't have a huge, state of the art Rec. center. Do you really think that there is something wrong with the neighborhoods that have contributed the majority of the finances for the centers have closer access to them? You cite Washington D.C. as a model to aspire to, as if somehow putting the majority of the new public amenities in the poorest areas is somehow a fair idea. Your view that because people have money means that they should be punished by not being given the benefit of tax dollars or public amenities is ridiculous, and it's also one of the main factors contributing to this new "Gimmee Gimmee", hand out, where's mine? welfare class that you seem determined to build. It's very simple, who ever paid the most toward the rec. center gets to be a little closer to it (3 miles? Give me a break.) and every one else can just ride a bike, or take a bus, or walk to it. Actually, by your reasoning, maybe everyone who has financial means should be forced to purchase a new car and give it to the poor and then take the bus. Puuuuuulease!

Posted by: 0 Deg. Kelvin | April 20, 2008 5:19 PM

I've never even heard of Scotland before. Can I buy an affordable MoCo house there?! I don't care if I have to drive 3 miles to a fancy rec center ... I don't even exercise all that much. I just want too be able to afford a house somewhere that isn't crime-ridden and nasty.

Posted by: mccxxiii | April 20, 2008 5:48 PM

Interesting piece. There is legitmate need there, but its not just there. As many posters feel free to express, there is plenty of calling for cutting programs and lowering taxes.

The basic math does not change. You can keep everything new and clean...for a price. The price is paid by tax dollars. The article points to race as a factor in neglect, and MoCo IS still part fot eh United States.

The best possible scenario would be for this community to get more attention when budget priorities are considered for FY2009. Or if some rich donor cares to pitch in before that...perhaps some improvements will be made.

Posted by: Donny | April 20, 2008 5:55 PM

mccxxiii, I can't tell if you're just naive or being facetious. You are capable of buying a house anywhere someone is selling. Scotland at one time was primarily rentals and close-knit community of people who bought houses when most of Maryland was segregated, let's say, 1930s-40s. When I saw the houses in the 1980s they were wrecked and some people had RVs parked on the lawns as in-law suites. We were catty teenagers, but it was a quasi-rural enclave. I would not suggest for one moment that it gave the impression of being not "crime-ridden and nasty" as you warn us, indeed it was. As were many depression-era neighborhoods in MoCo from Poolesville to Cabin John to Glen Echo.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 20, 2008 9:16 PM

I'm not *trying* to be either, but if you force me to pick I'll cop to naive. I've lived in D.C. in crappy rental housing for 4 years, and I'd love to be able to buy, but the only neighborhoods I can afford are crime-ridden and nasty.

I have honestly never heard of Scotland, but I'd happily investigate a neighborhood that's in Montgomery County (therefore presumably not *too* awful) but maybe isn't as expensive because it's not super-fancy. I really don't care about the rec center at all, I just want to be able to afford to buy somewhere that I can walk my dog at night without getting mugged.

Am I making the wrong assumption about Scotland?

Posted by: mccxxiii | April 21, 2008 11:02 AM

0 deg Kelvin wrote: You state in the very beginning of your article that the neighborhood is a "tiny, dead end" neighborhood where running water and electricity are relatively recent innovations, and then you rant that the same place doesn't have a huge, state of the art Rec. center.

But Kelvin seems to be imagining that the place didn't have running water and electricity because the residents didn't have the drive or the pep, or whatever to get them. They didn't have utilities because the county didn't provide them. The point of community rec centers is not to entertain rich residents who can afford to keep themselves amused. Usually, you have a community center to provide a place that otherwise wouldn't exist. Is it so controversial to give poor students a place to study and do their homework, without having to catch a bus to do so? The big fancy center could have been built in Scotland, and then the rich kids could ride the bus or drive over.

Posted by: annapolis | April 21, 2008 12:16 PM

As the saying goes, as much as times change, they also remain the same. The flippant local dismissal of a dilapidated rec center and the apathetic case of amnesia that's eased New Orleans off the national priorities list are symptoms of a 400-year-old discussion that few, if any in this country, seem willing to openly and honestly engage in. Slavery, lynchings, and cross burnings are no longer the norm but, for many people of color, the combined blows of subtle modern-day racism and white privilege continue to be felt in everyday life.

The players, costumes, and backdrops have changed but, sadly, the gist of Dr. King's words still rings relevant:


For years now, I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never."

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait."

But, when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "ni--er," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured. (MLK, Jr.)


This isn't a dollars and cents issue: It's a hearts and humans one.

A Scotland Resident

Posted by: MM | April 21, 2008 1:21 PM

I used to live in MOCO and am somewhat familiar with this neighborhood. I am a little shocked at some of the comments on his blog-when did people become so callous?

This neighborhood is off a very busy street with no bike paths so how are these kids supposed to ride their bikes to the closest rec center? I doubt there area a lot of stay at home moms there, so the kids can't get a ride from mom in the family volvo. Lastly, what parent would put their 8 or 10 year old on a public bus?

Marc is correct. We put the centers where the need is the greatest. We take care of the kids who need the most help. For those who complain that they are entitled to the best because that pay a lot in taxes get over yourself and become a more charitable person.

Posted by: VA observer | April 21, 2008 1:34 PM

There are many neighborhoods in Montgomery County where there the nearest rec center is more than 2 miles away and the nearest playground is more than a mile away. We have to drive to all of those things, including the library--the nearest one is a 10 min drive away. This is not unique to Potomac, nor is it necessarily an affliction of predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

MoCo is not a county of neighboroods. It developed along rail and streetcar lines and as it spread, development overtook existing farmland. The District was planned, so its neighborhoods could accomodate little parks, playgrounds, rec centers and libraries.

Posted by: mdreader1 | April 22, 2008 12:04 PM

When you walk into the doctor's office with an unknown illness or a broken bone, the medical team draws blood, gives shots, and fills in the blanks through conversation.

Unless they're inept or incompetent beyond belief (and you're a doormat of a patient), they don't just eyeball you from a distance, hand over a bottle of TheraFlu or a handful of Tylenol pills, and shoo you out the door. "Your cough sounds identical to the cough of the guy we treated an hour ago. Just take's what we gave him."

Comparatively, the issue that this article spotlights mirrors that scenario. On the surface, it's a cough -- a common ailment that many others are afflicted with. But, once you, as the treating physician, have gotten a full accounting of the historical ups and downs behind that cough -- a "full workup" if you will -- it's quite possible that your end diagnosis and treatment protocol may wind up three-hundred-and-sixty degrees from where it was when you (decked out in your protective Hazmat suit) first observed the patient from five yards across the room.

It's all too easy to fire off off-the-cuff decisions and pronouncements when all the symptoms leading up to the problem haven't been disclosed. But resolving -- or not resolving -- an issue without acknowledging that there was ever one to begin with is more damaging and divisive than productive or healing.

No newspaper article or television story will ever be able to detail the full A-Z backstory of any one individual or community. In an ideal world, people would (before scribbling and handing over their presciptions) put down their newspapers, switch off their TVs/computers, and climb into the car to see and experience what they've been reading/hearing about with their own eyes and ears. But...this isn't that world.

As I read through some of the comments here, I see a mix of glaring ignorance, misperceptions -- and outright lies.

Abstract stories on a page and abstract pictures on TV will always be abstract stories on a page and abstract pictures on TV until we each take personal responsibility for getting involved, digging deeper, and making them tangible.

This article may look like it's about a recreation center. But, in reality, it's about so much more.

Posted by: MM | April 22, 2008 4:34 PM

"Little about the Potomac community of Scotland hints at its historic significance as one of the earliest African American settlements in Montgomery County or the subsequent treatment that nearly obliterated it.

"Today, Scotland is a 10-acre enclave of 100 townhouses off Seven Locks Road, built with the assistance of grants and government funding in the 1960s. But the community dates back to 1879 when, for $210, former slave William Dove bought 36 acres of land at auction."

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