A Neighborhood's Ounce of Prevention

(Photos By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 19, 2007

The swimming pool club was alive with activity in Kings Park, a sprawling community of 45-year-old ranches, colonials and split-levels off Braddock Road. A diving meet had crowded the bleachers on a recent evening with spectators, and younger children were playing kickball in the parking lot while their brothers and sisters swam.

Kings Park is one of hundreds of maturing neighborhoods across Fairfax County where lawns have been maintained, homes have been owner-occupied, and families have participated in the civic association.

But it is also a neighborhood where increasing numbers of homes are rented, where crowds of cars and trucks are parked in front of single-family homes, and where, every so often along its quiet streets, one house stands out for its cracked driveway, its overgrown lawn or its faded and peeling paint.

Kings Park is not in deep decline -- not anything like older neighborhoods in southeastern Fairfax County where gang activity, illegal boardinghouses and zoning violations such as parking cars on lawns or running certain businesses in a house have become rampant. Its residents would like it to stay that way, which is why they are forming a program to explore how they can keep their community vibrant.

"We have a bit of a lag in community spirit," said John C. Cook, 44, a lawyer who is president of the Kings Park Civic Association and is leading the effort. "What we're saying is, 'Hey, if we can jump-start where we are, maybe we can prevent some of the issues that are happening elsewhere.' "

Kings Park, a rolling, leafy suburb of more than 1,100 homes, is showing its age in a number of ways. Membership in its association reached a low of 380 households last year, compared with more than 600 in the 1980s. One of its two pool clubs, struggling with low membership, closed and was bulldozed last month. The last Boy Scout troop disbanded this year.

Much of the transformation can be attributed to broad sociological changes across the region and nation, such as increasing numbers of two-career families with less time to spend at the community pool or the civic association. But Kings Park also faces the challenge of aging -- the majority of houses are no longer filled with young families, and upkeep is slipping on homes and sidewalks and at parks and pools.

Further, the neighborhood is attractive to renters seeking affordable housing in otherwise exorbitantly expensive Northern Virginia. As more have moved in, transience has increased, and community ties and upkeep have frayed.

But perhaps the greatest challenge the neighborhood faces is cultural. New immigrants live alongside families who settled there in the 1960s. The problem, Cook said, is that as the neighborhood's diversity has increased, the level of participation in community activities has dropped. One goal of revitalization is to figure out how to make newcomers, particularly those from other cultures, feel welcome.

"We have a whole lot of people who are different from each other," Cook said. "We have to get to know them."

The framework of the Kings Park pilot program, which has been embraced by Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) as a potential model for the county, is simple: Involve residents, reach out to newcomers and use existing county programs, such as zoning enforcement services, to keep the neighborhood strong.

Of particular interest to Cook is a program the county has had for a number of years called the neighborhood college, in which county professionals teach community groups what the county has to offer: laws, regulations and enforcement tools. Cook is seeking 20 residents to participate in a neighborhood college in Kings Park, and he hopes the sessions emphasize reaching out to immigrants, learning about other cultures and teaching immigrants about U.S. culture and neighborhood norms.

"It's a way of helping members of the community solve problems," Bulova said. "It builds leadership. It builds understanding of how things work. Everyone who has participated in these neighborhood colleges has come away totally wowed."

Cook said he also hopes to establish annual orientation sessions, encourage non-English speakers to participate in the county's language instruction program, sponsor more community events and provide help to those neighbors unable to maintain their homes. The program also would seek to strengthen the community's once-vital block captain program, assigning one person on each block to, welcome new residents.

Some of Cook's efforts are already reaping rewards. He exceeded his goal this year of pushing civic association membership above 500. Next year, the goal will be even higher. And 10 people have agreed to participate in the neighborhood college -- not the usual, active folks, either, but younger, newer residents who want to join for the first time.

"It is not a community in crisis," he said. "It is not a community with serious problems. But it is a community that is beginning to face challenges. That's what we're trying to address."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company