There are no street lights in Burke Centre.
There are no
striped awnings, fancy screen doors, uncoordinated storage sheds, chain link fences, above-ground swimming pools, Winnebagos, boat trailers or brightly painted swing sets. They're not allowed. Swings and basketball backboards must be painted in "earthtones." Clotheslines must be taken in when not in use. Grass must be cut no shorter than 2 inches and no higher than 6 inches.
There are written rules governing just about everything: compost piles, the size of a vegetable garden, the appearance of flower beds, flagpoles, doghouses, storm windows, patios, TV antennas, the number of garbage bags allowed, mailboxes, charcoal grills and chimney caps.
Stand on top of a hill in this six-year-old "planned community," nestled in the ample bosom of Fairfax County, and the sight is awesome: a flotilla of four-bedroom colonials in what seems to be a choice of two colors, beige and off-beige. One almost yearns for an eyesore. A wagon wheel or two. Maybe a ceramic bird bath. Any sign of life as we know it in most American neighborhoods.
There are four neighborhoods in Burke Centre: The Oaks, The Ponds, The Landings, The Woods. Within each neighborhood, homeowners are grouped into "clusters." There are cluster guidelines, cluster parties, and cluster chairs, otherwise known as leaders. Each neighborhood has its own community center, swimming pool and tennis courts. The difference between the neighborhoods is a little like Knots Landing vs. Falcon Crest.
Burke Centre has its own shopping mall, its own McDonalds, its own man- made lake, its own parkway, its own newspaper and its own phone book, listing "useful" numbers like President Ronald Reagan's.
But above all, Burke Centre is known for what it doesn't have: surprises.
"We liked the fact that it was planned," says Mary Davis, a 35-year-old housewife with long brown hair who is waiting for her daughter's Brownie meeting to break up at the small log building known as the Oaks Community Center. "We don't mind the fact that you need approval for color changes. We feel protected by that. But I think it takes getting used to."
She gathers her children into her wine-colored station wagon and drives a few short blocks home. It is a nice house, set in a cul-de-sac, with a side lawn and wooden fence. The swings in the back yard are painted burnt sienna, the same color as the trim on the house.
"One reason I like it here is because there are other women home which makes it easier when you have toddlers," Davis says. "Everyone seems to watch out for everyone else. When we lived in California, nobody was home during the day . . . That's one of the things I looked for in a neighborhood. That children would be home and women wouldn't work."
Mary Davis says she is a typical resident of Burke Centre. Transient, mid-30's, a few kids, husband working for government or in military or doing computer work like her husband Michael. She is also typical in that, after three years, she is moving. Her husband just got transferred to Colorado.
The door opens and Michael comes in. He works in Silver Spring and commutes one hour and 15 minutes each way, morning and night. He kisses his daughter, then sits down at the Formica kitchen table, loosening his tie. "The things I like about Burke Centre are the same things I hate about it," he says. Which are? "The covenants and restrictions . . . If you could trust that people would use good judgment, you wouldn't need controls. But they don't."
Living in the bedroom community of 14,000 people doesn't bother Michael Davis. "We're living in a white collar ghetto," he laughs. "It's a good area for people our own age with our aged children."
Sure, Michael Davis says, Burke Centre isn't perfect. "We're a little short on swimming pools," he says. "And the schools are overcrowded."
It is 7 p.m. and the streets are dark. Inside the houses, blue TV lights flicker against beige walls and color-coordinated drapes. Connie Johnson is sitting in her kitchen, getting ready to visit a few neighbors. She and her husband, who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency, have just sold their house because he has been transferred to Arizona.
The Johnsons and their three children have lived in New York, Dallas, Geneva, Philadelphia, Munich and Bonn. "I think Burke Centre is a typical community," she says. "We've been in friendlier ones and we've been in less friendly ones. The nice part is the restrictions."
Only one thing bothers her about Burke Centre. It might be a bit too homogeneous. "For example, I would like for my children to know elderly people. They have no relationship with them now. The other point that bothers me is that almost every kid around here gets what they want. The values they place on money are not what I'd like them to be. Our girls are actually good about not begging for things. There's a tremendous amount of trading clothes."
Connie Johnson worked part time this year selling real estate. "I think maybe 50 percent of the women work. The ones that stay home play bridge, play tennis, or go into church work. The military wives tend to stick together."
If they don't work they can take advantage of Burke Centre's self-improvement program: classes held in the different community centers. This fall, the program includes "Pine Cone Creations," "Create A Gingerbread House," "Slimnastics", "Beginning Needlepoint," "Colonial Quilted Pillow," "Padded Fabric Frames," "Pre and Post Natal Fitness" and "Kids Aerobics" and "Kindergym."
"It's a family type community," says Mike Parrish, owner of Habersham Galleries in the Burke Centre mall where many wives buy knick-knacks and house gifts. Parrish lived in Burke Centre for three years before moving out this summer. "Basically, it's a lot of government people who come home at 5 o'clock. A lot of wives don't work. We just didn't fit in. To me, it's boring. These people go to sleep at 9 o'clock at night. It's fine if you live a clockwork life."
Max Peterson has been delivering the mail since last April. "I don't really like the place at all," he says. "Some of the merchants are pretty nice, but most of the people are military. It's very transient. They have a lousy attitude. I get the feeling they all have their little cliques. It's a very unfriendly place," he says, walking down the sidewalk, shaking his head. "If you breathe wrong you have problems."
At the Shoe Show in Burke Centre residents can buy $40 Nikes without leaving the neighborhood. Judy Diaz is manning the counter. "Jogging is the main event in Burke Centre," she says. Diaz is 23. She and her husband, who is unemployed, moved from Arlington two years ago and snagged a townhouse in what she calls the low-income housing section of the development, where they pay less than $100 in rent. The waiting list for the federally subsidized housing is long. "It's quiet, except for the construction," she says. Burke Centre is not complete: a new Memco is coming, as well as a fifth neighborhood, to be called Town Center. "I think it's too crowded," Diaz says. "There aren't enough schools. The day care centers are all full." She'd rather be back in Arlington.
Over at the Burke Centre Conservancy, a huge white building that serves as the central governing office for the development, finance director Jim Hull is sitting in the waiting room. "It's more bureaucratic than you'd think. And turnover is a problem. We have people moving in and out constantly. The end of summer is one big exodus. Most transfers occur before the school year."
The houses in Burke Centre, he says, "are not selling as quickly as we'd like. But we're still at the growth stage. Which is why the military like it. They can come in and buy a house and in three years when they're transferred, they know the house will go up in value." Condos sell somewhere in the 70's, he says, townhouses start in the 80's and single-family homes are in the $150,000 range.
Now there are 4,800 households with a projected figure of 5,600. "We try to keep people from becoming parochial," he smiles. What about minorities? "Mind if I pass on that?" Hull laughs
Richard Arbor, 38-year-old executive director of the Burke Centre Conservancy (which he compares to a homeowners association) comes in and shakes hands. The best part about Burke Centre, he says, is the environment. The worst part is trying to manage the diversity of people. "All the diverse opinions of highly intelligent, motivated people" who have opinions on just about everything, from the color of jungle gyms to the number of bags of trash which are allowed to be accumulated by the residents.
Residents who break the rules are turned in to the Architectural Review Board by their neighbors. Any homeowner who wants to change anything about his house must get permission first, by submitting a written application to the Architectural Review Board and attending a hearing. Says Arbor, "It may be upsetting when you own a $100,000 house and somebody calls you and tells you to take your clothesline down."
He handles all kinds of complaints, usually concerning aesthetics. Then there was the duck issue. Seems that around Easter this year, children were given baby ducks. The parents decided to keep the ducks in the ponds. Arbor winces at the memory. "These ducks were so dumb. They couldn't feed themselves. They started dying. Plus, all the paths were getting messed up."
Several residents called Arbor and cited one of the development's rules: no exotic pets in open spaces. After much heated discussion over whether ducks were indeed exotic animals, Arbor says, the issue was resolved. "The ducks won." Several residents volunteered to care for the animals, clean up after them and feed them.
Despite the seemingly calm exterior, Arbor says there is crime in Burke Centre. His car stereo just got stolen and he says in the past six months there's been an increase in daylight burglaries, and cases of breaking and entering. But he thinks that may be the work of bored teen-agers.
Over at the McDonald's, Kim Johnson and Judy Hovan are sipping cokes and chewing on soggy french fries. They're both freshman at Robinson High School. "There's really not that much to do here," says Johnson, flipping her mane of blonde hair. "I'd rather be living in Clifton or Fairfax Station."
"Yeah," says Hovan. "There aren't a lot of good looking guys here."
After school gets out, the two girls usually go home, watch soap operas, go to McDonald's or a pizza place, Mr Gatti's, where you can eat a pepperoni and mushroom pizza while watching "Three's Company" on the restaurant's giant screen TV.
Outside, a Fairfax County police officer sits in his cruiser, eating a cheeseburger. "It's a quiet place. They don't really have any crime problems here, although there is some construction crime. Stealing materials off new construction sites." Traffic, he says, is pretty bad in the morning and evening rush hours. He says he wouldn't mind living in Burke Centre himself, only he can't afford it.
The sun is turning orange and setting over a row of tall trees. Cars are driving slowly down the Burke Centre parkway, turning left and right, winding down the streets where kids do wheelies on their bikes and wait for dad to get home.
Charlie Sarick, 49, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration, drops off the last of his van pool passengers. It's 6 o'clock. Sarick has lived in BurkeeCentre for the past three years. "It has everything. Pools, sports. It's accessible to Washington." As for the rules and regulations, he says, well, it doesn't bother him thae'rt much. "It's alright in that people don't go crazy with respect to what they can do with the house. But then they go the other way, telling you what color the basketball backboard can be. What's the big deal whether it's earthtone or blue?"