It Seemed Crazy at the Time

Ray Barry in his office above the AFI Silver Theatre. Photo by Mike Diegel

The first time Ray Barry saw the Silver Theatre his reaction was not good.

He saw dead animals, mold, water and more in a theater surrounded by empty storefronts. But he had been asked by the American Film Institute, where he had worked since 1980, to lead an exploration of the possibility of moving AFI from the Kennedy Center to downtown Silver Spring.

“When the county first came to talk to us about it, it seemed insane,” he said. “It seemed like ‘you must be kidding.’ In fact there was really a great vision that everybody had.”

That vision has come to fruition, not just with the theater but also in the general redevelopment of Silver Spring. However, to many area residents, as well in those in government and business, it’s still the proverbial work in progress.

That’s one of the reasons the county executive created the Silver Spring Arts & Entertainment District Advisory Committee in 2008. The group, made up of area residents and representatives of various businesses and entertainment venues in downtown Silver Spring, was set up to “advise the County Executive and the Silver Spring Regional Center on how to create and support opportunities for arts and entertainment entities.”

Barry, who is now director of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, has been a member of the committee since its inception and took over as chair in January (Disclosure: this writer was the previous chair and remains on the committee). Downtown Silver Spring was designated as the state’s first arts & entertainment district on Dec. 31, 2001. Barry was one of the drivers of the effort to get legislation passed to create these districts around the state.

“Everybody [involved in the effort] wanted Silver Spring and the downtown area to be distinctive,” Barry said. “I think the sense of place and critical mass—everybody felt that needed to be there. We needed more concentrated creative activity. I think we’ve been rolling forward on that.”

And there’s no lack of ideas about how to continue to strengthen the downtown area. For example, Barry would like to see the county focus on the concept of placemaking.

“It’s sort of an amorphous, general term but I think with most people, it’s you know it when you see it,” he said. “It’s hard to manufacture in a sense that I think it has to have an authentic feel to be meaningful.”

For Barry, it’s a vision of a place that people want to be, one with energy, substance and that authentic feel on the ground.

“Those things again are rather subjective, but I think we can work on them in the sense of what our streetscape looks like, what our lighting looks like—the little things that pull the threads together.”

To that end, Barry recently sent a letter to the county executive on behalf of the committee to request “that funding be allocated to secure professional consultants to conceptualize and develop a cohesive plan for the streetscape appeal and branding of Silver Spring as an arts and entertainment district, and as a distinctive destination within the greater Washington metropolitan area.”

Since then, he’s had several meetings with county staff to explore placemaking and how the county can help to make it happen in Silver Spring.

In the meantime, he notes that a lot of progress has been made in the downtown area.

“There’s a very positive feel when you walk around,” Barry said. “I think that’s what we need to nurture.”

“We want to be successful on our own terms and I think we can and are,” he continued. “We have going here what I think is kind of special . . . a lively ethnic, economic, racial mix, diversity enjoying and sharing the public space and the community in a way that I think is not seen everywhere.

“I actually think that we are a really cool place and we should own that.”

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