A Slight Gap Where the Sidewalk Ends

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, April 24, 2008

At least we agree on parks. We like them, and trees, too. We crave the respite they provide from the strains of everyday life. But that's about all we agree on.

Ask residents of the District and each of the Washington suburbs what they love about where they live and the responses are as different, and as similar, as a crowded city sidewalk and a lakeside path teeming with groundhogs, rabbits, geese and ospreys. No matter where folks live, they value gathering places, the public settings that define our larger sense of home. But our ideas about what kind of public places enrich life are very different.

Let's burst one expectation I know I had: The hundreds of passionate notes The Washington Post received when the Extra sections asked readers to write about why they relish their home towns mostly do not break down as another case of city vs. suburb. That's good news.

(Well, there's one aspect of life where the city-suburb divide does ring true: Readers in the suburbs wrote passionately about the quality of their local schools. Only one D.C. reader mentioned the topic.) Rather, each part of our region has its own personality, and that comes through powerfully in what you and your neighbors chose to write about.

Montgomery County readers repeatedly speak of the joyful clash of languages and cultures in a place of stark economic and social contrasts. High school student Stefani Schaper writes of people she has met from "Pakistan, Vietnam, Peru, India, the Philippines and many other countries" and how "it really opens your mind to the world."

Frankie Blackburn of Silver Spring talks about people who find ways to connect despite the too-fast pace of work, school and commuting: the neighbor who opens her home to others on the block, the guys who make certain their old Blair High friends get together regularly, the immigrant women who organize potluck dinners in their apartment complexes.

On the other side of the invisible line that divides Montgomery from Prince George's County, the submissions have a different emphasis entirely. Here, social connections seem more intimate, more insular. Many people write about small hangouts, the neighborhood eateries where you see the same neighbors all the time, the crab feast in Greenbelt where the DJ teaches line dances, the farmers market in Cheverly where kids meet llamas, the ice cream place in Brandywine that unites the generations. Here, unlike other parts of the region, readers write in praise of their churches, of pastors who connect with their flocks and members who reach out to those in need.

In both Maryland counties, much is made of the swim leagues, PTAs, community baseball, and cultural and library programs that link people who might otherwise never meet.

Across the river in Fairfax County, it's nature that stands out, a palpable passion for river access, hiking trails and wildlife preserves laced throughout a place better known for congestion and development battles.

"No summertime grandchildren's sleepover is complete without a ride on the delightful Accotink Park merry-go-round," writes James Dolson of Springfield. Ruth Tatlock of Herndon loves her town's recreation center, Fourth of July celebration and the old rail station and its red caboose. David Gorsline of Reston is devoted to Huntley Meadows Park and its freshwater wetlands, where six species of turtles make their home.

But more than any other place, Fairfax draws expressions of ambivalence, a persistent undercurrent of discord as residents who came to love the place for its open spaces, easy pace and fine schools now find themselves snarled in traffic, crowded by development and struggling to afford housing.

"Rents are high and are pushing many of us out," writes Louise Werner-Rhoades of Lorton. Jean Dempsey says the things that attracted her to the area near George Mason University "have somehow mutated. Traffic is a nightmare. So many changes -- not many good ones." Readers plead for the extension of Metrorail through Tysons Corner and out to Dulles International Airport, and for road improvements. The shopping is splendid and the schools top-notch, they say, but it's hard to enjoy parks and other amenities if you're stuck in the car for hours on end.

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