125 Years of 4th of July Parades and Liberalism in Maryland’s Takoma Park

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“We’re compromised,” an exasperated Julie Boddy told a Washington Post journalist in 2012. As a sitting member of the Nuclear Free Takoma Park Committee, Boddy and other committee members expressed sharp reservations about a recent city council decision. “What kind of reputation do we have if we fall down in that way?” Ian Barclay, a town native agreed. “It’s just a slippery slope … when you start letting this slide then where are you going to end up.” The issue at hand you ask? Town librarians had ordered a set of Hewlett Packard computers to replace older outdated models. However, HP’s historical association with the production of nuclear weapons led librarians to “stash” them away in boxes, hidden for two months in storage closet until “they were banned no more,” reported Victor Zapana. For over 30 years now, TP has been a nuclear free zone, meaning the town refuses to do businesses with companies or businesses with ties to the production of nuclear weapons. To be fair, the controversy never incited a bonfire of debate so much as a marshmallow roast of regret. “We’re disappointed in the decision,” Jay Levy, chair of the NFTP told the Washington Post. For the first time in over 30 years, the city council ignored the NFPT’s no vote on a waiver, voting unanimously to approve the new computers.

Stories like the one above have long existed when Washington Post writers come knocking. One month later Zapana penned a second article on the town, this one more expansive and probing but nonetheless framed with the countercultural exceptionalism that has become common when writing about Takoma Park. “A ‘post-hippie’ Takoma Park?” asked the headline. Zapana depicted a town in transition as older boomers, many who in all likelihood identified with the New Left back in the 1960s and 1970s are replaced by younger families lead by white collar professionals and what Richard Florida might label “the creative class.”

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Sure, many of the 1960s and 1970s residents and their collective activism came to typify the city’s nicknames: “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park” and “Berkeley of the East.” However, the town’s demographics have been changing as many long time residents are decamping for neighboring Silver Springs and elsewhere. Even with this demographic shift toward younger families, the town retains a certain left of center orientation with or without tropes about aging hippies. A recent Pew Research study found TP the most liberal city in all of Maryland, and one need only attend the annual 4th of July parade to discover that a thick vein of community and liberal politics continues to pulse through Takoma Park. Unlike so many other communities, TP never really moved to the center. “It hasn’t made that right turn,” long time resident Alex Rounds told Amanda Abrams in 2012. Judging from the 2014 annual celebration this remains true. Few events offer the chance to trace the city’s proud liberal history like Independence Day, a town tradition for 125 years.

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Founded in 1883 by Franklin Gilbert, the town from its earliest days sought to attract commuting government workers. According to Diane Kohn, President of Historic Takoma, “His pitch was, for the $90 you pay in rent in the District you can own a house.” In 1889, the town inaugurated its annual 4th of July parade, that today it shares with its D.C. neighbor, Takoma. The two communities split in 1890 when Maryland would only agreed to incorporate Takoma Park into Montgomery County, leaving Takoma remaining in D.C.’s borders.

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Today, as housing prices in the D.C. area climb to astronomical levels, Takoma Park continues to provide more economical if also still escalating housing valuations than much of the metro area. Good schools, a small town on the edge of big city atmosphere, and uniquely varied and deep housing stock has led to many new and yes, younger arrivals. All of this very visible during the parade.

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Conservatives like to bray about liberals betraying America but this writer has rarely seen such exuberance and good cheer on July 4th. Takoma Park digs Independence Day with an enthusiasm that would make Team America proud, minus militarized interventions and the like.

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Politics Outside the Box?

It might be worth noting that the city and its residents tend to walk it like it talks it. Take a gander at the political commentary present at the parade below and consider the following facts. Takoma Park elected the first openly gay official in Mayor Bruce Williams, who first gained a seat on the city council in 1993. The town has provided full-throated support for gay marriage long before national polls indicated many Americans agreed and the LGBT community here is a strong and vibrant one.

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Political commentary at the parade has a long tradition. The Green Party, 9/11 Truthers, and others all made appearances. In 2012, a Mitt Romney impersonator reenacted the former Massachusetts governor’s infamous and more than a bit disturbing  hair cutting “prank” from prep school (Let the record show, Romney’s sense of humor is not universally shared).

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Sure, 9/11 Truther floats might rub some the wrong way, and in Takoma Park this remains true as well. More than one spectator chaffed at the Truther portion of the parade, but the town doesn’t stifle dissent and even in its discomfort displayed its willingness to give people their say–well at least on the left.  One can imagine a Tea Party delegation might not be accorded the same consideration, but to be honest, conservative nihilism like that purported by many Tea Partiers seems, to paraphrase the Big Lebowski, to lack a certain ethos.

Outside of such political theater, Takoma Park has long supported more prosaic but no less important aspects of activism. Residents have defended the rights of undocumented workers to vote in municipal elections (dating as far back as 1992) and extended the franchise to sixteen and seventeen year old residents for the same.  Too often, the Washington Post and others highlight the town’s refusal to purchase bottled water or its former Free Burma Committee (no longer active) rather than these very real examples of civic participation.

Beyond politics, few parades supply such a wealth of musical entertainment and spectacle. Steel drum bands, Freemasons, classic rockers, dueling fencers, and others abound. Classic cars and kinetic art stroll by in a colorful splash of community.

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ToM will leave those of you unfamiliar with the D.C. metro area with this. In a town full of transients and as one less generous observer once opined to this writer, “It’s like everyone from your high school student government moved here after college,” TP provides a neat left of center perspective, picaresque setting, and a real sense of community less interested in climbing ladders than living life. Few aspects reflect this community atmosphere than this year’s parade’s memorium for longtime resident Kay Daniels – Cohen aka “the Kayster” who passed this past February. The parade celebrated her life in Takoma Park as wife, sister, activist, “recreation expert and enthusiast,” “Gold Star” City Council member, “snazzy glitzy dresser,” “motor mouth,” “caretaker of any and all feral cats,” “Cheerleader for Takoma Park,” and of course, “Lover of all things Fourth of July.”  A fitting end to a pretty fabulous celebration. RIP Kay, it sounds like you and Takoma Park lived a wonderful life together.

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