When Judy and David Sheon decided to move from their Tenleytown rental in Northwest Washington, they looked west of Rock Creek Park and in Montgomery County. But after they saw about 50 houses with too little space and too big a price tag, their real estate agent insisted on taking them to Hyattsville.
"They said, 'Oh, that's in P.G. County, isn't it?' " recalled Melody Himel, 29, the real estate agent, who bought a Victorian house in Hyattsville three years ago. "I said, 'Yes, but you have to come and see the neighborhood.' "
So they did, and on their first visit, they signed a contract to buy a large house in the city's old residential area, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Sheons' 1880 house cost $157,900 and came with a big back yard full of exotic shrubs and trees.
"Neither Judy nor myself had spent that much time in Prince George's County," said David Sheon, 28. "It was just a mental barrier. Now, I'm sort of kicking myself. We could've moved a long time ago."
The Sheons, who moved to Hyattsville this summer, joined a growing migration of young, white professionals to the blue-collar suburb. It's a counterpoint to the larger demographic changes that have made Prince George's a county with a majority of black residents in the last decade, a trend that is particularly pronounced in the older suburbs inside the Capital Beltway.
Whites also are buying houses in Bowie and Laurel, on the county's northeastern fringe. But their houses are newer and located in subdivisions that are more typically suburban -- without the settled small-town environment that lured the Sheons and others to Hyattsville.
Hyattsville's historic district is an irregularly shaped area west of Route 1 that boosters are calling "the next Takoma Park," a reference to a gentrified suburb that straddles the Montgomery-Prince George's line.
Hyattsville is following a similar pattern, with young professionals buying and restoring large, reasonably priced houses built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many Hyattsville newcomers say they looked at Takoma Park first but couldn't afford the prices, which have risen substantially in the last decade.
The Hyattsville houses include large Victorians with wrap-around porches, modest bungalows and a few modern houses in the Victorian style, including one now for sale for $315,000, the highest price in town. The streets are quiet, the atmosphere relaxed.
Metro, which opened a station in 1976 in Takoma Park, is coming to Hyattsville. Two Green Line stations are scheduled to open in December. Although the subway is cause for both anxiety and excitement, it is only incidental to most newcomers.
Hyattsville is just six miles from downtown Washington and well inside the Beltway. By car, it's a 25-minute drive for Judy Scheon to her job on Capitol Hill. On the way, she drops off her husband at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station, which he rides to his public relations job on 21st Street NW.
Named for its first postmaster, Hyattsville was, according to a writer in 1880, "a beautiful village of tasteful homes in the modern style of architecture, ornamented with gardens and lawns . . . one of the foremost villages between Baltimore and Washington."
The town of 14,000 long ago declined as a hub of county politics, population and commerce. Many of its large houses became run-down or were turned into rooming houses or otherwise divided, a trend only recently reversed.
But a tour of the one-way residential streets of old Hyattsville, with their pastel-painted restored houses, reveals gentrification at work. The residential renaissance also is reflected in numbers.
The Hyattsville Preservation Association, which conducts an annual house tour, has grown from 50 households in 1981 to 130 today. The association's members live mostly in the historic district and include seven of the city's 11 elected officials, including the mayor.
In the first half of this year, 21 houses in the old section of Hyattsville changed hands, at prices averaging about $150,000, high by Hyattsville standards. Prices in West Hyattsville, a more diverse section where 18 houses were sold, hovered around $100,000.
Reflecting efforts to refurbish old houses, 57 permits were issued through August to improve existing properties in Hyattsville, compared with 59 during all of last year.
"It's changing, but it's not snooty," said Gloria Thompson, 47, who moved to Hyattsville from Alexandria 17 years ago.
"It's more down-home than upscale, I think, which is why even the upscale want to come out here," said Ray Weil, a University of Maryland soil scientist who bought a 1910 house in the historic district three years ago.
Newcomers say they like the town's diversity, its mix of blue-collar workers, young professionals, elderly, black, white and Hispanic residents. They also cite its large Catholic population, which supports a parochial elementary school.
Along with the county, Hyattsville has undergone change. In 1970, 2.4 percent of its residents were nonwhite; today 30 percent are black and nearly 9 percent Hispanic. But its elected officials are all white, and the historic district, where most of the officeholders live, is overwhelmingly white.
Despite all the restoration going on two blocks off the main drag, Route 1 through Hyattsville remains mostly a strip of car dealerships, storefront churches, empty shops and vacant lots.
A notable exception is Franklin's Deli & General Store, opened last December by Mike and Debbie Franklin in an old hardware store. Five years ago, the Franklins, who had lived in Arlington and Capitol Hill, bought an 1891 home in Hyattsville.
The store is where residents go for their Sunday New York Times, double chocolate raspberry coffee and gourmet sandwiches and salads, served at a dozen 1940s Formica-topped kitchen tables.
"People who come from other areas are amazed we can do well here, that an upscale business in Prince George's County can thrive," said Mike Franklin, 37. "It's just the perception of the area. The image isn't reality, or it's only part of reality."
Enthusiastic about their adopted home town, many newcomers remain ambivalent about the area around it. Some drive to malls and restaurants in Montgomery County, as do other affluent Prince George's residents.
Although the town has its own police force and little crime, there is a Hyattsville substation of the county police, and crimes from a much larger area, from Langley Park to Landover Hills, are reported as occurring within the "Hyattsville district." Residents resent being lumped in with the surrounding area, and it's a public relations nightmare for town boosters.
But, said Himel, the real estate agent, "it doesn't matter what others think. It's nice and peaceful and a real neighborhood, and that's what matters to us."