Where We Live

Where Life Is a Walk in the Park

By Jim Brocker
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 25, 2009

When North White Oak residents walk to their park, they have to decide whether to wear their swimsuits or maybe take a tennis racket.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Recreational Park, a 95-acre tract in the midst of several Silver Spring neighborhoods, highways and other parkland, features a host of recreational opportunities. The park, which opened in 1985, has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, a pond, and trails that lead to housing subdivisions and natural areas.

While the facility draws people from throughout the region, the locals see the park as their neighborhood place to play.

"We go to the park all the time, to exercise, to walk, just to look at the trees," said Maria Germany, who has lived in the area since 1992. "The trees in the park are absolutely magnificent . . . in the fall, when the pond reflects the gold of the trees. . . . We have pictures and pictures."

Parents point out that their children can walk to the local elementary and middle schools, as well as the White Oak library. Shopping areas are a short hop away, and houses of worship are found up and down New Hampshire Avenue.

With homes that are considered relatively affordable, the area attracts lots of families.

"We were able to get a nice house in a safe, good neighborhood at a much lower price than a comparable home would be selling for in Bethesda or other areas in Montgomery County," said Tom Tatham, 49, who works at the National Institutes of Health.

Tatham is able to work from home a few days a week. In the mornings, he accompanies his two daughters as they walk to Jackson Road Elementary School, adjacent to the park. Tatham often walks his dog through the park, and he and his family take advantage of the trails that run nearby, including the nearby Middle Branch trail, which, he said, "truly feels like wilderness."

The North White Oak area began to take shape in the late 1950s to early 1960s, said Teresa Hitt, a Long Foster agent who lives in the neighborhood. Her husband and business partner, Rob Hitt, grew up in the area and attended local schools. She noted that the sizable yards are one of the neighborhood's selling points. "Typically acreages run from a quarter to a third or even a half," Hitt said. "There are good-sized lots."

North White Oak features a mix of ramblers, colonials, Cape Cods and split-levels, many with brick features. Roads, lined with mature trees, are narrow, and some do not feature sidewalks. However, most of the streets dead-end or open into cul-de-sacs, "which are what Americans love," said Barry Wides, president of the North White Oak Civic Association.

Wides moved to the area in 1990 from Takoma Park and got involved in the association as part of an effort to oppose a cellphone tower proposed for the park. The tower, which residents said would spoil the park's aesthetics, was never built. Now, Wides's association, which represents about 500 families south of the park, and other groups will be weighing in on plans to build a county police station and residential units on 12 undeveloped acres. Wides, who worked on the master plan that guides land use for the area, said the current zoning would allow townhouses to be built on land not used for the station.

Elizabeth Malloy, president of the Sherbrooke Homeowners Association, whose neighborhood is adjacent to the land, is also interested in the plans. "The concept isn't bad -- how it's implemented will be of interest," she said. Malloy said the residents would be as supportive as possible but want to make sure that the development will work well with the neighborhood.

Robin Madden, president of the East Springbrook Citizens Association, which represents about 400 households north of the park, has lived in the area for 21 years. Her five children attended area schools. Madden's association sponsors a Fourth of July parade, and she said the area has always been community-focused. "I meet people here often who bought their parents' house or moved back to the neighborhood after being away," she said.

Cindy Bruning grew up on Renick Lane with five brothers and sisters. She and her husband eventually bought her parents' home and raised their family as Bruning's parents continued to live with them. "We actually added on and made it from a five- to a seven-bedroom house," she said. Bruning remembers when the park was still farmland. "Cows would come up to our back yard," she said. But she added that many people were relieved that the land, acquired by the county in 1976, was used for the park.

Residents praised the neighborhood's diversity, "not only in terms of race and nationalities, but education, experience, types of jobs," said Germany, a native of Chile. "You can have a very interesting conversation at any level on any subject: politics, environment, nature, energy, international travel, health."

Many residents pointed out the area's convenient location near major highways and shopping areas, including downtown Silver Spring, and say the quality of life has kept them there for years. Madden says she feels safe walking through the area at night, and Wides's association sponsors a neighborhood watch group that uses e-mail to alert homeowners to potential problems.

"I think that's what makes somebody look at a neighborhood and say, 'Hey that's a good neighborhood.' People looking out for each other," he said.

Neighbors are willing to help one another, Germany said, offering rides, lending tools, dispensing advice or babysitting. Germany, whose daughter attends Tufts University, remembers that when she was growing up, there could be more than a dozen children in their cul-de-sac. They'd play together, going from house to house and yard to yard. "It's fascinating to see how well they developed," she said. "It gives you some sense of confidence for later on in life."

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