West of the park.
Those four words are a kind of code in D.C.-speak, a staccato phrase that conjures images of a world apart from the rest of the city. It is a place of wealth and privilege, where schools are strong, homes are lavish and most faces are white; a place where crime is scarce, parks are manicured and shops and restaurants are plentiful.
Statistically speaking, it is true that the two dozen or so District neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park are starkly different from their counterparts to the east. Household income is well above the city average of $43,001 -- in some cases more than double that amount. The percentage of residents who are college graduates hovers around 70 percent, compared with 39 percent citywide.
And in a city where six out of 10 residents are African American, slightly more than eight out of 10 of those who live west of the park are white -- down slightly from 1990, when the figure was closer to nine in 10.
But city life west of the park is not as universally luxurious as outsiders think. In addition to grand mansions, its neighborhoods descend the economic spectrum to include relatively modest rowhouses, as well as inexpensive apartment buildings that mostly serve students, senior citizens and immigrants.
And here, as in the rest of Washington, residents worry about budget cuts to libraries and parks, about when the city will repair or replace aging schools, about potholes that yawn from the asphalt and trash that is not reliably picked up.
"Some of the demographics speak for themselves," nine-year D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson of Ward 3, which includes most west-of-the-park neighborhoods, said last week after sitting through a hearing on proposed cuts to the public libraries budget. "But then you sit in council chambers, as I did today, and you look at a chamber full of library advocates, and there's an awful lot of people from my district and an awful lot from across the city."
Allen Beach, 68, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for 23 years and a 60-year resident of Chevy Chase, says his constituents' concerns can be summed up by "four T's: traffic, taxes, trash and trees."
It's been that way ever since he can remember. A survey commissioned by Patterson last fall showed that improving public schools is also hugely important to these residents, more than half of whom have graduate degrees. But more than half of the neighborhood's children are in elite private academies or in parochial schools, not in the public system.
Compared with the rest of Washington, city parks and recreation centers west of the park seem better landscaped and often have equipment that is more attractive, expansive or up to date. But those extras come from residents' relatively deep pockets rather than the extra city largesse that many who live east of the park seem to believe is devoted to the west.
"Just about all the parks and rec centers I can think of have a 'Friends of' group," said Robert Collins, from the D.C. Office of Planning for Ward 3, which covers most west-of-the-park neighborhoods.
When the 80-year-old Avalon Theater shut down in 2001, Chevy Chase residents launched a $300,000 fundraising campaign and brokered a deal to rehabilitate and reopen it. A grand opening is planned for next month. The whimsically painted wooden climbing structures at Macomb Street playground in Cleveland Park, the manicured shrubbery at Volta Park in Georgetown, the extra music and science teachers at many public elementary schools -- all are paid for with private dollars.
"People would stop by and put two- and three-hundred dollar checks in our bottle. Or 25 cents. And it was all welcome," said Bob Zich, who heads the "Save the Avalon" coalition that raised money last spring and summer simply by setting up a table and a glass bottle outside the theater on Connecticut Avenue NW. The theater where he took his children as youngsters, and where he and his wife have walked to countless movies, is "just woven into the life of this community," he said.
Other projects are divisive. Neighbors were painfully split over plans to expand a Giant Foods supermarket in Cleveland Park; numerous requests for private schools to open or expand; proposals to reopen long-closed Klingle Road; and efforts by several developers to build apartments near Metro stations to accommodate the seemingly endless number of people who would like to live here.
"There are a lot of residents who still see their neighborhood as more suburban," and therefore less likely to change, Collins said. "They don't realize how far into the urban core they really are."
From Hawthorne in the north to Palisades in the west to Georgetown in the south, all 26 west-of-the-park neighborhoods currently recognized by the Office of Planning were part of Ward 3 when that political districting system was created in 1973. But southern enclaves such as Georgetown and Burleith were carved off into Ward 2 during redistricting in 1980 and 1990, because population was declining more quickly in neighborhoods east of the park than west, and city law required each ward to have the same number of residents. After the 2000 Census, part of Chevy Chase was reallocated to Ward 4.
Organized around four major arteries -- Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard -- the west-of-the-park stretch of Northwest Washington includes Civil War-era Fort Reno and the nearby Grant Road historic district, which comprises just two blocks and includes a scant dozen houses dating to the mid-1800s, interspersed today with larger, more modern houses built in the 20th century.
Cheryl Browning has lived on Grant Road for 20 years, 11/2 blocks west of Wisconsin Avenue. She can remember when all the stores on the commercial strip were shuttered by 9 p.m., leaving her little street silent and peaceful.
"It was almost countrified," said Browning, president of the Tenleytown Neighborhood Association. "We'd walk our dog before bed, and there were no cars, no noise."
The west-of-the-park neighborhoods include the grand mansions of Spring Valley, Georgetown and Foxhall and the formerly working-class enclaves of Glover Park and Burleith, where modest rowhouses on narrow streets now sell for $500,000 -- an unthinkable price even five years ago.
Communities such as Chevy Chase and Tenleytown were originally linked to downtown by trolley lines that ran up and down Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues, respectively. Another line, to Glen Echo, went along MacArthur Boulevard through Palisades.
Collins sees the four corridors as each having a distinct personality. Connecticut Avenue, he said, is a model of good urban planning, lined with apartment complexes and anchored at Metro stops with neighborhood-oriented commercial strips. Wisconsin Avenue is more hodge-podge, with many underdeveloped parcels; the city is working with residents of the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights neighborhoods to draw up plans for adding more retail and residences in areas where development is sparse. Massachusetts Avenue is a grand, mostly residential boulevard, with a concentration of embassies closer in.
And MacArthur Boulevard "doesn't even feel like it is in the city," Collins said. Just a few blocks from the Potomac River, with citizen-planted trees lining the grassy median where a trolley once ran, it winds lazily past the houses and a few stores that make up Palisades, creating a small-town feel that is on display each summer at the neighborhood's Fourth of July parade.
Although west-of-the-park neighborhoods generally lack the vacant parcels and abandoned buildings that dot many other parts of the District, the development boom enveloping much of the city is echoing here, too.
Fierce neighborhood battles were fought over a huge, recently completed cinema-hotel-residential complex along the Georgetown waterfront; the new apartment buildings that have sprung up along Connecticut Avenue and an enormous telecommunications tower in Tenleytown -- which was half-built when residents succeeded in halting construction almost three years ago. The bottom half of the tower still looms over Wisconsin Avenue, while its owners, the city and neighborhood residents debate its fate in the courts.
Amy Hoang, 29, a newly elected ANC commissioner from American University Park, said she is amazed and impressed by the institutional knowledge residents have about their neighborhoods and the zeal with which they try to protect their best attributes. Hoang and her fiancee moved to the neighborhood almost a year ago from Adams Morgan, searching for a place where they could comfortably start a family after their wedding later this year.
"Quite frankly, it was one of the few neighborhoods we could afford to live in, with a single-family house and good schools and still be able to remain in the city," Hoang said. She said she is struck by the relative lack of ethnic diversity, especially compared with their old neighborhood, but heartened by the Latino and Asian faces she occasionally sees at the many community meetings she attends and by the Asian and Latino surnames she can't help but notice when she reads newspaper accounts of who is buying homes near hers.
Perhaps the most heated battles west of the park are fought over private school expansion. More than 40 elite private schools and five universities operate west of the park. Many are packed to the gills and have long waiting lists of potential students. Other schools would love to move to one of these neighborhoods, to tap into the education-focused families that live here.
But many residents resent the schools for the traffic and noise they generate on residential streets. Opponents say city zoning officials have never enforced restrictions and transportation requirements -- a reality D.C. authorities say is finally changing -- and they steadfastly resist giving up any more turf to educational institutions.
The divisions among neighbors over school expansion prompted Patterson to create a task force to study the issue. The group meets monthly and will hold its first public forum at 7 p.m. April 7 at St. Columba's Church. Members said they hope to recommend ways that private schools can coordinate student drop-offs and pickups; to alleviate traffic congestion; and to improve communication between schools and residents over potential problems.
"There are these tensions pulling in both directions," said Penny Pagano, a longtime Palisades resident and Patterson's chief of staff. "It leaves terrible animosity."
Despite the acrimony, city officials see some hopeful signs for resolving such neighborhood disputes. The battle over remodeling the Cleveland Park Giant store was resolved through negotiations last year. And developers who plan to build condominiums atop the long-vacant Sears/Hechinger building in Tenleytown won over neighborhood residents with their community-minded approach.
Planner Collins said the key to brokering agreements about growth may lie in convincing residents and community leaders that some change is inevitable, and that rather than trying to stop it, the neighborhoods should focus on how best to manage it. The city's emphasis on concentrating new housing at Metro stations, for example, would lessen transportation problems even as it increased density in some neighborhoods, he said.
"No growth is not an option. Washington, D.C., is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country," Collins said. "That car that they don't want parked at the condo building in Tenleytown? If it's not there, it's going to be parked in Germantown, and in all likelihood going be driving down Wisconsin Avenue every day."