Throwback Thursday - to 25 Years Ago
From Suzanne Ludlow, City Manager of Takoma Park
Twenty-five years ago today, I walked into a much smaller Takoma Park City Hall building for my first day of work with the City. As I moved things into my new office, I met Bruce Williams, just elected to the Council. Other Councilmembers I remember early on were Mayor Ed Sharp, Kathy Porter and Marc Elrich.
My first days were a whirlwind. My first assignment was to coordinate notifying residents near Sligo Creek that WSSC’s start of construction that week of a pipeline and hiker-biker trail along the creek would chase rats into adjacent neighborhoods. I jumped into unfinished, and sometimes contentious, work on plans regarding affordable housing, transportation and open space. My father-in-law, with whom I was staying at first, worried about my many late meetings and the stress level of the work.
My husband and I soon rented a place near the TPSS Food Co-op on Sligo Avenue. While I had known of Sammie Abbott for years, I learned more about Takoma Park’s history with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, it’s declining reputation as “Tacky Park,” how large divided houses were made to “phase back” to single family homes. I learned that more folks from Central America lived in Ward 6, from Vietnam in Ward 5, long-time African American residents tended to live in Wards 4 and 2, and a growing number of folks from Ethiopia and West Africa were moving into apartments in the heart of town.
Each time a resident called for service, I learned to ask if they lived in Montgomery or Prince George’s County because different regulations applied and different grants were available. The County line that separated the city went through people’s homes and sent kids from the same neighborhood to different schools. State and County officials tended to overlook Takoma Park because the whole city wasn’t in their jurisdiction, so advocacy on behalf of residents was very difficult.
While much was special about City services, including the recreation programs, recycling, tree protection and individual attention to resident needs, I saw problems within the City operations. Our rudimentary computers were maintained by a code enforcement employee who worked on them in his spare time, personnel policies were inconsistent, and, most concerning, financial practices were questionable.
From 1995-1997, I oversaw the logistics of “Unification” which was the moving of the county line so that all of Takoma Park was in Montgomery County. It was an intense education in the intricacies of the services of both counties. In 1995, the Pinecrest neighborhood applied for annexation into Takoma Park so that it would not be an unincorporated outpost of Prince George’s County west of New Hampshire Avenue after Unification took place. That neighborhood had little stormwater infrastructure, terrible roads, and the residents were mostly older people in modest homes.
As Unification became effective in 1997, I was appalled to learn that many residents on the Prince George’s County side of the City had their insurance rates lowered simply by “moving” to Montgomery County – insurance red-lining continues to exist.
Before coming to Takoma Park I was a city planner in Greensboro, NC and Rochester, NY. That training was helpful in coordinating the City’s response to proposals to develop at the Takoma Metro property and Washington Adventist Hospital. The biggest project, however, was revealed to me at a Maryland Alternatives to the Beltway Open House. It turns out that road engineers had determined that only a light rail line through Silver Spring and Takoma Park would be able to accommodate the number of east-west travelers predicted to travel through the area. As the only Takoma Park representative at the meeting, all of the engineers wanted to talk to me. Would Takoma Park oppose the project? After a good amount of study and Council consideration, the City of Takoma Park pushed for the Purple Line, recognizing the long-term environmental and economic benefits for the City.
For years, part of my job was to be a lobbyist for the City, and the City was successful in protecting many of its values – as a Sanctuary City, supporting same sex couples, having rent stabilization – from State legislation that would undermine them and in gaining funds for expanding City Hall into the Community Center of today.
Before information was available on line, I found out when to testify in Annapolis from schedules received in the mail or by concerned staff in Senator Ida Ruben’s office giving me a hurried phone call.
As City Managers changed, City financial management, construction oversight and personnel policies were greatly improved. I learned more and more about best practices in city operations, emergency management, labor law and budgeting and became the Deputy City Manager. After two stints as Acting City Manager, I was appointed City Manager in April 2015.
As I look back, there are many things that are the same: the hours are long, resident engagement is high and the issues of affordable housing, transportation, and protecting community values remain. Some of the changes are remarkable: City staff are more professional, the City’s financial management is excellent, the Pinecrest neighborhood is full of young families, the Vietnamese families have all moved away, and the Purple Line is being constructed. Plus, cell phones! It all blends together in my mind until I remember that I attended that first Purple Line meeting with my four year old son and now he is out of college.
There are a number of City staff that were here when I started – Daryl Braithwaite and Ellen Robbins are among them. But, there are more staff now that weren’t even born when I was hired in 1993! No matter the age, though, I appreciate the comradery. Whether it’s a friendly honk from a Public Works guy passing me on the street, Rec staff helping me close the buildings during a snow storm, or creative brainstorming with folks from several departments trying to address a problem, I thoroughly enjoy working with the great staff of the City of Takoma Park.
I’ve also enjoyed working with the Councilmembers, as well as elected officials and staff from other governmental bodies. Residents should feel truly proud of the dedicated public servants who work on their behalf.
Some of my most valued connections, though, are with the Takoma Park residents that I’ve worked with on projects, as well as those who know me better as Langston’s mom, Vince’s wife or Anne’s daughter.
In the next few years, large changes will come to Takoma Park. With the skills and strong will of the Council, community and staff, I believe most of the changes will be positive. The biggest threats to Takoma Park are climate change and the cost of housing in the DC area. What Takoma Park has going for it, though, are the young leaders already making their mark. They are really something!
Wonder what Takoma Park will be like in 2043?