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Where We Live

A Century of Doing Things Their Own Way

Residents of Alexandria's Eclectic Del Ray Community Have Big Party Plans for 'the Avenue'

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By Andrea J. Rouda
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Although many of Washington's close-in suburbs have been paved over and built up into modern "edge cities," Del Ray retains some of the feel of a small Southern town.

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Originally named Potomac, Del Ray was founded in 1908 and was annexed into the city of Alexandria in 1930. Located to the north and west of Old Town, about six miles from the White House, it seems a world away from the power and sophistication of Washington.

This year numerous events are planned in celebration of Del Ray's 100th birthday. Many will take place on Mount Vernon Avenue, the commercial and social thoroughfare that cuts through the center of the neighborhood.

Neighbors out shopping or doing errands have almost daily impromptu meetings on "the Avenue," many at St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, where students staring at laptops share the space with mothers and toddlers, teens and lunching office workers.

Nearby are several other favorite hangouts distinctive to the community, including the Dairy Godmother and Caboose Cafe & Bakery. In fact, the only recognizable chains are the 7-Eleven and the UPS Store, and the locals like it that way.

"When a rumor swept through town that a Starbucks was opening up here, people were horrified," said Joe LaMountain, a marketing and communications specialist who moved there in 1999. "A few years ago, Del Ray was kind of on the down-low, but since then it has gotten very hip. I would hate for the community to lose its quirkiness."

That quirky quality is evident in Del Ray's eclectic housing stock, where every block seems to have a mix of tiny bungalows, brick "fixer-uppers" and beautifully restored Victorians.

Unlike neighborhoods where look-alike houses naturally attract similar buyers with similar incomes, Del Ray's housing diversity is echoed in its population, which includes people from a mix of economic and ethnic backgrounds. The student body of the local public elementary school is 55 percent Hispanic. To better serve that demographic, a dual-immersion Spanish and English program begins in kindergarten.

Diversity is evident in Del Ray in other ways as well: The abundance and variety of restaurants -- Italian, Indian, American, Cajun, Mexican, Thai, Chinese and Ethiopian -- is one reason many residents stick close to home on weekends.

"We have a true main street right in the middle of the neighborhood, and that adds to the strong feeling of community-mindedness," said Pat Miller, co-owner of a craft shop called A Show of Hands.

She has high hopes for this centennial in Del Ray: The day-long festival she started 13 years ago, Art on the Avenue, promises to be bigger than ever. Featuring juried crafts, food vendors and children's activities, the event is on the first Saturday in October.

Like Miller, many other local business owners also live in Del Ray and appreciate the community's support. As members of the Potomac West Business Association, they sponsor the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot, a 5K run that last year had 2,500 entrants.

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