Residents of Takoma Park tend to bristle when their town is condescendingly labeled a "nuclear-free zone." Yes, they are nuke-free, oppose the war in Iraq and even let non-citizens vote in municipal elections.
But they don't see themselves as radical or weird; they are, they say, simply a town with a conscience.
So the recent brouhaha over Susan Lindauer, the Takoma Park "peace activist" arrested on suspicion of trying to help Iraqi agents in the United States, has left the locals feeling particularly prickly. Articles on Lindauer and Takoma Park have made liberal use of the "nuclear-free" epithet, said City Council Member Bruce Williams.
"I always think [the media] takes the easy, lazy way out," said Williams, who's lived in the city for 24 years. "Takoma Park is a nuclear-free zone. It's their shorthand [for saying] ... `Oh, those crazy people.'"
The Monday after Lindauer's March 11 arrest, however, the hot topic at the weekly City Council meeting was a plan for downtown revitalization, calling for wider sidewalks and more trees.
"Half the people who live here are apartment dwellers; some work two jobs," said Jay Levy, a 29-year resident and head of the city's Nuclear Free Committee. "You go to [the] City Council, two-thirds of the meeting revolves around nuts and bolts stuff. We're not talking about revolution."
The city also has a small-town ethos that places a premium on personal contact, so when the locals say no one knows Lindauer, the subtext speaks volumes.
"We in Takoma Park, who have a long record of peace and justice issues, don't know anything about this woman," Levy said. "I talked with half a dozen people after [the arrest] was reported in the media, and none of these folks, all with long involvement in peace issues ... recognized her or had had contact with her or said that she had ever attended any community events we planned."
Like Levy, 16-year resident Sabrina Baron says she has never met Lindauer and knows nothing about her. The president of Historic Takoma, the city's historical society, Baron said the community has been saddled with "a lot of lingering stereotypes."
"I think it's unfortunate that a lot of the recognition Takoma Park gets is for unusual circumstances, instead of ... [its] historic, cultivated, intellectual community," she said.
Founded in 1883 as one of the first suburbs with direct rail access to Washington, Takoma Park has a tradition of tolerance and community involvement, said Dorothy Barnes, who has lived all her 81 years in the same house in the city. Even the town's founder, a New York developer named B.F. Gilbert, was, she said, "a little different."
"People thought he was a little nutty to come out here in the middle of nowhere and ... try to start a town," she said. "He was a visionary, I guess you'd say. He saw a potential for building a town on a railroad track."
Takoma Park's population now stands at 17,300 people, according to the 2000 census. About 27 percent have professional or graduate degrees; more than half work in management or professional jobs; and a recent influx of two-income families has led to a predictable spike in housing prices.
At the same time, immigrants in the city include some 97 nationalities, and 10 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. A similar contrast, and tension, exists between the funky, small shops in the city's Old Town district and the strip malls in its outlying areas.
In other words, Takoma Park is grappling with all the issues most small towns face: falling budgets, aging infrastructure, ethnic diversity and a population with less time and inclination for community involvement. Mixing the practicalities of city management with progressive politics is not always an easy or efficient proposition, according to Elmer Hamm, a volunteer firefighter in Takoma Park since 1979.
Getting community approval for a critically needed new firehouse took two years, he said, while locals argued over where the station's parking lot should be. In the past few months, the town has been embroiled in a controversy about plans for a new community center, which have stalled over construction and funding problems. A recently formed group, Sustainable Takoma, is pushing the City Council for better fiscal accountability.
The result of such conflicts, said Eric Bond, a 15-year resident and editor of the monthly Takoma Voice, is a more mature, "politically diverse" community. "It was a real rabble-rouser community," he said. "It's become more thoughtful, progressive - a community that emerges when people have higher salaries."
Retired homemaker Carol Stewart agrees the community has become more sophisticated. One of Takoma Park's rare Republicans and a three-term City Council member (1997-2003), she recalls some good-natured teasing during her time in office, but "I never had to back down or hide how I felt," she said. "My thinking was different than many of the people in the city, but that was not cause for me not to be effective."