If all you do is pass it on Virginia Route 7, going west to get away from the city or east to get back, Sterling Park looks like one of those instant suburbs that is nobody's first choice for a place to live.

If you have turned south off Route 7 and driven Route 846 -- Sterling Boulevard, its lifeline -- a redundancy of split-levels reinforces your suspicion: This is Washington's waiting room, a neighborhood of homeowners who can't afford to live closer to the city or in the country proper.

Look again.

Sterling Park residents know they are anomalies to city dwellers and to their political rivals in less populous, more rural western Loudoun County. All of which bothers them very little, because they like it here.

This is a child-centered place, where youth sports leagues drive the social lives of youngsters and parents to an extraordinary degree. Many young adults who grew up in Sterling Park are inclined to stay and raise their own children in that small-town atmosphere -- for as long as it lasts, and if they can afford it.

They are being joined by young metropolitan-area families for whom Washington has ceased to be the center of the universe and transplants from farther afield who have found the job and housing markets elsewhere even more formidable.

Sterling Park, the next outpost on Leesburg Pike past Tysons Corner and Reston, drew many of its first residents from Washington in the early 1960s for the peace of then-rural eastern Loudoun County. Some of them got there by happenstance.

Arlyn Black -- the self-appointed mayor of Sterling Park, according to his wife -- likes to tell the story of his arrival from Hyattsville in 1964 to open the first gas station. Shell Oil Co. had given him his pick of one in Gaithersburg ("I never could find the cotton-pickin' thing") or Sterling Park ("Where is that?" his wife asked).

As they pulled up one snowy night to inspect the building, Black's business partner looked around -- taking in a tiny Safeway, a hardware store and a handful of houses -- and said, "Man, you've got to be kidding."

At that moment, Black said, "a shooting star fell right into the roof, and I thought, 'This must be the place.' " But when he learned, after signing on the dotted line, that Sterling Park's original developer, M.T. Broyhill Co., had bailed out and U.S. Steel was finishing the job, "who was to say I hadn't hung my hat on a falling star?"

More than 7,000 units and 18,000 people later, Black, 52, still operates that Shell station, still lives a block away in the modest rancher where his four children grew up.

Last year, he sold his second local business, Sterling Tire Center, to a national chain, but he kept three more -- a Mobil station, food market and carwash -- and contemplates new ventures from a spacious office over the tire shop.

He has turned daily operations over to his 29-year-old son, Keith, who went to work with his father even before he graduated from Park View High School and has settled in Sterling Park with his wife and child. It is as if Opie had stayed in Mayberry to see his pa, the three-cell sheriff, hatch a whole police department and appoint him chief.

Herbert Harmon, 45, stumbled on Sterling Park about the same time Black did, giving his buddies rides from home in West Virginia to a rooming house in old Sterling, the Loudoun crossroads that lent the park its name. Harmon's pals holed up there while they built split-levels for U.S. Steel, with the fancier models selling then "for a whopping $10- or $12,000," he said.

It was more than 10 years later, in 1975, that Harmon and his wife, fleeing "hectic" Annandale, bought theirs for $55,000. Harmon commuted about 35 miles to the city, to his civilian job with the Air Force, until he was transferred to a Tysons Corner office 35 minutes from home. His wife, Sue, walks a couple of blocks to her job as a secretary at Park View High.

Her salary is less than she was paid when she worked for the Air Force, but a fair trade, she said, for staying out of the car. Two years ago, the Harmons talked about buying a bigger house, but they added a room and stayed put so all three of their children could walk to school.

"We looked at the cost of the new houses going up around here and the kids being bused everywhere . . . and we thought it wasn't worth it," Sue Harmon said. "You have no idea how nice it is: When there's a dance or football practice, your kid can walk out the door and go."

Herb Jr., 17 and a Park View senior, answered instantaneously ("No way!") when asked if he would return to Sterling Park after college, and almost as quickly reconsidered. "I would if I had a family," he said. "But out of college, I'd rather be out in the country or in the city."

In other words, Harmon rejoined with fatherly satisfaction, "you'd do just what your dad did."

Herb, who earns $5 an hour toward college bagging groceries at the local Safeway, had just come home from a half-hour conditioning session for football season and was on his way out again to spend the evening at a friend's. He moved and spoke with the quiet confidence of a youngster who knows that his parents' world revolves around him.

His father has been sponsorship chairman of the Sterling Park Little League (which, he said, has so many children now that "there's a battle for fields") and president of the Patriots Club, the booster organization that raises money for Park View's extracurricular programs. Harmon speaks with the assurance of a man who knows his son wouldn't drive in the "Mall 500" even if he were allowed to.

Loudoun County Sheriff's Lt. Jeff Brown watched from his cruiser one Saturday night as teenagers in cars made the ritual circuit at Sterling Park Shopping Center on the boulevard: past the big new Safeway, around High's, by Peoples and past the Safeway again.

"I'd like to sit here one night and give a trophy to the guy who goes around the most times," Brown said. He wondered aloud why the boys and the girls always seem to be in separate cars.

Deputies say this crowd -- older teenagers who are content to talk to each other on their CB radios and waste gas -- is distinct from the 14- and 15-year-olds who gather at Sterling's Town Center Mall on Route 7 for the occasional fistfight, with each other or with rivals from nearby Herndon.

Deputies listen for rumors of those fights and try to be there before they happen. At the shopping center, they mostly just idle their cruisers close to any group that has loitered long enough outside a fast-food joint and suggest that the youngsters move along.

The circuit riders tend not to be very interested in sports or school -- or may have graduated without plans -- according to their classmates. The police say there isn't much drunkenness among them, although a few, one night-shift sheriff's supervisor speculated, may be small-time drug dealers.

Safeway's longtime manager, Jerry Payne, says he doesn't mind that the circuit is sometimes called the Safeway 500, although the steady stream of traffic isn't great for business. "This is like downtown Sterling, and the kids don't have any place else to go," he said. "As long as they don't drive recklessly, we try to live with it."

Payne has managed this Safeway for 12 years, and most of that time, he said, his customers "didn't change a lot . . . . They were easygoing. It was a small, closely knit community. You knew everybody."

The community hasn't really changed, he said. But he notices more new people, more younger families. Three years ago, the store began staying open 24 hours.

The newcomers include Ophelia and Carmello Rodriguez, who came from Rosenberg, Tex., three years ago. The construction company he worked for there had jobs in Manassas and offered to rent rooms to its transplanted workers -- like their West Virginia forebears in the 1960s -- in a house in old Sterling.

"We weren't used to that kind of living," said Ophelia Rodriguez, 41. "There were too many people, and they were too nasty, and they were into drugs." With two of her children, she and her husband slept outside in their old van until they heard about the Rev. Charlie Grant's shelter for the homeless.

Within two months of moving there, they had saved $750 for the first month's rent on a small rambler on East Poplar Street in Sterling Park. Ophelia works two shifts -- 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. -- as a security guard, her husband is a cafeteria chef at the Center for Innovative Technology near Dulles International Airport, and "we've never been late" with the rent, she said.

Ophelia Rodriguez wants to buy a house in Sterling Park. "It's quiet here," her daughter, Stephanie, 21, said. "Where we come from there were a lot of fights." Her youngest brother, Carlos, is a fourth-grader at Grant's private school, Grace Christian Academy. Another brother, 15-year-old Manuel, who has been living with his father in Texas, will enroll with Carlos in September.

"There were a lot of problems down there. It's harder in school, and they don't teach you nothing. I was a troublemaker," he said. "That's why I moved up here, to change."

But Carmello Rodriguez, 58, is not so eager. He has sometimes felt unwelcome in a community that is still overwhelmingly white, and he finds Sterling Park expensive. "He wants to step out before it's too late," said his wife, translating.

A rambler in Sterling Park sells for $130,000 to $200,000, according to Linda Lawson of Dulles Properties, and a one-bedroom condominium for $60,000 to $140,000. Real estate here, as elsewhere, is moving slowly, "but it's still one of the best-priced areas," she said. "It used to be that you'd start out at Pembroke {an apartment complex}, then move to a town house, then to a detached house. You're still seeing that."

Arlyn Black and Herbert Harmon roughly followed that route. Grant's 28-year-old son, James, would like to. But after the apartment and the rented town house, he and his wife, graphic artists who grew up in the area, cannot qualify for a loan on a house.

They and their two children rent a rambler for $875 a month and share it with his brother because, James Grant said, "I don't want to end up in a condominium." He could buy farther west in Clarke County or Winchester, he said, but giving up his longtime work with the Sterling Park Volunteer Rescue Squad is unthinkable.

That is the slightly old-fashioned draw of Sterling Park, where the soft housing market may be helping to create a new breed of newcomer. Phil and Stephanie Hostetter broke the split-level mold when they moved four years ago from Herndon and built a two-story solar home on West Maple Street for less than $100,000.

("We did get the same roof tiles as our neighbors just to blend in," Phil Hostetter said. "It was about all we could do . . . . ")

Hostetter, 45, turned down a job in the city to be a part-time, stay-at-home consultant for a small Reston publications firm, a gardener, a joiner of civic groups and founder of Sterling's fledgling recycling program. Stephanie, 41, is a Fairfax County teacher. Jena, 12, is spending her summer days at the Sterling Park Swim and Tennis Club -- "the key social habitat," her father said.

"Our lifestyle here is based on doing things efficiently rather than having two enormous incomes and throwing money at everything that comes along," Hostetter said. "It's not so much that we were looking to Sterling Park, but it fit and here we are.

"It meant we could do something our own way but still be able to walk to school."