Marilyn Doherty, president of the Del Ray Civic Association, says not much stands out as exceptional about Del Ray, an Alexandria neighborhood nestled between bustling Crystal City and historic Old Town. And that's what she and many other residents like about it.
"It's not a remarkable neighborhood," Doherty said. "It's just the type of neighborhood you'd want to live in ..., a friendly, low-key neighborhood."
Del Ray, today a traditional, family place, started out as a small community dependent on the electric railway. Two factors helped the area grow: the streetcar line providing transportation to Washington and the Potomac Yard, the neighboring railroad yard that provided job opportunities in the railroad industry.
"It was originally a railroad town," said Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr., who lives in Del Ray. "It was an affordable community for blue-collar workers."
In recent decades, however, Del Ray declined, until city officials decided in the 1970s to target a 2 1/2-mile corridor of Mount Vernon Avenue, the neighborhood's commercial street, for revitalization.
Longtime residents of Del Ray still speak longingly of the good old days when the main drag was bustling with activity.
Kate W. Daniels of East Monroe Avenue, a 41-year resident of the area, can recall when Mount Vernon Avenue was lined with five-and-dime stores and movie theaters.
"When I moved here, Mount Vernon Avenue was real nice," she said. "Then the avenue went down to nothing. They are now trying to bring it back."
Alexandria lawmakers have poured millions of dollars into the area over the past decade, installing brick sidewalks, planting trees and placing utility lines underground. Private developers have responded by renovating storefronts and building commercial properties.
"The avenue is progressing gradually," said Moran, who some say won his council seat in 1979 largely by running as a champion of improvement in Del Ray.
Today, mixed in with the families who have lived there for decades, are young working people and young families, attracted by the nearby Braddock Road Metrorail stop and the renaissance that Del Ray has experienced in the past several years.
Del Ray's mixture of different income levels and racial backgrounds caused problems during the 1970s.
Moran said he had trouble getting a loan for his house because his street was considered "a black street."
Today, residents say the neighborhood's diversity is one of its attractions.
"There's a vitality there," Moran said. "Difference is readily tolerated. Diversity is respected." According to 1980 statistics, annual incomes in Del Ray ranged from less than $5,000 to more than $50,000 and about one-third of the residents were black.
Compared with other areas of the city, the homes in Del Ray are moderately priced, said Steve Sherman, a broker with Century 21-Sherman Properties Inc. in Alexandria. "Prices are increasing," he said. "I think Del Ray is a good investment."
Del Ray's homes are varied architecturally, with standard brick colonials standing next to modern town houses and duplexes. There is a gentle mixture of houses spanning the years from the early 1900s to the early 1970s.
"It's got a tremendous neighborhood feeling," Doherty said. "I don't have to go far for shopping. My kids don't have to go far to school."
Doherty said that the civic association is one of the most active in the city, and that many people who are not involved in the association keep busy with their churches or schools. "People are involved in a lot of community organizations," she said.
Moran says the neighborhood's activist spirit comes from the "'60s liberals" who moved there to take advantage of its economic and racial diversity. Today, he says, Del Ray residents are among the most involved of all city residents.
Pete Crabill of the city's planning department grew up in Del Ray and is now researching a book on its history. In the '40s and '50s, he said, Del Ray was known for its stability. "People bought houses, settled in and stayed there for years and years." After the period of decline, during which people moved away from the area, Crabill said, "It has signs of coming back again."
Although Crabill said there has always been a debate over Del Ray's exact boundaries, one interpretation puts the neighborhood between East Glebe and Braddock roads on the north and south, and Jefferson Davis Highway and Russell Road on the east and west. As new civic associations crop up around it, Crabill said, Del Ray's territory is shrinking.
What is now Del Ray became part of Alexandria in 1930 when the city annexed the town of Potomac, against the strong opposition of many residents there. "I remember when I was young and my father and mother were arguing over who should take us over, Alexandria or Arlington," said 66-year-old Martha Roehner of Mount Ida Avenue, whose father was mayor of Potomac.
"Of course it's changed," said Roehner, who was born in the Del Ray neighborhood and has lived there most of her life. "But we have change everywhere. It'll never be like it was, but Del Ray is coming back."