The Great Divide

Montgomery County is famously a place for the well-heeled, and for the wealthy. But it’s also a place now where some line up for free food and sleep four to a room.



When Ted Leonsis moved to Potomac earlier this year, the owner of the Washington Wizards and the Capitals sports teams joined an elite club of billionaires who call this exclusive enclave home. Leonsis paid $20 million for the historic, nearly 20,000-square-foot Marwood chateau on 13 acres—a home whose interior was featured in upscale Veranda magazine shortly after he moved in.

Less than a mile away, Redskins owner Dan Snyder lives in a 13,000-square-foot mansion set on 14 acres that slope toward the Potomac River. Snyder previously lived in a “modest” 8,000-square-foot home in Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School district that he purchased in the mid-’90s. He bought the Potomac estate—which includes two additional buildings—for $10 million in 2001 from Queen Noor, widow of Jordan’s King Hussein.

Neither man was to the manor born. Leonsis, 54, is the son of Greek immigrants who, by his account, never made more than $30,000 a year between them. Snyder, 46, grew up middle class in Silver Spring and is a University of Maryland dropout. But they’re lords of the manor now.

They inhabit a realm that unfolds as you drive beyond the Beltway along roads that follow the river. It’s a world of wealth and privilege largely immune to the economic cycles that afflict mere mortals. In this land of the fabulously wealthy, it’s nothing to spend $150,000 or more on an outdoor living room, or to cough up the $110,000 initiation fee for membership at Bethesda’s Congressional Country Club, once you’ve climbed the eight-to-10-year waiting list.

Henry Aleman, his wife, Ester Maria, and their two children, Sandra and Henry Jr., share a single bedroom in Takoma Park and use food stamps at Giant. Photo credit: Francis TatemBut this is not the world of Henry Aleman, who lives roughly 17 miles away. A house painter until he became disabled four years ago, Aleman is a Salvadoran immigrant who says he once painted Snyder’s house inside and out. He remembers that it was muy grande, with many rooms.

Aleman’s living quarters, not so much. He, his Salvadoran wife and their two American-born children have lived in a small, two-bedroom basement apartment off Piney Branch Road in Takoma Park for the past 10 years. To make the $1,170 monthly rent, they’ve been subletting a room to a married couple with an 8-month-old daughter for $500 a month.

The four Alemans sleep in the other bedroom, with three beds jammed together and no space to walk. Their only steady income is the $300 a week Henry’s wife, Ester Maria, earns. She baby-sits three children in the tiny apartment and takes an occasional cleaning job.

The family uses food stamps to shop at a nearby Giant; the kids get free meals at school. Aleman, 37, came to the United States on Nov. 26, 1993, the day after Thanksgiving, fleeing his native country in the wake of a civil war. A stocky man of medium height, he used to earn $18 an hour working for an up-county, Latino-owned company.

“I painted too much houses in Potomac,” he says. “Potomac have too much money.”

But then came the health problems—a broken leg and, more recently, an infected right foot, with complications from diabetes in the other. He doesn’t have health insurance, and doesn’t qualify for Medicaid. He worries a lot about his family’s finances, and its future.

 

Deirdre Hernandez and her daughter Samantha hang out in the living room, where Deirdre sleeps on the couch. Photo credit: Francis TatemThese are the two sides of Montgomery County. Though it’s still ranked as one of the most affluent areas in the nation, the county is experiencing a growing demographic divide: On the one hand, there are the über-wealthy, like Leonsis and Snyder, along with a vast populace of the merely well-to-do; on the other, there are those like Aleman who are struggling simply to survive.

It’s a divide reflected in the geography, as well, with Interstate 270 serving as the line of demarcation outside the Beltway between the eastern and western sides of the county. The poor—including the growing Hispanic immigrant population—mainly reside east of the line; the more affluent, predominantly white residents to the west.

For the first time in the county’s history, minorities comprise more than half of its population: 50.7 percent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. These include large numbers of Hispanic and African immigrants, along with African-Americans and Asian-Americans.  

The needy are not all immigrants like Aleman. Many are American born, raised and educated, people with degrees and pedigrees. People like Deirdre Hernandez, whose married surname belies a blue-blooded background. Divorced, she has three children, lives in a modest rental town house in Rockville, and is barely getting by.

“It’s embarrassing,” she says as she lines up for free food at Manna, a nonprofit agency whose main food pantry is a warehouse in Gaithersburg. “I just try to be as grateful as possible.”

Jacki Coyle, executive director of Shepherd’s Table in Silver Spring, doesn’t think anyone is starving in Montgomery County. But a number of indicators suggest that a growing number of people are in distress.

The Rockville-based Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless reports a 6 percent increase in the number of homeless, from 1,064 in January 2010 to 1,132 in January 2011.

Those numbers only reflect individuals who seek help at shelters, not those who go to live with family and friends.

The geographic division is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the county’s schools. Former Superintendent Jerry Weast described those largely to the east and southeast as the Red Zone schools. Those to the west are in the Green Zone. Red Zone schools have high minority and immigrant populations, low test scores and high percentages of students on federally subsidized free and reduced meals (FARM). Green Zone schools are their mirror opposite.

At Potomac Elementary, less than 3 percent of the students were on FARM last year, according to Montgomery County Public Schools. At New Hampshire Estates Elementary, which both Aleman kids attended in Takoma Park, nearly 86 percent qualified for the meals. Broad Acres in Silver Spring—with a 70 percent Hispanic student population—had an even higher FARM’s rate, nearly 91 percent.

The divide continues through middle and high school. Potomac’s Winston Churchill High had less than 4 percent on subsidized meals, and Bethesda’s Walt Whitman less than 2 percent, compared with more than 34 percent at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School, which Aleman’s daughter attends.

 

"It's embarassing," Hernandez says of lining up for free food at Manna. Photo credit: Francis TatemAs the demographic divide moves up-county with a migration largely of Hispanic immigrants, so do the FARM kids: Gaithersburg High School had more than 36 percent and Clarksburg nearly 26 percent of their students getting free and reduced meals.

It is entirely possible to live in the Green Zone and be totally oblivious to the other side of the county. This isn’t necessarily due to class snobbery. It’s just that the other reality doesn’t directly affect places like Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac.

“I’m not sure people are getting the whole picture of how dire and widespread this is,” says Sally Rudney, executive director of The Community Foundation for Montgomery County, which seeks to facilitate giving from the well-to-do for those in need. “It’s not just in [geographic] pockets anymore.”

Nearly 12 years ago, New York Times columnist and television pundit David Brooks, who lives in Bethesda, wrote about one side of the county’s demographic in a best-selling book, Bobos in Paradise (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Its title refers to the term he coined for its populace:  “bourgeois bohemians.” The book grew out of a piece Brooks wrote for The Washington Post in 1998 about “the Republic of the Red Line,” referring to the western section of the U-shaped Metro line that Green Zone commuters ride between downtown and home.

“From Chevy Chase to Potomac, these are some of the most affluent places in the country,” Brooks says recently. “I would say the disparity within Montgomery County—I don’t think it’s as great [as elsewhere]. We’re still an incredibly affluent county. When you get to the mid-county, up-county, you’ve got some obviously immigrant areas and some more middle-class areas, but it’s still a pretty fortunate place. I’ve always assumed there is great wealth but relatively few poor people.”

Told that nearly a third of the county’s 144,000 public school kids qualify for the FARM program—twice the number of those eligible in the ’90s—Brooks evinces surprise. “Do we have schools where there are huge percentages with free lunch?” he asks. “I could have outdated stereotypes of Montgomery County...”

The high FARM rate tells only part of the story. Foreclosures, budget cuts and layoffs have brought formerly middle-class families to bankruptcy, as well as to food pantries and free medical clinics in the county.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 121,000 people here now lack health insurance. And nearly 75,000 residents of Montgomery—which Forbes last year called the country’s 10th wealthiest county—were living in poverty, up from 45,000 in 2000. Even that figure is incomplete. The poverty level is defined by the federal government as an income of $22,350 for a family of four. But in Montgomery County, a family of four actually would need an annual income of $73,026 in order to pay for basic housing, transportation, food and other essentials, according to a 2008 county report.

Even as the poor appear to be getting poorer, the rich seem to be getting richer. In 2009, nearly 7,000 households in the county reported adjusted gross incomes of $500,000 or more—the most in Maryland. And last year, some 53,000 households had taxable incomes of $200,000 or more, a more than 44 percent increase over the previous year.

 

Hernandez, here with Samantha and Justin, says in August she got down to $23. Photo credit: Francis TatemDrive through the Mohican Hills neighborhood in Bethesda and you won’t see estates like the ones owned by Leonsis and Snyder, but you will see plenty of custom-built replacements for big-but-not-big-enough suburban houses. “Tear Down & Rebuild” reads a sign in front of one newly constructed replacement.

On Wiscasset Road, there are 12 teardown replacements over five blocks. Property is so valuable here that a vacant, third-acre lot recently went on sale for $699,000. The cars parked in the driveways and along these streets also spell prosperity: Lexus, Acura, Mercedes, BMW.

The Alemans don’t own a car. They get around by bus, mainly. There are no teardown replacements in their neighborhood.

Henry Aleman is a frequent visitor to Mary’s Center, a storefront near his apartment where medical treatment is given free to those in need, no questions asked. Last year, the nonprofit organization saw 4,000 patients, most of them Hispanic. By mid-August this year, it already had seen 3,500, according to President and CEO Maria Gomez.

Mary’s Center has helped Aleman schedule doctors’ appointments, including one with a plastic surgeon in Gaithersburg he is to see the following Monday about his infected foot. He will end up taking three different buses—one to Silver Spring, one to Rockville, and one to Gaithersburg—and it will require three hours to get there. He will be scheduled for surgery the following Monday at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, which he says will absorb the cost.

Right now, though, the appointment and surgery are still days away. It’s a mid-morning in August, and the start of the school year is approaching. Sandra, 15, is still in pajamas. Henry Jr., 12, wears shorts and a T-shirt. The man who shares the apartment also is present. He works as a plumber; his wife works in a cellphone sales office.

Sandra is a rising sophomore at Montgomery Blair; Henry is about to enter seventh-grade at Eastern Middle School. Neither is in honors classes. Henry has been in the “Read 180” program, which his sister explains is “for people below grade level.” They had summer reading assignments but didn’t do them.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Henry says. “I don’t even have any books.” Sandra says she “kind of lost” her reading list. Instead, they spent much of their summer watching TV on one of two old sets. The adults watch Spanish-language stations, but Henry and Sandra prefer Nickelodeon in English. This summer, Sandra worked at a Wendy’s in Wheaton for two weeks—making $7.50 an hour, four hours a day, four days a week—but she didn’t like it and quit. Otherwise, she helped her mother with baby-sitting.

There is no separate study area in the apartment. They do their homework in the living room, on the couch or at a table. The family doesn’t own a computer, so they can’t do online research, much less type and print out school papers at home. Both have set their sights on the low-cost, two-year Montgomery College, which has a Takoma Park campus. Both say they want to be police officers, though Henry has some interest in becoming an auto mechanic.

Sandra gets As, Bs and Cs, but doesn’t participate in extracurricular activities. Her least favorite subject: English. Her friends are Latino, African-American and white. “Basically I hang out with everyone,” she says.

“We haven’t been to Bethesda,” Sandra says. Never? “No, I don’t think so.” She has been to Virginia once to visit an uncle, “but it was like a long time ago; I don’t know exactly where,” and she went once to the Pentagon City mall in Arlington. Mostly, she and her friends go to downtown Silver Spring.

“I like to walk around, look, sightseeing,” she says. Both went to downtown Washington, D.C., once, on fifth-grade field trips to the museums. “We saw a piece of the Constitution” at the National Archives, Sandra says.

 

The Aleman children have lived here their entire lives, but when Sandra is asked where she’d like to travel, she says “our country,” meaning El Salvador, where she has never been. Her favorite foods are pasta and pizza; his are pizza, fries and burgers. And, of course, pupusas.

“I like Bethesda,” their father says. “You have more jobs in Bethesda—restaurants, maybe carwash. I like a job in the carwash. I work in Bethesda, painting houses, too much house, inside, outside, everything.”

 He gives a tour of his cluttered apartment, which is decidedly not “too much house.” An iron rests on the living room table next to a TV. There’s also a 12-pack of paper towels and a package of Huggies. Hanging from the wall behind one of two couches is a shirt from the famed España soccer team, which won the World Cup last year, and a prayer in Spanish that Sandra wrote and colored at their church in White Oak. The vertical blinds are broken and won’t open. The kitchen is tiny and old. There is one small bathroom. The bedroom where the Alemans sleep has a TV, a wall-length closet, a crib for the babies in her care, two queen-size beds—one for Sandra, the other for her parents—and a single bed for Henry Jr. Underwear dries on hangers by the window.    

Aleman says his hopes for the future include these: “That my boy might grow and go to school. Next year, maybe me working, maybe no work.” But now he must go. He has an appointment at “la clinica” around the corner.

Sandra’s long-range goal: “To make my own life when I get older, to make my career. I would like to live in Leesburg, Va.” Has she been there? “Not really, but I heard it’s, like, nice.” For now, she’s hoping to get part-time work, “maybe in a store,” and to get her learner’s permit. “I’m already 15 and nine months, but I don’t know where to go to the MVA.” She is asked what she’d want if money were no object. She doesn’t even pause before she answers, “I kind of have everything I want.”

On a Monday in mid-August, 35 families have lined up for food during a four-hour distribution at the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg. Many are the working poor, with part-time or low-paying jobs insufficient to sustain them and their families. They must be referred to receive the monthly allotments: generally a closed box of nonperishable canned goods, an open box of food such as fruit donated by supermarkets, a few odds and ends such as bread, soda or juice, pastry—about 70 pounds per family.

In the 12 months ending June 30, 2008, Manna served nearly 83,000 people in Montgomery County; this year, it served nearly 173,000. Manna also provides weekend food packs to elementary schools based on need. In 2008, Manna gave out more than 11,000 backpacks; in 2011, it distributed more than 61,000.

“We see need everywhere,” says Natalie Corbin, Manna’s development director. “Across the county we’ve seen an increase overall. We have people here who had careers, long-term jobs and lost them because of the economy and are turning to us for help. The reality is any one of us could be in these lines.”

Kim Damion, Manna’s executive director, says: “I’ve had tenured professors in line. The impression of who uses our services is often very different than the reality. People say, ‘Oh, you help the homeless.’

Hardly anyone in our line is homeless. The homeless don’t have a place to prepare food. Now you’re seeing a lot more middle class who’ve worked through their means. These are beautiful people, not the downgrades of society. It could be your next-door neighbor, or your friend. Our line is very diverse—people from all walks of life.”

One 50-year-old woman is here on lunch break from her job as an administrative assistant. She’s about to start a second, nighttime job as a cashier at JCPenney. She has a degree in health care administration from Columbia Union College in Takoma Park that she earned evenings while raising three children, now grown, and she lives in a Germantown apartment. She is here, she says, because of “a shortage.” She is African-American, but the recipients are also white, Hispanic, Asian.

A 45-year-old man who last worked in 2007 and has congestive heart failure is returning to Manna after six months. He used to do pool construction and now does occasional drywall, painting and landscaping. He grew up in the county, gets Medicaid and Social Security disability checks, but it’s not enough. “If it wasn’t for a place like this…,” he says.

The man’s 44-year-old companion used to make $64,000 a year. With her unemployment used up, she’s now making “less than $1,000” a month doing temp work. A widow, she receives some Social Security survivor benefits for her children. She says she worked in Bethesda for years as an office manager for now-defunct stock brokerages and real estate developers. “In the past, it has just been so easy to find a job. I didn’t think it would be like this,” she says. “I’ve been shocked. I’m competing with people with Ph.Ds. I couldn’t even get a job at Walmart.”

 

A 37-year-old from Cameroon says she has a master’s degree in health care administration from the University of Maryland. She is now a nursing student in Northern Virginia, separated from her husband and raising three children 10 and under. She came here on an immigrant visa 10 years ago to teach—her profession back home—and was working with emotionally disturbed students at a private school in Gaithersburg. “I like it so much, because I saw the kids develop,” she says. Then she was laid off in 2009.

“Because I am in school, I have hope,” says the woman, who is staying with a friend in Silver Spring. She’s paying for nursing school with loans and receiving some child support from her husband. But it’s not enough. “I’m still looking to see if there is something I can do at night to care for somebody,” she says. Life was going along for her, she says, and then suddenly it wasn’t. “It could happen to any person today who’s a millionaire.”

Her vehicle loaded with food from Manna, she starts to drive away in a Mercedes van, given to her by her husband in happier times—a 1990 model with 300,000 miles on it.

A U.S. Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan takes his place in the Manna line. A 38-year-old African-American originally from Baltimore, he and his 30-year-old Dominican wife live in a Gaithersburg apartment with their two children.

The GWOT license plate on their green Explorer van identifies him as a veteran of the Global War on Terrorism. Suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), he has been unable to work. He’s studying psychology at the University of Maryland University College, hoping to earn a master’s and became a social worker, but he has a year and a half left to complete his undergraduate degree first. “Trying to find some work where they understand the problems I have is really frustrating,” he says.

He last worked as a support assistant for a psychologist, but got fired because he “had a lot of problems with PTSD.” He has been unemployed since 2008. Between veteran benefits and a Social Security disability check, his monthly income comes to $5,400, more than many, but still insufficient, which is why he’s at Manna. At first, “I felt a little apprehensive, a little weird about taking handouts,” he says. But “I don’t feel so bad now because I understand it’s for people in need—and I’m in need.”

Deirdre Hernandez didn’t lack for anything growing up in New Mexico, McLean, Va., and Georgetown. Her father was a Yale-educated official in the Reagan administration who also served on corporate boards. “It was a good time to live in this country,” she says.

Now 43, the divorced mother of three is barely scraping by. “It just goes to show, you don’t always end up in the same position your parents were in,” she says.

She’s in the food line at Manna with her 17-year-old son, Justin, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville who has brought along Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. They’ve arrived in a 10-year-old van with a Julius West Middle School Honor Student bumper sticker. They leave with, among other things, bread and watermelon. Every time they go to Manna, she says, “it’s like Christmas.”

She has been a regular for six months. “This is the only program we qualify for,” she says. Her income amounts to about $50,000 a year, thanks to $1,200 in monthly child support and help from her dad. She last worked for a swimming pool firm, making $10 to $12 an hour. When she couldn’t get a raise, she quit and she has been hard-pressed to find employment since.

“I did child care at my home for friends,” she says. But even though she says she charged just $5 an hour, one family never paid. While struggling financially, she also was battling an eating disorder that required two hospitalizations. She says she’s better now. She pays $320 a month for health insurance for herself; her children get insurance through their father.

 

When her family lived in Georgetown, she attended the Tony Field School, then went to American University before dropping out after two years.

The 1973 town house in Rockville she still owns but no longer occupies is being foreclosed on. She plans to file for bankruptcy after it’s gone. She learned it’s better to let the house go first—another family who declared bankruptcy before their home was foreclosed on got hit with condo fees that they couldn’t avoid paying afterward. Three of seven adjoining townhomes are in various stages of foreclosure. “Everyone’s losing their house,” she says.

Since last November, she and two of her children (the third stays with her ex-husband) have been living in a small, two-story, two-bedroom row home in the Regent Square community in Rockville, not far from the Hard Times Cafe. Her monthly rent is $1,650, plus utilities. It’s 1,080 square feet, compared with 1,869 in her former home. There are two bedrooms upstairs, and a downstairs living room with a couch she uses as a bed, and two computers—one of which frequently doesn’t work. A sign over one computer says, “Ignorance is the Greatest Threat.” There’s a small dining table, a fish tank belonging to her landlord, cages for the family’s gerbil and guinea pig.

“It’s small, but I think everybody’s very happy,” she says.

Her son adds, “It’s cozy.” He doesn’t discuss his family’s finances at school. “I’ve not been affected too much [there],” he says. “I only deal with it at home.”

The house is clean and tidy, everything in its place. Hernandez enjoys doing arts and crafts, and her walls are adorned with work that she and her daughter have done, with wool and other materials neatly shelved. “I like to be organized,” she says. “You feel a little more in control of your life.”  

August was her worst month financially, she says. She got down to $23 after putting $30 worth of gas into her 2001 Chrysler van. The refrigerator is close to empty, except for some meat and a little cheese. The night before, her landlord brought her rockfish, a rare treat.

“It’s hard when you want to provide a good, appropriate situation for your kids,” she says. “They had lessons—bass guitar for Justin, singing for Samantha. We had to cancel them for two months. My friends were yelling at me, ‘If you can’t afford food, you shouldn’t be paying for lessons.’ ”  

Hernandez is taking online courses with Kaplan University to obtain a certificate in human services. She wants to work with people with eating disorders. She has obtained some grants and loans but doesn’t know her student debt. “I’m just trying to avoid worrying about this because I’ve got to do it,” she says.

She has applied for a 20-hour-a-week receptionist job at Kaplan’s Rockville office that pays $14.50 an hour, “a lot more than nothing.” She thinks the interview went well, but 12 days later she learns she didn’t get it. “They said I was good, just not the best,” she says.

Hernandez met some of her neighbors when everyone went outside after the Aug. 23 earthquake. Otherwise, she hasn’t had much contact. “People don’t want the poor neighbors because they think they won’t take care of the house. We’re probably the neighbors nobody wants,” she says, “and yet we don’t act like that.”

While Hernandez is pondering how to afford all the things her family needs, an event planner in Bethesda is juggling the details of an upcoming bash.

People scaled back during the recession, the planner says. A client who might have spent $75,000 on a wedding spent $40,000 to $50,000 instead. But “we’re seeing budgets rise a little now, getting back to where they were,” she says.

Her biggest event this year was a Columbia Country Club wedding in June that cost $75,000 to $85,000. The father of the bride was a doctor, living in the 20817 Bethesda ZIP code, and the bride and groom had just graduated from Georgetown University Medical School.

Now she is busy planning a $250,000 to $300,000 June wedding for a bride who grew up in Montgomery County. The wedding will have as many as 350 guests and will be held at The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington, D.C. “It will be very focused on food—multiple courses,” she says, with entertainment, lighting, flowers, “the best of the best.”

Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine who lives in Silver Spring. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

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