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Montgomery County, land of few names

Silver Spring or Colesville? North Bethesda or White Flint? With large swaths of unincorporated land and few official place names in some densely populated areas, Montgomery County residents frequently debate what, exactly, to call their homes. That's becoming especially important as areas that were once just part of larger commercial strips, like White Flint, develop their own identities.

Growing up, numerous cousins and summer camp friends hailed from Montgomery County. I often wondered why they all seemed to live in four towns: Bethesda, Rockville, Chevy Chase, and Silver Spring (and at that time, mostly not Silver Spring). The answer is that as far as the U.S. Postal Service is concerned, the bulk of Montgomery County's population is is in a place with one of those four names. The USPS was remarkably uncreative when naming postal areas in Montgomery County.

Despite a number of historic town names like Cloverly, Colesville, and Norbeck, seven whole ZIP codes stretching 13 miles from the DC line bear the name "Silver Spring." And, as Dan Reed explains, many people who live there—or even outside of there—still say they live in "Silver Spring." Matt Johnson once made a humorous Metro map poking fun at this.

Above: Matt's humorous Metro map renaming most Montgomery stations "Bethesda" or "Silver Spring."

Left: ZIP codes designated "Silver Spring, MD" (20901, 20902, 20903, 20904, 20905, 20906, and 20910).

But which is the chicken, and which the egg? Many people have started to call the neighborhood around Van Ness Metro "Van Ness"; do folks in eastern Montgomery County say they live in Silver Spring because the USPS says they do, or did the USPS name all of those areas Silver Spring because that's what the residents called it?

At a recent gathering, Dan and I discussed the topic of fluid place names. I pointed out the San Francisco Neighborhood Project, which used Craigslist listings to identify neighborhood boundaries. Many listings contain a neighborhood name and a precise street intersection, allowing the Neighborhood Project to map those and try to determine where, exactly, the Mission turns into Noe Valley. Dan was inspired to make his own Craigslist-based map of Silver Spring.

Left: The Neighborhood Project map of San Francisco. Right: Dan Reed's map of "Silver Spring" listings.

The area between Bethesda and Rockville, too, lies in a nomenclature no-man's land. Rockville is an incorporated city with actual city limits, but the Postal Service designates addresses as "Rockville" even 7 miles northeast of the city limits. The area around Grosvenor, White Flint, and Twinbrook Metros was once "Rockville," but at some point in the last 20 years the Postal Service and many residents started calling it "North Bethesda." Realtors embraced the name early, wanting to associate with trendy Bethesda instead of less hip Rockville.

North Bethesda is an official Census Designated Place, though it too is pretty big. Does the walkable center deserve its own name? And as the Friends of White Flint point out, the North Bethesda CDP spans ZIP codes the USPS calls Kensington and Garrett Park, both also incorporated places of their own.

The Gazette reviews the debate about what to call the area. Will people follow the Van Ness pattern and name the neighborhood White Flint, after the Metro station which was itself named for a mall? If plans continue, one day there will be no White Flint Mall, but the name may live on.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Another Postal Service quirk. I live in 20854 within the city of Rockville but my postal address is "Potomac". I get to combine Potomac's cachet with Rockville's city services!

by Reza on Aug 27, 2009 12:47 pm • linkreport

This is one thing I liked about growing upon New England. You lived in a town and that was that. Everything revolved around the town. The schools, mail, voting etc. It leads to more economic inequality, but I also think it leads to more social cohesion. There's not an amorphous county you belong to; if you're on one side of a town line you're in that town, period.
While this leads to more difficulty in planning on a larger scale, at least in my home town it meant a super highway was stopped despite huge pressure from the state government. Besides, there is decent regional rail planning despite the lack of any county governments.

by Reid on Aug 27, 2009 12:52 pm • linkreport

The thing I liked about growing up in Fairfax County was the economy of scale you get with services.

While this leads to less quaint small-town culture that we can wax about, it meant that I got to go an extremely good school district.

by MPC on Aug 27, 2009 12:58 pm • linkreport


That's a head-scratcher. Are you saying Montgomery County lacks "extremely good schools"?

by Reza on Aug 27, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

It's not just a Montgomery County thing. I'm sure this is an issue in Fairfax or Prince George's or Howard or any suburban county in this area or others (I don't know how many other metropolitan areas resemble ours in this way) where everything happens at the county level.

And, as important as the issue of where boundaries are is where they overlap. 20912 is generally considered to be Takoma Park, but its boundaries are not contiguous with Takoma Park's city limits. So there are people who live in Silver Spring, MD 20912 OR Takoma Park, MD 20910. It's the same with White Flint. White Flint Mall, for instance, has a Kensington address, but claims to be in Rockville.

Finally, it's more than a little condescending to refer to places like Wheaton and White Flint as "previously-unremarkable." That's an opinion, not a fact, and I think there are many people who would consider those places distinctive, as any real estate agent could tell you. Just because they take a suburban form doesn't mean you can't tell one from the other.

by dan reed on Aug 27, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

there's also a confusion where part of PGCo is called Takoma Park on the map and by realtors (east of New Hampshire Ave between Eastern Ave and 410) but the areas mailing address is Hyattsville, yet it is a mile or 2 west of the West Hyattsville metro stop and not within the Hyattsville city limits.

by Bianchi on Aug 27, 2009 1:19 pm • linkreport

I blame USPS, because we have got the same problem in Hyattsville, MD. The Postal Service has greatly extended our city limits. Checkout the map link.

by Bushwil on Aug 27, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

Dan: You're right about the "previously unremarkable" phrase. That didn't convey what I meant. What I was trying to say is that places like White Flint once weren't that distinctive from the areas north and south. You could more easily call the whole area "North Bethesda" because it was one strip mall boulevard with single-family neighborhoods on one side. In the future, the White Flint area may be very different from the Grosvenor or Twinbrook areas. That might mean it should have a different name. I've reworded that part.

by David Alpert on Aug 27, 2009 1:26 pm • linkreport

the whole silver spring thing IS bizarre. i grew up (and my parents still live) in the white oak area, right past the shopping center on new hampshire avenue. most of my friends lived in what's deemed "colesville" (there's even a large sign on new hampshire that reads 'now entering colesville' and when news stations report from there, they often write out colesville, md) but is deemed by the postal service as silver spring. i also had a friend who lived out past cloverly, about 20 minutes from my house, but who was also still technically a silver spring resident!

by sarahlucy on Aug 27, 2009 1:34 pm • linkreport

Oops, forgot the link:

by Bushwil on Aug 27, 2009 1:46 pm • linkreport

Colesville is one of those instances where people have really tried to differentiate themselves from the rest of Silver Spring - and for good reason, too, because it's probably one of the most affluent parts of Silver Spring. As one of several rural villages (along with Cloverly, Norbeck, Fairland, etc.) that got subsumed by suburban development, Colesville also has a lot of families with history in the area who lived there when it was still considered it a separate entity.

by dan reed on Aug 27, 2009 1:53 pm • linkreport

Since moving to this area from Minnesota, I've had to come to terms with the idea that the only set boundaries seem to be between counties (and the District). Where I grew up, in suburban Minneapolis, there were very defined borders between cities, and the county government was almost an afterthought as compared to city governments.

Additionally, school districts were a completely separate entity from any other sort of goverment. In the district where I attended school, the boundaries of the district encompassed parts or all of 10 cities and townships and 2 counties.

Now, when I hear someone mention that they live in Bethesda or Bowie or Vienna, I just think "North" or "East" or "West" of the city, respectively, rather than trying to picture some specific place.

by David T on Aug 27, 2009 1:53 pm • linkreport

I find that the best way to resolve issues of ambiguous names is just to make one up.

by цarьchitect on Aug 27, 2009 1:57 pm • linkreport

It has to do with the fact that there are few incorporated towns in Maryland because there are few incentives to incorporate. The county is the default unit of government for providing services and planning. If a place is unincorporated, the county provides the services by default. Other states don't have strong counties that provide all services. After incorporating, a town has the option of whether or not to provide services or whether to accept county services. A lot of towns, for example Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Bethesda, are unincorporated despite functioning as a town socially and ecnomically. Examples in other counties are Beltsville and Ellicott City. Meanwhile, the post office must pick some name for their various branches. Consequently, in Maryland, the name on the address has little to do with where you live.

Prince George's is somewhat of an anomaly among Maryland counties since they have so many incorporated towns. However, most of those are legacy towns that were ports, farming communities, or streetcar suburbs from the 19th Century. Most places that are outside the beltway are unincorporated like Mitchellville or the subdivions between Bowie and Upper Marlboro.

The only other state I can think of that has this phenomenon of unincorporated towns in Delaware and they're quite rare and only located in the suburbs of Wilmington. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, even un-places are organized as some part of township.

This weirdness with the post office is the same throughout Maryland. My parents live in Cecil County and I was always zoned to go to North East (North East is an incorporated town in Cecil County) schools yet the address clearly says "Elkton." It just is that way. There are a lot of places in the Baltimore region that have a "Baltimore" address despite not being within the city limits. It's just how Maryland is. It has to do with Maryland having a fairly unique interaction between its towns/cities, counties(I'm including Baltimore City here since it functions as a county-equivalent when it comes to providing services and how it interacts with the state) and the state.

by Cavan on Aug 27, 2009 3:17 pm • linkreport

Yeah, this article is about MoCo, but Fairfax has the same stuff. Think of the confusion around Franconia-Sprinfield, which is in Franconia, and the Springfield Mall, which is also in Franconia.

And then there's places like Lorton, Burke, Annadale, Dunn Loring, Clifton that all may have historic origins, but not necessarily any geographic cohesion. Can anybody tell me what Lorton is?

by Jasper on Aug 27, 2009 4:50 pm • linkreport

When I grew up in Montgomery County, the county mentally consisted of: Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Potomac, Olney, Wheaton, Poolesville, Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Damascus. Chevy Chase is part of Bethesda, Montgomery Village is part of Gaithersburg, etc.

When I lived in Fairfax County during summers while I was in college, it mentally consisted of McLean, Reston, Herndon, Chantilly, Fairfax, Falls Church, Burke, Annandale, Centreville, Clifton, and Springfield. If you haven't heard of Clifton and Burke, they are in the sparsely-populated Braddock Road corridor, but they are well-known within the county. They shouldn't be categorized the same way as Dunn Loring.

Prince William is the ultimate, though. It has Manassas and Woodbridge. Period.

by BeyondDC on Aug 27, 2009 5:44 pm • linkreport


I just remembered that 4 or 5 years ago I discussed this same topic on BeyondDC. I was trying to come up with a reasonably objective system to geographically categorize the entire urbanized area. I never really finished the project, but HERE is what I came up with. (Bigger version of map.)

by BeyondDC on Aug 27, 2009 5:49 pm • linkreport

BDC, you're missing the whole section of Fairfax County along Route 1, which mostly has "Alexandria" addresses until it becomes Lorton.

PWC has places besides Woodbridge and Manassas...Dumfries, Dale City, Triangle, Bristow, Nokesville, Haymarket, Gainesville...

Stafford County 95% of that place just has a "Stafford" address.

by alexandrian on Aug 27, 2009 6:17 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper

A prison, of course.

by MPC on Aug 27, 2009 6:39 pm • linkreport

What about Groveton, Langley, Linconia, West Springfield, and the "Alexandria section of Fairfax"?

by MPC on Aug 27, 2009 6:41 pm • linkreport

David: that's because back home (I'm a Minneapolis native), we not only have suburbs that are distinct and incorporated cities (I say city because Minnesota officially considers any incorporated town a "city"), but we have clearly defined townships where there hasn't been any incorporation. By comparison, neither Maryland nor Virginia have townships...

MPC: the "Alexandria section of Fairfax" was already somewhat addressed by alexandrian...

by Froggie on Aug 27, 2009 8:07 pm • linkreport

I remember when parts of Germantown suddenly became 'North Potomac'. It was like planting money trees in the backyards.

by shy on Aug 27, 2009 9:38 pm • linkreport

This seems like a fun exercise BDC.

Here's what I came up with, ignoring neighborhoods that clearly didn't meet the definition of "town", as well as places clearly outside of MoCo:

Things have changed considerably since I started driving, and since I moved. IMO the Metro station names have done as much as anything in clarifying placenames - which is part of why I object so much to the mouthfulls Metro would have us use in places.

by Squalish on Aug 27, 2009 11:35 pm • linkreport

Cavan must not travel much--the unincorporated town phenomenon is common all over the South. Counties often are smaller than in the West & Midwest and provide basically all of the services, but unincorporated places have their own identities--sometimes they're throwbacks to the segregation era, developer's creations, subdividied family estates or farms, or just local snobbishness. Typically, only the county seat is incorporated, like Rockville or Fairfax and the boundaries can be fluid, like the large swath of DeKalb County, GA outside Atlanta that's "Decatur" by postal address but outside the actual city of Decatur--not unlike Alexandria. Counties exist in the South, often as low tax, low service units easily dominated by developers (just like, historically, most of NoVA), because they exist at a greater distance from citizens than towns. In the Atlanta area, some places are incorporating to throw off the yoke of poor services and corrupt county governments, but that's still the exception. Metropolitan governments like the one in Nashville basically just merge with the county or in Nashville's case, the they operate a two-tier government, with one offering higher taxes and more services.

Townships are a Midwestern legacy of the Northwest Territories, although they function a bit like New England towns. New England, OTOH, has abandoned counties in some places like MA and CT are just court districts that occasionally serve other functions. Unfortunately, that means that towns are widely different in resources. In CT, the state steps in to mitigate some of these differences, although it makes for a sometimes unwieldy state government.

by Rich on Aug 27, 2009 11:38 pm • linkreport

scaled it a little better for your layout

by Squalish on Aug 27, 2009 11:44 pm • linkreport

Its also in PG County with New Carrolton, Landover Hills, Bowie, Glenarden, Mount Rainier & Upper Malboro

By any of the designations for Upper Malboro makes the city almost all of the eastern and south-eastern portion of the county.

If a place is not within a city or town just leave it how it is nothing until someone decides to incorporate the area.

Is it really this damn hard to create a border and stick to it or expand the actual border to include all areas that get stuck with the name.

Its not just in this area the City of New York is a damn good example all of the boroughs are within the City of New York after they were merged only 1/8 of the actual city has a mailing address of New York, NY while its all within the city limits.

What is the purpose of having these cities and town even listed on mail if there are not going to be used correctly,

We should either go by the correct names or not go by any at all or expand the damn borders

Working and dealing around geography this is the number one thing that pisses me off having to deal with this crap everyday trying to locate addresses in a city or town based on borders and cant find them because some jackass decided that areas 5, 10 or 15 miles outside of a border should get the same name and mailing address borders are set up for a reason if your overlooking them then get rid of the border.

Why dont the Census and USPS have the same designated areas, seeing as how the USPS was around way before the Census Bureau why didnt they follow USPS exactly.

by kk on Aug 27, 2009 11:47 pm • linkreport

Yeah, it's an adjustment. Growing up in the midwest, municipal home rule is far more common. Thanks to the townships and other Northwest Ordinance vestiges, you always tend to know exactly what jurisdiction you're in.

by Alex B. on Aug 28, 2009 8:46 am • linkreport

@ MPC: Exactly. That's what people think. But the prison is no more. It's a the SoCo high school, an elderly community, and art center and a golf course now. And a bunch of sprawl. But then, nobody talks about the chunk east of I-95 which quite frankly is almost rural, with Gunston Place and one of the largest slabs of parkland in the region: Pohick Bay, Mason Neck (go see the bald eagles nesting!) and Potomac Shoreline.

by Jasper on Aug 28, 2009 10:29 am • linkreport

Nice ASCII map up there!

However, here is a map of Aspen Hill: "Aspen Hill Bounds".

Note that despite the opinion of the US Postal Service, because no part of the City of Rockville lies east of Rock Creek, no part of Aspen Hill is "Rockville"... but we get our mail from the Twinbrook station, which _is_ a part of Rockville.

Harmony Hills, Strathmore-at-BelPre (Strathmore subdivision north of Matthew Henson State Park), and the jumble of condo/townhome/apartment communities east of Georgia Avenue, they all get their mail from the Aspen Hill facility, which is of course called "Silver Spring 20906".

Rockville is to the west, Connecticut Park and Connecticut Park Estates are to the southwest as is Glenmont, to the east and northeast is Layhill, to the north (west to east) are Flower Valley, Manor Park, Leisure World, and Aquarius/Homecrest/Longmead.

I characterize most of Aspen Hill as being its own place, because of the geographic isolation (such as it is) due to being surrounded by creeks, parklands, or community gates such as around Leisure World, or a near total lack of road or path connections as between Aspen Hill and Manor Park.

Some of that lack of interconnectedness to surrounding communities may be being remedied by the recent opening of the Matthew Henson Hiker Biker Trail. Yet I think that a few more stream-crossing bridges -- pedestrian or vehicular -- would be needed to integrate into the rest of the surrounding communities, and then perhaps Aspen Hill would become a sort of different neighborhood intergrading into Rockville on one side and Greater Silver Spring on the others.

by Thomas Hardman on Aug 28, 2009 9:00 pm • linkreport

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