Where We Live

Where We Live: Mount Rainier Offers Affordable Homes on the District Border

By Jim Brocker
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 8, 2009

The landscape of Mount Rainier features a collage of working-class families, young professionals and many artists who have gravitated to the affordable Prince George's County community on the District border.

And although Mount Rainier is still plagued by abandoned buildings and blighted areas within the Rhode Island Avenue commercial district, residents see their community as a work in progress, a little rough around the edges but with the potential for being something special.

Mount Rainier, founded in 1910, grew into a suburb when a streetcar line was extended to a traffic circle on Rhode Island Avenue, an area that has become the city's hub. In the 1960s and 1970s, Mount Rainier's relatively low housing prices attracted renters and first-time homebuyers, including artists. They loved the bungalows, large lots and the tree-lined streets, even as the number of abandoned buildings and blighted areas grew within the old commercial district.

Mount Rainier "grew on me a lot," said Michelle Darden-Lee, 43, who landed in the city earlier this decade with her husband, Tony Lee, 45, after being outbid for homes elsewhere. The couple talked a resident into selling his house to them.

"You have the original Mount Rainier pioneers who have been here 40 years, new urban pioneers who found the [housing] market unbearable and landed here like me, apartment residents in transition, the gay and lesbian community, young families and old church-going ladies," Darden-Lee said.

"Artists who come to work in the city realize, " 'Hey, this isn't a bad neighborhood. This is a nice neighborhood,' " said Tim Tate, 49, who moved his Washington Glass School from the District to warehouses along Otis Street four years ago .

"You walk your dog, people yell out, 'hello, how are you?' -- friendly communication. That's what drew me to be a business owner and be a homeowner," said Brooke Kidd, 40, executive director and founder of Joe's Movement Emporium, a center for dance and the performing arts that occupies a renovated warehouse.

That project was one of several in recent years designed to market Mount Rainier as an artists' haven. The city features apartments designated for artists, including a gleaming three-story structure on the Rhode Island Avenue traffic circle.

The Mount Rainier Artists Lofts building was constructed by Artspace, a nonprofit developer which created the building for artists to live and work as part of the Gateway Arts District, which includes Mount Rainier and other towns along Route 1 and provides tax incentives for arts-related development.

Laura Schandelmeier, 44, her husband, Stephen Clapp, 35, and their teenage daughter occupy one of the 44 lofts. Schandelmeier and Clapp teach and perform dance at Joe's Movement Emporium just a block away. "There are days when I don't have to drive anywhere," Schandelmeier said.

Schandelmeier has taken an active role in the community, teaching classes to youngsters in Mount Rainier through Joe's and the local schools. She says she and other fellow artists feel connected to the city. "It's community in the true sense of the word."

A ground-floor café, Artmosphere, had occupied the ground floor of the lofts building since 2006, and city leaders hoped it would draw other businesses to the rundown corridor. But despite efforts to boost revenue, including live musical performances, Artmosphere shut down in the spring.

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