Federal employees at home: A social history of Takoma Park politics, 1890–1980

Background: My dissertation is a social history of the emergence of new National Museums in Washington, D.C. in the decades following World War II. It explores the role of the federal intelligentsia (including government officials, federal civil servants and the employees of independent and quasi-independent federal agencies) in the development of national cultural institutions that contribute to the maintenance of a national community. It shows that the role of the federal government in American society is a sensitive issue for actors in the federal sphere. I now aim at further exploring the issue of the place of government as well as the role of civil servants in society.

Note: the present project presents my current hypotheses and objectives on the eve of a three-week research trip to Takoma Park.
Takoma Park was founded in the late 1880s as a commuter suburb of Washington, D.C., along the railroad line between Baltimore and Washington. In the year 2000, the city had less than 20,000 residents. The official, self-representation of the city stresses the progressive nature of local politics, its ban on nuclear energy, its award-winning recycling program, its inclusive policy with non-US residents and its «diverse» population. Since the 1960s, when a generation of residents took an active part in the fight for civil rights and protested against the Vietnam War, the city has hosted of a number of progressive initiatives. The establishment of its progressive identity culminated in the 1980s as Takoma Park became increasingly gentrified. 1978 was the year of the first Takoma Folklife Festival, while a cooperative food store opened in 1981, and a «producers-only» farmer’s market was set up in 1982.

The progressive self-representation of Takoma Park by the municipal council and several local organizations is backed by an official historical narrative, which was written on commemorative occasions by local historical associations. It enhances the progressive frame of mind of a predominantly white and middle-class group of citizens, who took part in the temperance movement, and who accepted women in the local citizens’ association as early as 1889. The historical association Takoma Inc. also stresses the independent character of the city.

There are a number of reasons to question that official historical narrative. First, Takoma Park was founded as an attractive urban development in a healthy area, with good water supplies, far from the mosquitoes and malaria that plagued the city of Washington at the end of the 19th century. At that time, real estate promoter Gilbert advertised Takoma Park as the perfect Victorian home for «the banker, the lawyer, the merchant and the clerk», that is to say for middle-class AND upper-class people. Second, the official narrative of «independent» Takoma paradoxically stresses its peculiar boundaries, as one part of the city belongs to the District of Columbia while the other is in Maryland. The specific links of the city with the national capital are mostly ignored. Finally, the 1930s are surprisingly overlooked in that progressive history. Although the Roosevelt administration was probably closer to Takoma’s allegedly progressive mind than the Eisenhower administration, although federal works (at least a major bridge and a swimming pool) were realized in Takoma Park, there is hardly any reference to the role of the federal government in local improvements in the official narratives on the city. Whether Roosevelt’s policies struck a chord with Takoma residents is equally unknown. I would therefore like to direct my study towards:

  1. the social origins and professional occupations of the citizens of Takoma Park who were involved in local affairs,
  2. the impact of the national capital on historical change in Takoma Park,
  3. the way the actors picture to themselves the role of the federal State in their local life.

Hypothesis n°1

An upper-middle class group of Takoma Park residents work for the federal government. In the first decades of the 19th century, some scientists of the Department of Agriculture were known to live in Takoma Park, where they had ample space for experimental gardening.

Hypothesis n°2

The upper-middle class federal employees who live in Takoma Park are influential in local affairs. The early creation of a 6,000-volume library as early as 1899, and the subsequent creation in 1911 of the first branch of the Carnegie DC library in Takoma Park reveal the existence of an influential group of residents who enjoy cultural, financial, and social capital. Funding from Carnegie was secured thanks to personal connections between a Takoma resident and Carnegie, while federal funding for the maintenance of the library was obtained thanks to the actors’ obvious familiarity with Congressional proceedings.

Hypothesis n°3

The same group of people contributed to the advancement of progressive issues at the local level. I have already mentioned the active temperance movement in Takoma and the early inclusion of women in civic associations. Of particular interest is the 1959 creation of Neighbors inc, a citizen group instrumental in promoting racial integration and fair housing practices. According to their historical webpage, Neighbors inc. reached out to members of the new Kennedy Administration and the diplomatic community to interest them in the neighborhood. My tentative understanding is that a progressive group of Takoma park home-owners, enjoying financial and social capital, fought white flight to the neighboring suburbs (and resisted the attendant devaluation of their homes) by promoting integrated neighborhoods.

Hypothesis n°4

Due to the proximity of the National Capital, national political issues are more often than not reflected in local politics in Takoma Park. But the logics of local identity-building, combined with a national tendency to anti-statism, tend to make the federal presence less visible.
Finally, here are the sources that I plan to work with:

  • The local historical society is called Historic Takoma Inc. Besides conducting preliminary interviews with its volunteers, I plan to use some oral histories they made with lifelong residents, whose memories go back to World War One. I might conduct oral history interviews myself on the more recent past.
  • Combined with the information collected at Historic Takoma Inc., the minutes of municipal meetings and the local historical newspapers should provide me with enough information to figure out who the prominent actors in local life were, what the stakes of local politics were, and how the proximity with the federal seat of power was envisioned.
  • I also plan to read some secondary literature, as the Takoma Park library collection includes unpublished manuscripts about the history of Takoma Park.

Wrap Up

Takoma Park is considered by many of its residents as «progressive, public-spirited and independent». However independent in character the city may feel, I aim at showing that the national capital fundamentally impacts the nature of its social fabric and its local issues. The role of federal employees and the residents’ involvement in social circles close to the seat of power might even be the political unconscious of its progressive local politics. My project is therefore as much about Takoma Park as about the boundaries of the national capital. It focuses on the social history of actors in the federal sphere, and on their understanding of the role of the State in their local life. My perspective on Takoma Park will be that of a critical heir to community studies, which have brought sociologists and anthropologists to focus on American middle-sized cities, my foremost aim being to contribute to the social history of the federal state in the United States.