No place for old men

The elderly Black gentleman in a suit jacket, high neck collar and overcoat approached the front steps to the Tastee Diner in downtown Silver Spring the other Wednesday afternoon, on his usual afternoon stop to patronize the place that had been a local fixture since 1935. But it had closed, suddenly, permanently.

Another regular, a 57-year old white man, had come by for a bowl of soup, but he would not be served, either.  Tastee workers emerged from behind the now locked doors, wondering what their futures held.  They had been blindsided and they looked sad. No advance notice. They had worked their regular shifts until 2 p.m., and no more.

A Channel 4 TV cameraman was there, as were John Kelly, who writes a local column for the Washington Post, and a woman from Bethesda magazine, now rebranded as She had just been hired from the Midwest and seemed to know nothing about the area, much less about this Silver Spring icon.

Silver Spring is changing, and not, for my generation, in a good way.  Back in the late 1980s, I wrote about its then hoped for renaissance, from a rundown early suburban shopping district to a  potentially booming center, that would rise Lazarus-like. Silver Spring had sprung, they said a few years later.  My first Square Feet feature for The New York Times, in June 2007, heralded this upscale change.

Now, Silver Spring was changing again.  The pandemic had been a factor.  There were many empty storefronts with for lease signs, many coffee shops and restaurants — including Sergio’s, our favorite for family dinners and special occasions — had closed, and bank branches had shuttered.  Construction for the long-awaited, long-delayed and over budget light rail Purple Line had also interfered with traffic, vehicular and foot.  The disruption will last years.

In 2019, Foulger -Pratt and Peterson Companies, the developers that turned Ellsworth Drive downtown into a bustling pedestrian street, decided to reinvent the block, doing away with the fountain where children romped during the warmer months. Then came Covid. Now, the strip often seems lifeless. The Saturday farmers market, which added to the street life, was moved, to a nearby but less inviting block.

There is also rising crime.  A man was fatally — and apparently randomly — shot in the stairwell of a public garage adjoining the Ellsworth strip.  A few weeks later, another man was found dead, shot execution style, in his car parked a block away. There were three carjackings in two weeks in January. Residents and business owners are alarmed and demanding a stronger police presence and more.

On Sunday, residents packed the Civic Center for a “Community Conversation on Safety” in Silver Spring. Tiffany Graham-Golden, director of marketing and events at the American Film Institute, recalled the business district’s downscale image that initially discouraged patrons from more affluent areas during AFI’s early years, then abated 2010-2020, only to flare up again during the pandemic.  Vagrancy had increased, she noted, and an AFI employee had been assaulted and robbed in the early evening hours. “The stigma is coming back,” she said.

Bicycle lanes, installed to make the place more “sustainable,” are mostly unused. Traffic calming features, allegedly to make the downtown more walkable, have also made it no more walkable and more difficult for drivers. Not long ago, I took a walk around the old downtown and tweeted that Silver Spring was “dead, dead, dead.”  There was a lot of blowback.

Boosters listed new restaurants that had opened and older ones that had somehow survived, not listing those that hadn’t. My tweet received 5,456 “impressions,” 407 “engagements,” 184 “profile visits,” and no likes.  I ascribed my melancholy posting to the gray afternoon and pandemic fatigue. I described my tweet as provocative. Others called it mean-spirited.

But then, on Wednesday, March 22, reality reasserted itself.  A developer, we soon learned, had purchased the adjacent closed bank and parking lot along with the Tastee, whose owner, Gene Wilkes, had resisted selling his Bethesda Tastee to Marriott for its new headquarters but was having health problems and had received an offer for the Silver Spring Tastee he could not refuse.  The developer planned a residential project with ground floor retail. The original diner  would be incorporated, but whether as a working diner or just as a design element was unclear.

“Where will I get my pancakes?” my wife wondered.  For me, the Tastee was my office away from my home office where I would often meet friends and sometimes sources. Customers were mostly middle-aged or older, Black and white, and families with kids.

If you ordered before 9 a.m., there was a discounted senior menu.  Breakfast with coffee was mostly in the $10-15 range.  Coffee refills were unobtrusive and automatic.  It wasn’t fancy, but it was genuine. No lattes, avocado toast, or other exotic dishes more attuned to the current zeitgeist.  Conversation was uninterrupted by some corporate factotum asking repeatedly if everything was okay.

The diner’s future had hung in the balance once before. In the mid-1980s, when the Discovery Channel bought the acreage on which the Tastee stood for its new headquarters, the diner’s future looked grim. But, ultimately, it was moved half a mile north in 2000 to its present, and apparently last location.   But then Discovery relocated its headquarters to New York City in 2018, and the high-rise office building it occupied still has unleased space for rent.

Where will the geezers go?  I have no idea.  But it is worth noting that some new coffee shops and restaurants have come to Silver Spring: Kaldi’s Cafe, the Black Lion Cafe, among others.  Kefa Cafe was one of the first, and it survives among the chaos of the Purple Line construction.  There are said to be more Ethiopians in this area than in all of Addis Ababa.  If Silver Spring has a future, I believe it’s a credit to the Ethiopian Diaspora.

I eagerly awaited the opening of the Black Lion Cafe, and I am pleased to find it full of people — mostly young people, Gen Zers and millennials, multicultural and multiracial, earnestly engaging with their laptops and cell phones while sipping lattes or eating some of the excellent pastries prepared on site.

But a place for scrambled eggs, corned beef hash, bacon, grits and home fries it is not.  Nor for leisurely conversation.  The other day, I listened in to a young man being interviewed for a job by another young man.

Sadly, I conclude, the future of Silver Spring is not in its past.


Five for Freedom comes to St. Michaels and to WURD radio.

I was honored to share the story of the five African Americans in “John Brown’s army” with an enthusiastic lunchtime group on March 20 at the library in St. Michaels, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Located in Talbot County, the area was where Frederick Douglass was born enslaved and from which he escaped to freedom and fame as perhaps the 19th century’s most well-known Black abolitionist, journalist and orator. Brown had tried to recruit him to join his raiding party, but Douglass demurred, warning the abolitionist the he was walking into a “perfect steel trap” from which he would never emerge alive.  And that, in fact, is what happened.

On Thursday, March 23, I was interviewed on WURD-FM, a Black-owned radio station in Philadelphia, about Five for FreedomSolomon Jones, a novelist and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, found me on Twitter and kindly asked me to be a live guest on his radio show.

Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown’s Army is available in  hardcover, on Kindle and as an audiobook. To order on Amazon, click here. Or, if you prefer Barnes & Noble, where the e-book is a few dollars cheaper, click here.  Finally, Politics and Prose currently has one copy at its Connecticut Avenue NW bookstore and will happily order more.

Also available on Amazon is my new book Hidden Maryland: In Search of America in Miniature, with sections on The Lost Cause (in Montgomery County), on a reconstructed slave cabin and a Black town today in Prince George’s County, and Black watermen on the Chesapeake Bay–and also a new take on the Old Town in Takoma Park. It is available in paperback, on Kindle, and now also as an audiobook.



  1. Barbara de Garcia on March 28, 2023 at 10:53 am

    I was stunned to read of Tastees sudden closure. More high rise apartments retired people like me could never afford. In 2019 my favorite eating and drinking spot in Boston, Doyle’s Cafe, closed after 137 years in business. It has the BEST pizza IMHO (and my son’t) and a wonderful RI ale called Pickwicks that was sold nowhere else. For 8 years I lived only a couple of blocks away and had been a patron much longer. It was featured in Boston movies including The Brinks Job and The Departed. It’s closure helped me decide not to move back to Boston (that and the extraordinary high housing costs0. Since then the yuppie brasserie that helped put it out of business (the owner said he could no long compete with these new upscale and expensive eateries) has bought the empty property and say they will bring it back. But I doubt they can. I once has an angry exchange with a drunk Ray Flynn, mayor of Boston, when he withheld teacher’s paychecks due before Christmas (imagine the panic) and I was in there the day we finally got paid with my son and sister. Later that night, one of the officers of the Boston Teacher’s Union was in there and they got into a fisticuffs. There’s no replacing these gathering places that are leaving us, always, it appears, in the name of development and progress.

    • Paul Cosdon on March 30, 2023 at 3:38 pm

      Let me 1st say that I am in my 80th year. I was born and raised in SILVER Spring. I moved from the area in 1979. I had many meals at the Tastee Diner, breakfast, lunch and dinner. A couple of years ago, my wife and I returned to downtown SS and were saddened to see that the diner was not on Georgia Ave.
      I Googled for a place for breakfast and to my wonder found the new location of the classic diner. It was as if it had never moved.

      Now sad to read of its demise.

  2. Carrie Cowherd on March 28, 2023 at 12:40 pm

    Thanks. It was very interesting, as usual.

  3. Ruth Burditt on March 28, 2023 at 12:41 pm

    The new Moco Planning Board and County Council could require that the new Developer keep Tastee an active diner type restaurant in their new development, The Planning Board could also require the new developer convert the bank building (formerly Perpetual Bank) into apartments. The former Capitol One Bank site could be the site of the new tower, with added height in exchange.
    The new Developer has experience in adaptively reusing buildings, and the Tastee and Perpetual are both significant Silver Spring buildings that deserve to be kept and reused. Reuse is also more sustainable than tearing down and rebuilding new.
    All it takes is a little imagination.

  4. Nancy S. on March 29, 2023 at 2:45 am

    I haven’t sat and enjoyed time in a good diner or coffee shop since leaving Fort Lee, NJ 29 years ago. I feel your pain.
    Broward County, FL has Lester’s but none are local to me. Boca Raton and the Palm Beach area has had some wanna-be diners but there’s that something about a real Greek diner or a hyper-local coffee shop that is simply the best place to be, morning, noon, or night that I miss. You can’t manufacture it.

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