The Great Divide
Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it's also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.
Drive through the Mohican Hills neighborhood in Bethesda and you won’t see estates like the ones owned by Leonsis and Snyder, but you will see plenty of custom-built replacements for big-but-not-big-enough suburban houses. “Tear Down & Rebuild” reads a sign in front of one newly constructed replacement.
On Wiscasset Road, there are 12 teardown replacements over five blocks. Property is so valuable here that a vacant, third-acre lot recently went on sale for $699,000. The cars parked in the driveways and along these streets also spell prosperity: Lexus, Acura, Mercedes, BMW.
The Alemans don’t own a car. They get around by bus, mainly. There are no teardown replacements in their neighborhood.
Henry Aleman is a frequent visitor to Mary’s Center, a storefront near his apartment where medical treatment is given free to those in need, no questions asked. Last year, the nonprofit organization saw 4,000 patients, most of them Hispanic. By mid-August this year, it already had seen 3,500, according to President and CEO Maria Gomez.
Mary’s Center has helped Aleman schedule doctors’ appointments, including one with a plastic surgeon in Gaithersburg he is to see the following Monday about his infected foot. He will end up taking three different buses—one to Silver Spring, one to Rockville, and one to Gaithersburg—and it will require three hours to get there. He will be scheduled for surgery the following Monday at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, which he says will absorb the cost.
Right now, though, the appointment and surgery are still days away. It’s a mid-morning in August, and the start of the school year is approaching. Sandra, 15, is still in pajamas. Henry Jr., 12, wears shorts and a T-shirt. The man who shares the apartment also is present. He works as a plumber; his wife works in a cellphone sales office.
Sandra is a rising sophomore at Montgomery Blair; Henry is about to enter seventh-grade at Eastern Middle School. Neither is in honors classes. Henry has been in the “Read 180” program, which his sister explains is “for people below grade level.” They had summer reading assignments but didn’t do them.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Henry says. “I don’t even have any books.” Sandra says she “kind of lost” her reading list. Instead, they spent much of their summer watching TV on one of two old sets. The adults watch Spanish-language stations, but Henry and Sandra prefer Nickelodeon in English. This summer, Sandra worked at a Wendy’s in Wheaton for two weeks—making $7.50 an hour, four hours a day, four days a week—but she didn’t like it and quit. Otherwise, she helped her mother with baby-sitting.
There is no separate study area in the apartment. They do their homework in the living room, on the couch or at a table. The family doesn’t own a computer, so they can’t do online research, much less type and print out school papers at home. Both have set their sights on the low-cost, two-year Montgomery College, which has a Takoma Park campus. Both say they want to be police officers, though Henry has some interest in becoming an auto mechanic.
Sandra gets As, Bs and Cs, but doesn’t participate in extracurricular activities. Her least favorite subject: English. Her friends are Latino, African-American and white. “Basically I hang out with everyone,” she says.
“We haven’t been to Bethesda,” Sandra says. Never? “No, I don’t think so.” She has been to Virginia once to visit an uncle, “but it was like a long time ago; I don’t know exactly where,” and she went once to the Pentagon City mall in Arlington. Mostly, she and her friends go to downtown Silver Spring.
“I like to walk around, look, sightseeing,” she says. Both went to downtown Washington, D.C., once, on fifth-grade field trips to the museums. “We saw a piece of the Constitution” at the National Archives, Sandra says.