Where We Live

New Faces Enliven Spring Valley

By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 30, 2009

When Spring Valley was young, the Northwest neighborhood was considered on the outskirts of Washington. But that didn't mean it was far from everything -- it had a Garfinckel's.

It was "the first out-of-town department store at that point," said Jeffrey Kraskin, 55, who has lived in Spring Valley since his parents built a house on Massachusetts Avenue NW in 1948. "People could live in the community here and didn't have to go downtown for shopping. So you had this whole vibrant, functioning, self-sustaining community, which it still is today."

A Crate & Barrel now sits where Garfinckel's once did, but just up Massachusetts Avenue, Wagshal's Delicatessen serves gourmet sandwiches and groceries out of the location where the store first opened more than 80 years ago. Similarly, longtime residents who grew up in the neighborhood mix with young families and other new neighbors. The community has grown, moving from a World War I munitions testing ground to a community with restrictions on who could buy property to a diverse but tony neighborhood with well-known residents including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

"This has been a community of change," said Kraskin, an optometrist and past Spring Valley ANC commissioner. "You've seen a generational change, a change in the face of the people who live here, and a change in the role of the neighborhood within the city."

Spring Valley, home to American University and roughly 1,100 houses, was first developed by W.C. & A.N. Miller in the 1920s. It was built on the site of a former chemical agents and munitions testing site from World War I, and cleanup efforts to remove soil with elevated levels of arsenic and other contamination are ongoing, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Kraskin said that while day-to-day life hasn't been affected for most residents, "there aren't a lot of people growing tomato plants directly in the soil in their backyard."

That contamination hasn't dampened the community's quiet, upscale vibe or its property values, said Anneliese Wilkerson, a Realtor with Long & Foster. Wilkerson said it's rare to see one of the neighborhood's stately colonials or Tudors, most of which have four to seven bedrooms, sell for less than $1 million.

"It's probably one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Washington," said Wilkerson, who lives across Massachusetts Avenue from Spring Valley. "There are heads of state, former senators, lawyers, doctors, high-ranking government officials -- this is the population you've got there. But despite its opulence, it has a very warm feeling to it."

Kraskin said though home prices have risen to the point that few houses could be labeled "affordable," Spring Valley still offers architectural diversity, including smaller homes built for GIs in the 1940s.

Kraskin said his house is one of many occupied by its original owners or the family of the original owners.

In recent years, though, many young families have moved into the neighborhood.

"I get a real thrill when I see that," said Marion Kraskin, 80, Jeffrey Kraskin's mother, motioning to a woman pushing a baby carriage. "When we moved here, there was no one for [my kids] to play with. That's very different today."

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