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Social Network Blossoms in Well-Linked Neighborhood

The houses in Al Marah are nicely landscaped, with mature trees.
The houses in Al Marah are nicely landscaped, with mature trees. (By Cindy Kahlenberg For The Washington Post)
By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 30, 2005

Al Marah, a Bethesda neighborhood named after the horse farm on which it was developed, has no pool, playground, clubhouse or sidewalks. Yet residents say they feel a strong sense of community in this 152-home subdivision.

Events tie neighbors together, rather than facilities or formal meeting areas. There are the annual Fourth of July and Halloween parades, which include children marching from one of the neighborhood's four cul-de-sacs to another. Around Christmas, there is holiday caroling, including songs from different religious traditions. There also are biannual neighborhood potluck dinners, where a different course is served at each of several homes, as well as occasional wine tastings and neighborhood cleanups. More regularly, there are weekly play groups where parents can bring their young children, and monthly book club meetings for adults.

Residents are kept abreast of these activities through a neighborhood e-mail list, which is also used for discussion and complaints about local issues. People know how to reach each other because of a directory published by volunteers every couple of years.

Many people credit Brenda Holt, a stay-at-home mother of four children ages 5 to 12, for building the neighborhood's social networks. She and her husband, Dwayne, moved into their house on the subdivision's main road, Royal Dominion Drive, in 1992, when Brenda was pregnant with their oldest child. "Brenda is the neighborhood maven," said resident Eileen Feldman, whose moved in when her house was built in 1982.

Like most people who buy houses in Al Marah, where prices are at about $1 million, the Holts were not first-time homeowners; they moved there from a smaller house in Georgetown.

"We were ready for the suburban thing," Brenda Holt said. The Holts were among the first buyers in the second wave of families who moved to Al Marah. The initial group had moved in when the neighborhood was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Brenda Holt remembers that there was little community spirit when she and her husband arrived. "When I moved in I was like, 'Where's my cake? Where's my neighborhood association? " She recalls how she merged the subdivision's two inactive neighborhood associations and became the self-appointed president of the new group. She remained in that role for about 10 years, organizing events and forming a welcoming committee that brings cookies to new neighbors.

Al Marah's community spirit has served as a big draw for potential homebuyers. Consider Howard and Debbi Lindenberg, who moved to their home in 1998. A visit by Howard to the neighborhood during the 1997 Halloween parade "sealed the deal," when the couple was undecided about whether or not to buy, he said.

Many other features of the neighborhood appeal to both new and long-term residents. For one thing, the local public schools, including Bannockburn Elementary, Pyle Middle and Walt Whitman High schools, are considered among the best in the Washington area.

For another, the neighborhood has an internationally diverse population, said Feldman, an active volunteer in local schools and community organizations. It is home to some diplomats and others who work in international affairs, and to people of all age groups. Debbi Lindenberg said that having long-term residents "gives the neighborhood a sense of history."

For some, the most appealing feature of the neighborhood is its location. "I love the convenience to everything," said Debra Berg, an original owner who has lived in her house since 1981.

Few destinations are within easy walking distance, but many are within a short drive, including downtown Bethesda and Potomac Village, Reagan National Airport, and sections of Northern Virginia and Northwest Washington. "People come and want to live in this neighborhood with their kids because the schools are so good; empty nesters stay because of its convenience," Berg said.

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