As Reemberto Rodriguez walks north through the streets next to the Sligo-Branview neighborhood in Silver Spring, toward the Capital Beltway, he points out a small yard sign that reads “Don’t Widen Interstate 495.”
“By the way, that’s critical,” he said. “[In] this neighborhood, that’s one of the major issues.”
Rodriguez, the director of Montgomery County government’s regional office in Silver Spring, turns his attention to the sounds around him on a Sunday morning outing. A pleasing backdrop of birdsong and thrumming cicadas now fights against the hum of vehicles on a nearby highway.
“[Walking neighborhood streets] is how I get to know and learn more about what they mean when they say ‘don’t widen 495,’” he said.
Rodriguez, 63, announced in July his intention to walk “almost” every street in Silver Spring. For the regional director and longtime resident, the journey combines meeting the community he serves with his love of exploration.
Rodriguez moved from Georgia to Silver Spring 16 years ago with his wife, Geraldina Dominguez, the director of the AIDS Malignancy Program at the National Institute of Health’s Cancer Institute.
“This sounds cliché to say, but Geraldina and I, we fell in love with Silver Spring,” Rodriguez said.
He speaks of the area in an almost romantic way. He champions Silver Spring as a small but diverse “non-pretentious” place where someone with a high income can live modestly, and where empathy usually abounds.
Rodriguez said that walking all of Silver Spring (or close to it) was an idea he has had for some time. The disruption of the coronavirus pandemic created a chance for him to do it.
Before the pandemic, Rodriguez discovered that Silver Spring is compact enough that, if he walked instead of drove to work, it only added 15 minutes to his commute when he factored in the time he spent parking. It became a daily routine.
Then the outbreak hit, and suddenly Rodriguez and Dominguez were stuck at home. They exercised, but mostly walked around their immediate neighborhood.
One day, Rodriguez said, he and his wife watched part of “Forrest Gump” when the eponymous character runs across the country.
“Surely I can walk every street in Silver Spring,” Rodriguez recalled thinking. “It was done in that spirit.”
He divided the entire region into eight sections on a map he posted to his blog, Silver Spring Speaks. Then, using the exercise app MapMyWalk, he broke each section into multiple four- to five-mile walks. On the day of a given walk, he uses the app to follow his route in real time.
Rodriguez said he likes the app because he can “pause” a walk to have a conversation with people he comes across. Sometimes he volunteers that he’s with the county government.
“They may tell me about this or that need in their communities. It’s becoming kind of like a community listening session,” he said.
Rodriguez sometimes notices ways he can help on his own, like when he saw a sidewalk on New Hampshire Avenue so completely overgrown that pedestrians would be forced to walk in the street to go around it. He called the State Highway Administration as soon as he got home and asked that it be fixed.
Rodriguez said the walks are primarily about the experience, not part of his work as a county employee. During a two-hour or so walk in the area in and around the Sligo-Branview neighborhood one Sunday, he highlighted each interesting discovery and chatted up the occasional person along the way.
Stopping at a hand-painted message on a tree in front of a home near the highway that read “Only Jesus Heals Wounded Hearts,” in Spanish, Rodriguez said, “There’s a large Latino community around here. The faith community in Latinos is really strong.”
He noted enthusiastically the community’s engagement with social issues: “By the way, I love the Black Lives Matter homemade sign,” he interjected when he saw a banner with bold, colorful lettering above a raised fist.
He and Dominguez flagged down a graduate of the University of Georgia after noticing his Bulldogs shirt. The football team is a rival of their shared alma mater, Georgia Tech.
His observation on young Latino men out mowing lawns on a Sunday, in mid-80-degree weather: “These are homeowners that are understanding enough, care enough that they hired this Latino company to come do work. You walk away feeling good about our community feeling good about our Latino families.”
Rodriguez said he is completing the Silver Spring walk at a faster pace than he expected; he had completed two of the eight sections before the end of the first week of August. He’s thinking about doing the entire walk again in the fall, perhaps inviting members of the community to join in.
Asked what it was like walking around Silver Spring during the pandemic, Rodriguez said he agreed with a Bethesda Beat reporter’s suggestion that it was a chance to reconnect with the community.
Pointing to a house decorated with numerous tributes to the U.S. Army, including its own flag flying next to those of the United States and Maryland, he said, “If you just drive by, you’re not going to see that.”
It’s yet another observation Rodriguez said he can bring up the next time he’s invited to speak at a neighborhood meeting.
“People appreciate the connection. People appreciate you taking the time to experience their neighborhood,” he said.
The roughly five-mile walk looped back to where it started — the parking lot of Oak View Elementary School.
“Now we go home, drink a beer, meet our son, and go for another five,” Rodriguez said.