By Chris Zeilinger

Talking About Tobytown

January 12, 2023

Tobytown, Md., doesn’t exist. But it’s very real. 

This historically Black community is in an almost-rural portion of Montgomery County, Md., near where a small creek enters the Potomac River. That creek, by the way, has helped mark the western boundary of the Washington DC urban area for several decades; we’ll have to see if that remains the case under Census’ 2020 urban area determinations.

Tobytown was established in 1875 by three families of formerly enslaved Blacks. About 100 people live there today, all descended from the communities’ founding families. Most, if not all, of its resident households are believed to have incomes near or below the federal poverty line. Life in Tobytown was never easy; even though it’s less than 20 miles from downtown Washington, D.C., the community had no running water, no sewers, and limited utilities until the county’s public housing entity demolished all the “blighted” housing, brought in water and sewer lines, and built a townhouse community of 26 subsidized rental units in 1972. Until 2016, the nearest bus stop to Tobytown was 5 1/2 miles away, in the commercial heart of Potomac, Md.

Here’s why Tobytown “doesn’t” exist: it’s not incorporated, never had a post office, school or any other public services, and never had any businesses nor any of the other trappings, aside from a church (long since vanished) and a cemetery (still there), that give a place its sense of municipal, commercial or social identity. To anyone in the D.C. area who might have thought about it, Tobytown generally seemed little more than a small pocket of poverty tucked away in the woods off River Road.

In the Census Bureau’s scheme of things, Tobytown loses all identity: it’s not a “Census-designated place” (CDP), unlike nearby Potomac; it doesn’t have a Census tract, and not even a Census block group, to call its own. What we have, then, is a nearly invisible community that’s considered to be part of one of the wealthiest suburbs in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. According to the Census, median household income in Potomac is $198,870, and in “Travilah,” the CDP of which Tobytown is a tiny part, median household income is $238,194. The Travilah CDP has a poverty rate of 1.6 percent; it’s likely that all of Travilah’s population in poverty live in Tobytown.

Now that the Federal Transit Administration has just issued its latest notice inviting applications for transit projects under its “Areas of Persistent Poverty” (AoPP) program, it’s important to be thinking about places like Tobytown, which can be found all over urban and rural America. If your county, or your municipality, or even your Census tract, don’t show signs of persistent poverty, how can you identify a place that’s experienced long-term poverty among its residents?

Here are a few hints, some of which you can use online or in your GIS layers, and some of which will yield more anecdotal data to guide your search:

  • Seek out churches and cemeteries. You’ll often be able to identify those that serve racial or ethnic minorities; that itself doesn’t signify poverty, as many diverse people are middle- and upper-class in their income, and people often move away from the location of their congregations and cemeteries, but this can at least be a useful spot to start your inquiry.
  • Check your road surfaces. In areas where most public roads are hard-surface roads in average or better condition, but some spots have unpaved, gravel, or very poor-quality public roads, there could be a community worth examining.
  • Look at the tree canopy. There should be no rational explanation for why local areas with markedly less tree coverage than their neighbors should be experiencing higher poverty rates, but you might be surprised to realize how often that’s the case.
  • Review old maps and housing data. In particular, take a look at those places that literally were red-lined by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in its 1935 “residential security maps.” Those maps should make you feel uncomfortable, but they did define housing and poverty patterns that largely persist to this day. In a slightly different way to make you squirm, a few metropolitan areas, such as Montgomery County, Md.,have begun mapping those subdivisions whose establishment included racial, ethnic, or other now-illegal restrictive covenants.
  • Investigate the housing. Find out where your area has located public housing or other forms of housing that’s available and affordable for low- or no-income families.
  • Reach out to your local public schools to see what they can tell you about where they have students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals (“FARM,” in many school systems). Don’t expect, nor ask for, specific locations or addresses, as there are really important personal privacy protections that must be honored, especially when kids are involved, but see if neighborhoods with above-average concentrations of these students can be identified.

That’s not a definitive list; there are plenty of other ways you can harness data sets to help pinpoint areas of poverty in your community, whether urban or rural.

These data can help shine a light on the places that warrant some attention in how you plan and provide public transit, active transportation and other infrastructure, and can help create opportunities for meaningful coordination between public transit and the other services whose goals include poverty reduction and economic or social opportunity. Oh, and increasing numbers of US DOT competitive funding programs are starting to prioritize projects in areas of poverty or otherwise historically “underserved.” So, there’s no time like right now to be taking a close look at where there may be pockets of poverty or other vulnerable communities in your own area. Incidentally, applications for this newest round of FTA AoPP grants are due March 10, 2023.

The bus route that Montgomery County launched in 2016 as a pilot project continues to operate 7 days a week, connecting Tobytown’s community center with the county seat of Rockville and the rail and bus services available at the Rockville Metrorail/MARC station. As an added bonus, art-loving transit users can use this bus to access the private Glenstone museum without having to make any advance registration, unlike car-using visitors to Glenstone, who must reserve their visits a month or more in advance.

Ridership is low on Montgomery County’s Ride-On route 301, but that’s what was projected, given the small population of Tobytown. It’s the access that’s important.

This article is part of CTAA’s “Connecting Our Communities” initiative, in which we aim to help transportation planners, transit providers, and their partners successfully engage with stakeholders and leverage funds in ways that work to overcome some of the disparities associated with race, ethnicity or poverty in their community. Your questions, thoughts, reactions and contributions are welcome. Simply contact Chris Zeilinger by email at zeilinger@ctaa.org with whatever may be on your mind or at your fingertips.

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The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.