Where We Live

Don't Let Old Town's Bustle Fool You

By Mara Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 12, 2009

At 5 o'clock on a weekday afternoon in Old Town, it's rare to find someone on the busy sidewalks who lives in the neighborhood.

Folks are walking to the garage or Metro from their jobs at trade associations like the American Helicopter Society International. Others have come to sample King Street's charm, to get a drink or dinner. Bargain shoppers are visiting Ross Dress for Less.

Despite the rush of tourists and locals, Old Town residents say the Alexandria neighborhood, laid out in 1749, is the kind of place where you run into friends all the time, where shopkeepers get to know the regulars (and their dogs). The tourist traffic masks a strong sense of community.

Betty Youles has spent two five-year stints living in Old Town. She and her friends get together once a month for a happy hour that can include as many as 25 people, once you count the friends of friends.

"It's neighborhoody," she said. "You know people. Everybody's got babies and dogs, all those fun things."

Patti Miller, who moved to Old Town 12 years ago from Hoboken, N.J., is one of those dog owners.

"You can walk pretty much everywhere you want to go. You can bring your dog into all said places," except restaurants, of course.

Patrick Mika, who moved to Old Town two years ago from California, doesn't have a dog, but he likes the canine-inclusiveness just the same. "It's a dog-centered town," he said. "I use that as a judge of tolerance and friendliness."

Miller, who rents a duplex with her husband said Old Town has added many more restaurant choices and boutiques in the time she's lived there.

Her duplex is small, like many old houses in the neighborhood, which forces residents to think about storage before they buy anything. "It's actually a great advantage," she said. "It's a real Zen thing. You always think about what you're buying. It's a European lifestyle."

Youles remembered that when she and her husband, Charles, were shopping for a townhouse, she craved a historic property. "This one in particular I desperately loved," she said. But Charles could barely walk down the narrow stairs without turning his shoulders sideways, so they bought a house built in 1989 instead.

The couple has an 18-month-old daughter, Shelby. Youles said that she doesn't think their public elementary school is very high-quality now but that it's moving in the right direction and might be acceptable by the time her daughter is old enough to be enrolled. There's just one public high school, T.C. Williams, which was made famous in "Remember the Titans," a football movie starring Denzel Washington.

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