By Andrea J. Rouda
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 9, 2008
Although many of Washington's close-in suburbs have been paved over and built up into modern "edge cities," Del Ray retains some of the feel of a small Southern town.
Originally named Potomac, Del Ray was founded in 1908 and was annexed into the city of Alexandria in 1930. Located to the north and west of Old Town, about six miles from the White House, it seems a world away from the power and sophistication of Washington.
This year numerous events are planned in celebration of Del Ray's 100th birthday. Many will take place on Mount Vernon Avenue, the commercial and social thoroughfare that cuts through the center of the neighborhood.
Neighbors out shopping or doing errands have almost daily impromptu meetings on "the Avenue," many at St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, where students staring at laptops share the space with mothers and toddlers, teens and lunching office workers.
Nearby are several other favorite hangouts distinctive to the community, including the Dairy Godmother and Caboose Cafe & Bakery. In fact, the only recognizable chains are the 7-Eleven and the UPS Store, and the locals like it that way.
"When a rumor swept through town that a Starbucks was opening up here, people were horrified," said Joe LaMountain, a marketing and communications specialist who moved there in 1999. "A few years ago, Del Ray was kind of on the down-low, but since then it has gotten very hip. I would hate for the community to lose its quirkiness."
That quirky quality is evident in Del Ray's eclectic housing stock, where every block seems to have a mix of tiny bungalows, brick "fixer-uppers" and beautifully restored Victorians.
Unlike neighborhoods where look-alike houses naturally attract similar buyers with similar incomes, Del Ray's housing diversity is echoed in its population, which includes people from a mix of economic and ethnic backgrounds. The student body of the local public elementary school is 55 percent Hispanic. To better serve that demographic, a dual-immersion Spanish and English program begins in kindergarten.
Diversity is evident in Del Ray in other ways as well: The abundance and variety of restaurants -- Italian, Indian, American, Cajun, Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Ethiopian -- is one reason many residents stick close to home on weekends.
"We have a true main street right in the middle of the neighborhood, and that adds to the strong feeling of community-mindedness," said Pat Miller, co-owner of a craft shop called A Show of Hands.
She has high hopes for this centennial in Del Ray: The day-long festival she started 13 years ago, Art on the Avenue, promises to be bigger than ever. Featuring juried crafts, food vendors and children's activities, the event is on the first Saturday in October.
Like Miller, many other local business owners also live in Del Ray and appreciate the community's support. As members of the Potomac West Business Association, they sponsor the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, a 5K run that last year had 2,500 entrants.
The association also organizes First Thursdays, which are held each year from May through September.
"It's very festive," Miller said. "From 6 to 9 p.m., there's a band playing, and a trolley takes people up and down the avenue, sampling foods and meeting the shopkeepers."
When Miller discovered Del Ray 20 years ago, she was a newly divorced political advertising consultant living in the District and ready for a change. Having grown up in a Midwestern town, population 90, she related instantly to the easy familiarity of the locals.
"We're what I call front-porch people. We like to be outside, working on our homes and helping each other," she said, recalling a pleasant afternoon several years ago when she and a few neighbors got together to repair the pickets on their adjoining porch railings. Besides improving their property values, they had a great time.
Miller bought her unrenovated brick duplex, which was "built a very long time ago, maybe around the Civil War," for $125,000. It recently appraised at $450,000.
She has done very little updating. "The kitchen has three different kinds of cupboards, but to me, that's the character of the house," she said.
Other Del Ray residents have gone in the opposite direction, totally reinventing their homes. Early in their house hunt in 1999, LaMountain and his wife, Mimi Carter, rejected their current house as "an overpriced dump."
But three months later they were still looking, and by then the price was considerably lower. They happily paid $201,000 and, with Carter as the general contractor, set about making the home their own. Besides new drywall throughout, their extensive renovations included a new roof, two new bathrooms and an updated kitchen.
Even though they estimate they could list the house for somewhere in the high $700,000s, they're not considering it.
"We feel very rooted in the community. We have no desire to leave," LaMountain said.
He particularly enjoys the super-charged political atmosphere of Del Ray, where many residents tackle traffic and development issues, volunteer for campaigns and sponsor fundraisers. "People here are very active and aware," he said. "For example, they get charged up about land use."
Feeding the fervor for community issues is the high number of local politicians who call Del Ray home, including Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille and several members of the City Council. The Del Ray Citizens Association uses an electronic newsletter and e-mail list to keep neighbors informed.
Laura Dove and her husband, Dan Solomon, both work in the District and agree it's a "great commute." They are now living in their second Del Ray house.
When they moved to the neighborhood in 1999, it was just the two of them, and they had plenty of time to expand their $200,000 Sears kit bungalow from 900 square feet to 1,600 square feet. Eventually, with two kids and a live-in child-care provider, they were bursting at the seams. In 2007, they sold that house for $675,000 and moved five blocks "into a big house, at least for Del Ray," Dove said.
An old farmhouse built around 1920, it had already been renovated -- almost. "The heart pine floors, which you cannot find anymore, were covered with carpeting, and the windows were old and rattling," Dove said. Their first heating bill was $1,100, inspiring them to replace all the windows.
In what Dove calls "a typical Del Ray story," the couple called their friends at Del Ray Artisans, an art gallery on the avenue, who "came over in about five minutes and picked up the old windows and used them to make art."
Dove is a self-described "Del Ray evangelist."
"There's the Halloween parade, a chili cook-off, and a Christmas cookie exchange," she said. "There's a Saturday morning farmers market from spring until after Thanksgiving. There's an organic grocery store, and an informal mom's group meets every Wednesday at a local cafe. The YMCA was built in 1996, with a great pool.
"The only thing we don't have is sushi."