- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

In the annals of local crime, the vandalism of a Subway restaurant in downtown Takoma Park barely warrants a mention. Some fractured windows, nothing taken, about $3,000 in damage. However, the greatest offense in the incident late last month wasn’t the shattered glass — it was the words “Shop Local” spray-painted on the stone sidewalk below a sign advertising three subs for $11.99.

That message has caused dismay and much discussion in a community some residents see as a small-town America holdout against corporate America. The city fought vigorously, but unsuccessfully, to block a CVS Corp. pharmacy a few years ago and recently persuaded the drug-store chain to switch off a flashing neon sign.

But the pacifist-minded Takoma Park now is in the position of rallying around the local branch of a corporate giant with 20,687 stores in 72 countries worldwide. Residents say they don’t like chain stores in their small city, but they dislike violence even more.

“Whatever people might feel about chain stores, they don’t approve of this kind of violent destruction of property,” said Mayor Kathy Porter.

Hugging Washington’s northeastern border, Takoma Park and its 17,000 residents have managed to evade much of the bland suburbanization that has engulfed other communities near the nation’s capital.

Tree-lined neighborhood streets shade Victorian-era houses, many sprouting “War is Not the Answer” signs in their front yards. The historic downtown is home to an eclectic mix of shops, with a vintage clothing store, locally owned cafes and a host of gift stores.

Probably the most liberal community in Maryland, Takoma Park is inhabited by so many leftists and aging activists that some jokingly refer to it as “The People’s Republic of Takoma Park.” The city voted to become a “nuclear-free zone” in the 1980s. Undocumented immigrants and other noncitizens can vote in city elections.

In 1998, the city tried to block the construction of the CVS, which sits right over the border in Washington but faces downtown Takoma Park. Many residents think the CVS was responsible for the quick demise of a family-run pharmacy in town.

But when Rizwan Khan, 29, decided to open the Subway in an empty storefront in the historic district, there was little community outcry. Some begrudged the arrival of the chain store, but Mr. Khan followed the city’s strict zoning codes, including limits on the size of his sign. His lease, he said, is 200 pages long.

The Alexandria resident argues that his restaurant is a local business. He owns it, with another in Langley Park, and pays a franchise fee to Subway Restaurants for supplies and the use of the corporate name.

“Every store is owned by an individual,” he said of the Subway franchise model. “It is really a mom-and-pop store.”

Not everyone agreed. According to Takoma Park police spokeswoman Carol Bannerman, someone spray-painted “No Chains” on the building Dec. 31.

Then, between the night of Feb. 21 and early morning of Feb. 22, vandals broke some of the Subway’s plate-glass windows and spray-painted their Shop Local slogan, as well as an anarchy symbol. No other businesses were damaged, although a Starbucks and another Subway also were vandalized that night in Silver Spring.

The damage was discovered the next morning by Mr. Khan’s landlord. Soon, local Internet discussion boards were buzzing and signs were posted by the door decrying the violence. One writer called it a “terroristic” action.

“They are supporting the young man that has gone into business because they felt really awful that that happened in our community,” said Jan Schwartz, owner of the nearby handicraft store Finewares.

Betsy Broughton objects to chain stores in Takoma Park, saying they don’t contribute to the community and push out locally owned businesses. She planned to boycott the Subway. But when she saw the vandalism, she marched in and bought a vegetarian sub for lunch.

“I suspect [the perpetrators] probably thought there would be some support for what they did because of the general opposition to chains in Takoma Park,” she said. “But that’s not the way to protest an issue.”

It has also forced some to wonder whether Takoma Park has outgrown its image as a quaint small town.

With a Metro stop and proximity to jobs in Washington, housing prices and rents have soared. An influx of professionals has blunted the activist tradition, Miss Broughton said. And some chains already exist in the downtown area, including a Bank of America branch.

The proximity to Washington also brings some crime. Miss Bannerman says she has to plead with people not to leave their cars running in driveways because of the risk of theft.

“There is a sense of small town that is not real,” she said.

And some residents think that Takoma Park needs to lighten up a bit when it comes to corporate chains. Abby Alcott, 16, said she tries to support local merchants. But there is one big name she would welcome.

“Frankly, I’d like to have a Starbucks,” she said.

“I love Starbucks.”

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