A base camp for city and river


The Palisades neighborhood’s housing stock comprises a wide range of architectural styles. (Amy Reinink FTWP)
May 25, 2012

Every time Anne Ourand drives home along Canal Road NW, she’s reminded of all the reasons she loves living in the District’s Palisades neighborhood.

The drive, along one of the prettiest stretches of the winding, tree-lined road, parallels the C&O Canal and offers a quick, lovely alternative to other commuter thoroughfares, highlighting the neighborhood’s proximity to green space and the Potomac River. And whether Ourand is coming from Maryland, Northern Virginia or downtown Washington, the trip is usually a quick and easy one.

“That’s the beauty of living in Palisades,” said Ourand, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1999. “When you come home, you just drive in on Canal Road, which is so beautiful and green. It’s not like you have to fight lights on Wisconsin or Connecticut. You’re 10 minutes from downtown, yet when you’re here, you feel like you’re far away from all that.”

Palisades, located just over the Maryland-D.C. border along the Potomac River and MacArthur Boulevard, has long served as a base camp for those drawn to the river and its resources.

In prehistoric times, nomadic Algonquin Indians camped along the river in what is now the Palisades area to take advantage of the easy access to a steady supply of fish, said Doug Dupin, 45, founder of the Palisades Museum of Prehistory.

Dupin founded the museum after finding a trove of prehistoric artifacts in his back yard while he was digging out space for a wine cellar. The museum now showcases a variety of stone points, pottery shards and other artifacts.

“There’s a lot of history still evident in the neighborhood, right in people’s back yards,” Dupin said.

The area also served as a site for plantations and summer vacation homes through the 1700s and 1800s, and it grew rapidly in the late 1800s, when houses popped up along a streetcar line that once ran from Tenleytown to Glen Echo, Dupin said.

Some of the neighborhood’s earliest homes still stand, and are part of a widely varied housing stock. “Palisades has contemporary homes, traditional houses, cottages, huge McMansions — everything you can imagine,” said Ourand, 44, a stay-at-home mom who serves as administrator of the Palisades Citizens’ Association. “Architecturally, it’s a delight to get in the car or on a bike and just ride around and look at all the beautiful houses.”

The price of those houses has skyrocketed in recent years as Palisades, once an enclave for blue-collar workers, has morphed into something more upscale — and more expensive.

“A lot of the older homes here are on big lots, and as is the case elsewhere in the city, they’re being taken down as people see opportunities to build much larger homes on those lots,” said Nancy Hammond, an agent with Evers & Co. who has lived in Palisades for 26 years.

Mike Johnson, 45, who grew
up in the neighborhood and lives there with his wife, Polly, and
their three children, recalls a time when the houses close to the
river were small and modest,
and often didn’t have air conditioning.

But while many of the little Sears houses Johnson remembers from his childhood have been replaced by sprawling mansions, Johnson said the spirit of the neighborhood remains the same.

“When my wife and I were moving into our house, a neighbor I’d never met before came out of his house and started helping us unload furniture,” said Johnson, who owns a small plumbing company. “Where else are you going to find that?”

Johnson is one of many residents to rave about Key Elementary School, which neighborhood kids are zoned to attend.

Residents said other downsides to living in Palisades include noise from planes flying in and out of Reagan National Airport.

“There are some people who won’t even look to buy a house here because of that,” Hammond said. “When your windows are open, or you’re outside, it can stop a conversation until the plane passes over.”

But for the most part, residents said issues of neighborhood concern are rapidly addressed by the Palisades Citizens’ Association.

The association, which was founded in 1916, also sponsors a host of events each year, including a Fourth of July parade and an Easter-egg hunt.

Hammond said the strong sense of community in Palisades is bolstered by the presence of local shops and restaurants within neighborhood boundaries.

Hammond said the boundaries are debatable: The Palisades
Citizens’ Association roughly defines them as Loughboro Road to the north, Canal Road to the west and Foxhall Road to the east, while legal subdivision boundaries consider everything east of MacArthur Boulevard to be Kent or Berkeley.

“We really have a world-class restaurant district right here in the neighborhood,” Hammond said. “And the walkability is quite good. If you aren’t comfortable walking a couple miles, it’s a short drive or bike ride to get to almost anything you need.”

The Capital Crescent Trail runs through the neighborhood, making it an ideal location for cyclists, runners and other outdoor enthusiasts.

“As soon as your child can ride a bike, you can get on the trail with them and ride down to Georgetown, or turn the other way and ride up to Bethesda, and have all those restaurants and shops at your fingertips,” Ourand said. “It almost makes you feel like you’re on vacation.”

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.

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