The living is easy in Northeast Washington's Brookland neighborhood

By Sadie Dingfelder
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 28, 2010; F01

Just a few miles northeast of the bustling center of downtown, the District has a neighborhood where the buzz of lawnmowers is more common than siren wails, Victorian homes perch on sprawling lawns, and children sell lemonade and oatmeal cookies.

Brookland, with its suburban proportions and quaint main street, has long been a haven for middle-class families, and it's attracting a new generation of nesting young couples with do-it-yourself streaks, said Howard Politzer, owner of Brookland True Value Hardware.

"What do you get when you go to Brookland? You get a house for under half a million dollars -- maybe even two or three hundred thousand, a fixer-upper with a backyard, with three or four bedrooms . . . close to a Metro stop, where there's a nice little hardware store on the corner," he said.

A bargain on a four-bedroom bungalow lured Emily and Matthew Schilling to Brookland in 2003, but they didn't plan to stay long. The neighborhood, they thought, was too dangerous to raise children -- a fear fueled by a triple-murder in Colonel Brooks' Tavern that year. But over time, they settled in, reviewed crime statistics and found the area to be relatively safe and child-friendly, Matthew Schilling said.

"In the beginning, we were definitely thinking short term: Renovate, sell, move, kid," he said. "But then we were here a couple of years and discovered we had really great neighbors. Now we know everybody, and we feel comfortable here."

Like many Brooklanders, the Schillings have spent untold hours renovating their home and yard. They painstakingly removed layer after layer of paint from the oak molding that lines their windows and floors. They pulled pounds of weeds from their back yard, now a carpet of lush green grass, and planted flowerbeds. They freed a crepe myrtle tree from choking vines, and it sprung back to life, showering their lawn with pink blossoms.

"We like to sit out here, eat dinner and have some wine -- back when we could have wine, before Emily was pregnant," he said.

Sometimes called "Little Rome," Brookland sits just to the east of Catholic University, and its skyline is dotted with church steeples and the grand, blue dome of the Basilica. The unofficial religion of the neighborhood, however, is gardening. Each year, hundreds of Brooklanders flock to the Franciscan Monastery's herb and plant sale to buy greenery that thrives despite the neighborhood's high water table and sometimes-soggy ground, said longtime resident Peggy Armstrong. And many residents find further landscaping inspiration in the monastery's terraced garden, which is open to the public.

"The grounds there are beautiful," she said.

If you don't have a green thumb, Brookland's sprawling lawns might inspire you to sprout one, said Remy Learnard. Previously content with houseplants, Learnard now cultivates a vegetable garden behind her Brookland bungalow. "I have okra, eggplant, cucumber, yellow pepper, everything," she said.

Learnard used to share her home with her son-in-law and grandchildren, but they decamped to Northern Virginia in search of better public schools. They visit almost every weekend -- the son-in-law helps with the yard work while Maria, Cristine and Christian sell lemonade and their grandma's homemade cookies.

The variety of housing stock attracts many buyers to Brookland, said Mary Hodges, a Brookland resident and real estate agent with the Menkiti Group. It's a neighborhood where rowhouses back up to farmhouses and Victorians and bungalows sit side-by-side. It's also the home of the District's only perfectly round house. Built in 1901, the little round house at 10th and Irving streets NE is two stories, 33 feet in diameter and covered in canary-yellow shingles. It's not a practical shape, said Niki Washington, who inherited the house from her great aunt.

"She had furniture special-made to fit the walls," Washington said. Her aunt also had all the upstairs furniture delivered through a second-floor window because the spiral staircase in the center of the house is too narrow to accommodate even a card table, Washington added.

Many resident appreciate the old-fashioned feel of the area, said Tracy Davenport, who grew up in Brookland and returned to raise her son, Amir.

"It's the same as it's always been: Quiet, friendly," she said. "Everyone's always looked out for each other, and they still do."

So what is Brookland missing? "You don't come to Brookland for the nightlife," said Hodges, who often drives to Columbia Heights when she wants to go out to a restaurant or bar. And though the neighborhood's sleepy Main Street has an organic grocery store, a CVS, a coffee shop and a florist, there's not anywhere, really, to buy clothes and household items, Armstrong added.

That may soon be changing, thanks to new retail space under construction around the Brookland and Rhode Island Metro stations.

"We're hoping for a Starbucks," Emily Schilling said.

Dingfelder is a freelance writer.

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