Where We Live: The aptly named Cottage City

Jim Brocker FTWP/PHOTO BY JIM BROCKER FTWP - The cottage-style houses of Cottage City feature small fenced yards and prominent front porches. Some of the homes were constructed in the early 1900s.

Cottage City isn’t the easiest place to find, tucked between railroad tracks and the commercial corridor of Bladensburg Road, just across the D.C. line in Prince George’s County. But residents who have discovered the tiny municipality say the town’s neighborly charm in the midst of an urban setting is just what they were seeking.

Many of the clustered cottage-style homes with large porches were built in the early 1900s. And while some families have owned the houses for generations, some of the newest residents say they discovered Cottage City, population 1,305, quite by chance.

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Denise Hamler, one of the town’s most enthusiastic boosters, said she and her real estate agent got lost looking at homes in Hyattsville and Mount Rainier and found a bungalow in Cottage City with a back yard bordering a park. “I said, ‘I want that house,’ ” said Hamler, 55, who spent $70,000 on the purchase in 1989 and has become a neighborhood activist. “We’re attractive and livable without gentrification,” she added.

Demetrius Givens, 45, a town commissioner who arrived in Cottage City in 1992, remembers driving down the tree-lined streets for the first time: “It gave me a sense of a small town,” he said.

Living in Cottage City provides “a feel of being comfortable,” said Gary Styles, 49, who has lived there for a decade and is also on the town commission.

Neighbors connect in Cottage City, said Donna Hayes, 63. Town workers plow the streets when snow falls. Residents look out for one another. “People will say, ‘I’m going to venture out. Do you need anything?’ ” Hayes said.

“It’s not a subdivision, it’s a real neighborhood,” said Kirk Kramer, 51, who moved in with his wife, Kathy, 48, in 2008. The Kramers enjoy being able to walk to their church in Mount Rainier, and Kirk likes taking a short stroll for a “real Salvadoran breakfast” at Mauricio’s restaurant. When it’s time for work, Kirk drives to his job as a legislative editor in Annapolis and Kathy to a nutrition nonprofit group in Washington, so the commutes are convenient, Kathy Kramer said.

And while Cottage City is very much an urban suburb, surrounded by busy highways and passing trains, Kirk Kramer noted that on his street, “you can hear a sound that is now rare in America’s neighborhoods: the sound of lots of children outside playing.”

Aileen McChesney and her husband, Fernando Bonilla, have three children, ages 7, 4 and 1. McChesney, 34, who grew up in Upper Marlboro, said she moved to Cottage City eight years ago because of its affordability. She and Bonilla, an architect who works in Beltsville, decided to raise their family in Cottage City and renovate their home themselves. The original first floor was only about 500 square feet, but they bumped out the back for a kitchen and dining room, and added three bedrooms and a bathroom on the upper floors.

“This community has a way of keeping you around,” said McChesney, the chair of the town commission. “The kids can play with neighborhood children, and you feel they are safe and secure.”

Some newer residents initially worried about crime, but those fears have waned. Cottage City police conduct extensive patrols, knocking on doors to warn of unlocked vehicles and checking properties for out-of-town residents.

“I don’t fear walking out at night. It’s not Mayberry, but I can’t complain,” said Ike Blake, 32, who on a recent Saturday was with his daughter, Myra, 1, at a playground. Blake, who works in the District, and his wife, Joanna, an artist in nearby Brentwood, purchased their home through the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America with essentially no down payment, Blake said. Cottage City can be a “good entry market” with “very affordable houses,” he said.

Six of eight sales recorded in the town in the past 12 months were foreclosures, said agent David Maplesden of Long & Foster, a rate comparable to that in neighboring Colmar Manor, where 14 of 17 sales were foreclosures. Maplesden speculated that sellers are waiting for prices to stabilize when the foreclosure backlog wanes. Current selling prices range from $65,000 to $209,000.

Many buyers consider moving to the area because of its proximity to Washington. “It’s an easy commute to Capitol Hill,” Maplesden said. Investors also target the homes to rent or resell, he added.

Blake’s neighbor Ryan-Allen McKinney is renting a home with his wife, Janet, and 1-year-old son, Robyn. They had considered the District, but in Cottage City, “you can rent a house for less than an apartment,” he said. The family has one car and often uses public transit; McKinney’s wife rides a bicycle part of the way to work at the Library of Congress. “We use every means of transportation available to us,” he said.

Residents take advantage of recreational amenities: A bike trail runs along the nearby Anacostia River, and residents can kayak from the Bladensburg waterfront. Blake noted that new restaurants in Hyattsville provide another entertainment option.

But the neighborhood remains the draw for most residents. When Bill Hall’s house burned in 2010, the 45-year resident decided to rebuild, and construction is still ongoing. Hall, 79, a town commissioner and a past president of the Cottage City Volunteer Fire Department, said he doesn’t want to live anywhere else.

Hall and others noted that the town’s claim to fame had been the home where a boy reportedly possessed by demons and featured in the movie “The Exorcist” had lived. That house is across from Hall’s home and is not, as widely reported, in Mount Rainier. But that bit of notoriety has faded over time.

Some residents devote time to the Port Towns Community Development group, while others prefer local events such as Cottage City Day, National Night Out, Breakfast With Santa and a harvest feast for seniors. “We have a lot of seniors who give their time and effort to put on our events and programs,” McChesney said.

Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.

 
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