Where We Live: Berwyn, a quiet corner of College Park


Homes in Berwyn range from smaller bungalows to larger houses, some of which are 70 to 100 years old.The housing stock, well priced for the D.C. area, attracts bargain-hunting buyers and renting students. (Jim Brocker FTWP/PHOTO BY JIM BROCKER FTWP)
September 9, 2011

The new and the old come together in the Berwyn neighborhood of College Park, where you’ll see bicyclists in Spandex shorts zipping past 100-year-old homes and families with young children living next to lifelong residents.

Residents of this Prince George’s County community have come to love a neighborhood that harks back to a time when streetcars made regular stops in what was then one of the Washington area’s new suburbs.

Just off the bustle of Route 1, a few blocks from the University of Maryland, Berwyn lies quietly content behind the motels, fast-food restaurants and commercial shops that now serve the campus. The homes, sitting under a canopy of large, mature trees, are a hodgepodge of building styles — large Victorians and modest bungalows, brick Cape Cods and ramblers.

The variety suits Harry Pitt, a 30-year-resident and a contractor who has refurbished homes in the area. “I’d rather not live in a cookie-cutter neighborhood,” said Pitt, 61, who lives in Berwyn with his wife and 16-year-old daughter. “I like the diversity of the neighborhood, both in the houses and the people.”

Kevin Young, 47, the president of the Berwyn District Civic Association, grew up in Berwyn and now lives in a 107-year-old house with his wife, Lori, and son Joshua, 7. Berwyn, says Young, a production worker in The Washington Post’s Springfield plant, “has an old-fashioned feel, like a little town in the middle of the big city.” The association produces a hand-delivered newsletter and sponsors community events, including Berwyn Day, scheduled for Sept. 10.

Berwyn began to take shape in the late 1800s, when developer Francis Shannabrook started building houses near the B&O Railroad in what was originally called Central Heights. A separate community, Berwyn Heights, was built on the east side of the railroad. Berwyn, meanwhile, became part of College Park in 1945.

Berwyn was named after a local Presbyterian chapel, according to a history of the area by T. Raymond Burch, who served as one of the community’s early postmasters. A Catholic church, Holy Redeemer, was also founded in those early years. That church and the Holy Redeemer School, which have expanded and now dominate the center of the neighborhood, are preparing for their 100th anniversary next year.

Berwyn began to thrive as a community when a streetcar line from the District was built after 1900. A general store, pharmacy, bakery and barber shop were located along the streetcar line in Berwyn. The streetcars stopped running for good in the 1960s, but the right-of-way has become one of the area’s busiest hiker-biker trails.

After the streetcars went away, the commercial area became home to a series of specialty stores, including the Smile Herb Shop, which owner Tom Wolfe has operated since 1975. Wolfe, 58, says his neighbors have been welcoming over the years, though some were wary when the business opened in what had been a large single-family home. “But I’ve [now] been in the neighborhood 37 years,” he said. “I walk to work every day. People know me.”

Wolfe and many Berwyn residents are happy about news that a seafood restaurant is coming to a space that once housed the Ber­wyn Cafe, which served vegetarian fare for 10 years before closing this year. The cafe’s predecessor, the Beautiful Day Trading Company health-food store, had drawn students to the neighborhood for years.

Many students also discover Berwyn because of its proximity to the university, and investors have turned many homes there into rental units to cater to those students.

Colin Madden, 21, rents a room in a refurbished 80-year-old house that he describes as being much nicer than his previous place in College Park. One recent evening, Madden took a break from riding his skateboard along the community’s streets to discuss his new neighborhood.

“It’s like a little slice of life here,” said Madden, a University of Maryland senior. “People take a look and they are just blown away” when they see his house, he said.

The permanent residents, for the most part, have come to terms with the renters. “Sometimes there are issues with loud noise and parties,” said Young of the civic association, who noted that the association wants to “engage [the renters] in community affairs and keep them safe.”

While the number of owner-occupied homes has diminished, there have been more families moving in to the neighborhood recently, said Jerry Anzulovic, 71, who was born in Berwyn and still lives there with his wife, Gail, also born in Berwyn. The overall decline in housing values in the past few years makes Berwyn a bargain — especially since the community is close to the College Park and Greenbelt Metro stations, said Anzulovic, a retired appraiser and real estate agent.

Sharon McCraney, an agent for Long & Foster, said three-bedroom, one-to-two-bathroom ramblers or cottages can go from $175,000 to $200,000. Larger Victorians, some with five bedrooms and four bathrooms, can bring up to $400,000.

“People who couldn’t afford to buy a single-family home can buy something relatively inexpensive,” McCraney said.

John Shea, 39, and Jacqueline Mathey, 35, have found Berwyn to be a good fit for them and their son Declin, 1. They live in an older home with a half-acre lot for their son and their four dogs to roam.

Shea can reach his federal government job in the District by walking down the hiker-biker trail to the College Park Metro station. The family lives near a neighborhood park and has a short walk across a bridge to Lake Artemesia, popular with fishermen, walkers and cyclists.

Shea also says he can call on his neighbors to help out when needed. “We know who they are. We trust them,” he said. “If you’re lucky, you find a neighborhood where you can have that.”

Jim Brocker is a freelance writer.

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