There are many excellent reasons to oppose Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to spend $11 billion expanding the Capital Beltway to add paid toll lanes. It will be noisy and polluting; it will destroy homes and parkland; it will lower home values; it will benefit wealthy commuters at the expense of the poor; it will siphon money away from socially beneficial projects including public transportation; and according to independent research, it probably won’t alleviate traffic congestion.
These issues have been raised and debated since the governor first introduced the plan, and they remain so contentious that a recent Silver Spring rally against Beltway expansion drew about a thousand angry constituents, more than the civic center could hold.
I’d like to add one more important reason to the mix: It will destroy some of the last remaining neighborhoods where the American Dream is alive and well.
My wife and I, both New York City natives, relocated to the Washington, D.C., area in 2015, when I was hired to teach at American University. Relocating for professional reasons is difficult for anyone; you have to uproot yourself from a comfortable social and cultural milieu and attempt a successful transplant into unknown territory.
For a Jewish-and-black couple with two school-age kids, trying to get by on a middle-class income, we were especially nervous. Not only did we face the usual challenge of finding an affordable home in a county with good public schools, we had the added anxiety of being fish out of water: Multiracial urbanites in a suburb south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Finally, while I had a community of peers ready and waiting for me at AU, my wife, who is a professional musician and tax preparer, would have to build her new social and professional networks from scratch. Although she’s fierce and fearless on stage, she’s not what you’d call a gregarious person, and the prospect of social isolation was very real.
Somehow, we lucked out. Following the advice of a new colleague, we looked for a home in Montgomery County, Md., and with the aid of a wonderful Realtor, we managed to find a house we could afford in Silver Spring, zoned for excellent schools, about a block and a half south of the Beltway. While there’s a bit of white noise from the traffic, it’s well below the levels I heard growing up next to the Brooklyn Bridge.
As much as we love our home, however, we’re infinitely happier with the neighborhood that surrounds it. Our neighbors include immigrants from Central America, Africa and Asia; Unitarians, Baptists, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews; transplants from Texas, Seattle and New York; engineers, attorneys, activists, nurses, teachers, students and poets; Democrats and Republicans; black, white, Latinx, Asian and more multiracial families than I can name.
And here’s the best part: we don’t merely tolerate one another — we love each other. Not even in the Brooklyn of my youth did I experience so much neighborliness, and among such a diverse group of people. This isn’t just my personal feeling, it’s empirically true, as well: Silver Spring regularly ranks as one of the five most culturally and economically diverse cities in the country.
If Hogan’s Beltway expansion plans continue, all of that will disappear.
Thousands of families will have to choose between staying in our neighborhoods and exposing our children to increased noise and air pollution as well as the hassles of prolonged construction or selling our homes and moving away. The longer we wait, the more our home values will drop, and we’ll have to set our sights on a lower quality of life, in smaller houses, further from the District, with worse schools, or take on lifelong crippling debt to keep afloat. Our wonderful, diverse, loving neighbors will be scattered to the winds.
We’ve been lucky enough to live the American Dream in Silver Spring, and so have countless others. It’s an all too rare blessing. In an era of toxic political polarization, mounting racism, widening wealth gaps, and incipient climate catastrophe, can we really afford to throw that away just so a handful of wealthy commuters can get a lane to themselves?
The writer is an associate professor and chair of communications studies at American University.
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