Downtown Bethesda is changing, whether we like it or not
I spent youthful summers in a tiny southeastern town where my grandparents owned three businesses on the historic square: a pharmacy, a toy store and a dime store that was a dead ringer for Bethesda’s now-defunct Bruce Variety.
The drugstore had a soda fountain. I spent countless happy hours perched on a leatherette and stainless steel stool, drinking lemon-lime sodas and chatting with townsfolk. Everybody there knew everybody else. If we were lucky, the soda jerk would perform impromptu magic tricks for our amusement.
One summer I arrived to find the beloved soda fountain gone. My grandfather had replaced it with more aisles of merchandise to try, in vain, to compete with a newfangled kind of store that had opened on the fringes of town. The owner of that new store was Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart. For the rest of his days, my grandfather griped that Walton would be the death of historic small-town squares across America. Out of solidarity with my grandfather, I’ve avoided shopping at Walmart.
That childhood experience of seeing the world change because of market forces beyond my control prepared me for Bethesda’s ongoing transformation. A few months ago, my husband telephoned on his way home from work to say that he was stopping at Bistro LaZeez on Norfolk Avenue to pick up chicken kebabs. A few minutes later, he called back to report that the bistro had gone out of business. I suggested that he get kebabs from Lebanese Taverna on Bethesda Row. He tried, then called again to say that restaurant, too, had closed.
I’m not surprised that some people who live in Bethesda are distraught by changes downtown. Familiar small businesses close and cavernous construction pits appear: the future homes of multistory housing and big businesses like the headquarters for Marriott International. I wonder if I should be worried, too. I make mental lists of the convenient little places in Bethesda that I’ll mourn if they close. They usually start with Strosniders Hardware. I begin every home improvement project by roaming the cramped, narrow aisles of the store seeking supplies and advice; the guys who mix paints there know me, not by name, but by sight. The 4900 block of Bethesda Avenue is also high on my list. It’s home to many small food purveyors that offer friendly service along with high-quality wine, bread, meat, fish and cheese. When I go into one of those places now, I ask if the proprietor owns the building or rents. If they rent, I gulp and say I hope they can survive rising downtown prices.
Despite some real trepidation, most days I’m excited to see what happens here next. Downtown growth has the potential to bring more of what I enjoy about Bethesda: lively streets busy with intelligent people leading interesting lives. Growth also has the potential to build political will to change what I don’t like about downtown: traffic engineering that favors drivers over the convenience and safety of walkers.
I bought my house near downtown Bethesda by default. In 2000, during the real estate bubble, I tried to buy a house in Northwest D.C. but kept getting outbid. In the years since, I’ve been increasingly grateful that I landed here. Bethesda is the most convenient place I’ve ever lived. When I travel, I walk to the Metro and take the Red Line to Reagan National Airport: no traffic, no parking, few hassles. If I get home from a dinner party at midnight, I walk my dogs in relative safety. County services, in my experience, are good. If the refuse crews neglect to collect the bags of yard trim I put on the curb, I call the county’s 311 line. Within hours, the county has sent a crew to collect my trash.
When my 15-year-old niece visits me, she is wide-eyed at all the places in Bethesda we can walk to quickly. That’s because she lives outside Chicago in one of those gorgeous suburbs where every lot is at least an acre, there are no sidewalks and nothing is within walking distance: no restaurants, no movie theaters, no public places where she and her friends can gather after school.
For the way I live, Bethesda is getting more convenient as it grows, not less. I don’t take my car out of my driveway now unless I absolutely must. That’s because I can walk to do errands, work and socialize. There are far more places I want to walk to today than there were when I moved here 18 years ago. I can preheat my oven, walk to Butchers Alley on Bethesda Avenue and be home with a beef tenderloin by the time the oven is hot enough to roast it. My favorite spot to have coffee and a pastry, Tout de Sweet on Woodmont Avenue, even has a counter with cool stools where I can sit with friends, although nobody there knows our names and no magic tricks are performed for our amusement. On Sundays, my husband and I walk to the Bethesda Central Farm Market. It’s less than six blocks from our house and makes Bethesda feel like a small, organically fed town within a burgeoning city.
The less I drive, the more I love Bethesda. That trend should, in theory, only accelerate as the high-rise residences now under construction are occupied, Marriott International arrives and the Purple Line comes to downtown. The more people who live downtown, work downtown, visit downtown via public transportation and walk Bethesda’s streets, the more customers there are to support convenient stores, good restaurants, culture and entertainment venues.
Here is the change I’m really looking for as more people arrive: more community. I walk past the relatively small footprint of the future Amazon store at the corner of Bethesda Avenue and Arlington Road and wonder if they’ll have room to host author talks. I walk past older office buildings and wonder why we can’t turn their attractive-but-underused little plazas into Bethesda’s answer to the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, a free daily performance series featuring a quirky mix of acts from musicians to storytellers. I’d have more open-air movie nights on Bethesda Row, more food tastings, lectures and dance nights. As Bethesda changes, I hope we create more spaces that give us the feeling of connection that I had while sitting at my grandparents’ soda fountain. That’s not nostalgia. That’s living long enough to know what really makes people happy.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that soda fountain. My husband and I ran out of our favorite Nespresso pods recently. I tried reordering from Amazon; they were temporarily out of stock. My husband mentioned that Walmart is now competing with Amazon online, offering free two-day shipping without charging membership fees. In fact, my husband said, he’d just downloaded the Walmart app on his phone and ordered Nespresso pods.
Walmart? The same Walmart that my grandfather blamed for forcing him to rip out his soda fountain?
The world did not end. When the box with a blue Walmart logo arrived on our doorstep, I drank the coffee. It was delicious. Sorry, granddad. Things change.
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.