This Plot Looks Familiar
Echoes of Another Era, And the Nearby Falls

By Rebecca Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Forget the harsh world of modern reality television. "It's like 'Leave It to Beaver,' " Roxanne Sweeney said about her Montgomery County neighborhood.

River Falls, an upscale neighborhood of well-maintained Colonials on lots of more than a third of an acre, wasn't built until several years after the Beav went off the air in 1963. But Sweeney, who has two children, ages 7 and 9, compared the well-maintained Potomac neighborhood to the fictional suburb for several reasons, including its friendliness and strong community ties.

Like the TV idyll, it's brimming with children -- some homeowners report as many as 300 trick-or-treaters each Halloween. The neighborhood also has little crime.

"We recently had a Montgomery County police officer come to give us an update [on criminal activity] and he did not recommend that we waste any money on hiring a security service," said Jeff Spigel, president of the Civic Association of River Falls, a voluntary community association. River Falls has about 500 single-family houses, plus 15 townhouses and 13 condos built as part of the county's moderately priced dwelling units program.

"It's the closest that you can get to the good ol' American neighborhood," said resident Suzanne Huguely, a mother of two teenage daughters who herself grew up in River Falls. Her parents became some of the first homeowners in the neighborhood in 1972 when they bought their home for $101,000.

"There is camaraderie and a nice, down-home feel to the neighborhood," Huguely said.

Creighton Armstrong, who also grew up in River Falls and whose parents still live there, agreed with Huguely. "We know almost everyone," he said.

Armstrong said that his children, 5-year-old twins Carleigh and Creighton, engage in a lot of the same activities nearby that he once did, including skating on the C&O Canal, fishing in the Potomac River and biking in the neighborhood's cul-de-sacs.

Still, life in River Falls differs in some ways from the world of June, Ward, Wally and Beaver Cleaver. Both places are mostly white and comfortably middle class. But in Mayfield, few of the women worked outside the home and everyone seemed to be part of a nuclear family of mom, dad and the kids. River Falls has a mix of working and stay-at-home mothers and there are several single parents raising kids alone, including Huguely. "We are a good resource for each other but we also feel very included in the neighborhood," she said.

Mayfield's location was never clearly disclosed. In River Falls, location is important: It's close to three highways -- the Clara Barton Parkway, the George Washington Parkway and the Capital Beltway -- from which residents can easily get to shopping centers, airports or downtown Washington.

"We go out to eat at Tysons more than at other places because it's so easy to get to," said Spigel, the civic association president. And Armstrong, who works near the Verizon Center downtown as a vice president at a commercial real estate company, said he can drive to his office in 25 minutes, outside rush hour.

The community was once considered part of Potomac horse country, hence all the horse-related street names such as Bridle Lane, Stable Lane and Horseshoe Lane. But as development has spread farther outside the Beltway it is now viewed as "close in and highly desirable," said Anne C. Killeen, a real estate agent with Washington Fine Properties. She grew up in River Falls and is raising her three children there.

While built-up areas are just a short drive away, the community is also within walking distance of Great Falls Park along the Potomac River and the C&O Canal.

"We can hear the falls at night," Christine Armstrong said.

And some residents, such as Josh Weiner, who moved in a year and a half ago from Arlington, take up river-related sports because the Potomac is so close. Weiner, a father of two children ages 7 months and 2 years, is beginning kayak lessons this spring.

The neighborhood has another significant attraction for families: an almost endless list of organized activities. They include Halloween and Valentine's Day parties, a Memorial Day picnic and a Fourth of July parade.

There are weekly play groups for mothers and young children, tennis and swim teams, and summer dance parties for older kids. There are monthly Bunco groups for women who like to play that dice game, regularly scheduled basketball games for men, and wine-tasting get-togethers, crab feasts and cocktail parties for all adults. There is even a welcoming committee that greets and assists newcomers.

Pets aren't left out: There is an annual dog swim on the last day that the pool is open.

Neighbors communicate about these and other community events via a quarterly newsletter and through a neighborhood e-mail discussion group, RiverFallsChat, which has more than 400 members. Residents use the discussion group to spread the word about such things as civic association meetings, classes and used furniture sales as well as to ask advice about tutors or babysitters.

Recently, a group of River Falls mothers used the e-mail group to coordinate food preparation for Roxanne Sweeney when she wasn't feeling well following treatment for colon cancer.

"I can't even count how many meals were brought to me," Sweeney said. "I hate this line because I'm not a Democrat, but this is really an it-takes-a-village sort of place."

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