A 1981 book, "Tenleytown, D.C.: Country Village into City Neighborhood," painted a romantic picture of more than 150 years in a peaceful village on the edge of a big city, where residents knew each other's first names, patronized dozens of small neighborhood businesses and crafted a quiet community spirit.
But those days are fading fast in Tenleytown, which rests in Northwest Washington between Cleveland Park, American University Park and the District's boundary with Maryland. Some angry residents contend that it is about the worst of times for the colorful neighborhood, the subject of the book by former resident Judith Helms.
recent years, Tenleytowners have demonstrated community spirit and pride by fighting -- a last stand of sorts -- against relentless urban enemies: traffic congestion, business development, and weekend noise created by crowds lured to the area by the plethora of movie theaters and fast-food outlets along Wisconsin Avenue.
"So much has happened in the last few years that is deplorable," said 67-year-old Mary deHartman, who has lived in Tenleytown for most of her life. "Sometimes you just feel like picking up and leaving. I suspect that if I were to leave and come back in 20 years, I wouldn't even recognize the neighborhood."
Neither would John Tenley, a blacksmith who in the 1790s was the first person to set up shop near what is now Tenley Circle. The area quickly became a crossroads settlement and a prime site for commercial growth. Artisans' shops lined later become Wisconsin Avenue.
After the Civil War, thousands of former slaves settled in the area near Fort Reno, the District's largest defense post against Confederate armies. Tenleytown saw significant residential growth in the 1920s, when most of its homes were built. In the 1940s, with the heralded arrival of Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s department store on Wisconsin Avenue, the neighborhood began to take on a more commercial character.
Many residents today say they detest the commercial development in the area in the past decade. They are convinced that new businesses and office buildings, which they claim have squeezed out much of the area's small businessmen and choked its cherished small-town flavor, have made all that was Tenleytown merely a treasured memory.
"What residents call Tenleytown is really just a state of mind now," said J.D. Hart, a marketing representative for the Rufus S. Lusk & Sons Inc. real estate information service. "The city doesn't even identify it with that name."
Most of the homes in the tree-lined neighborhood -- no one seems to be sure what the precise Tenley boundaries are anymore -- are single-family residences, Hart said. Many have been passed through generations. Though there are few real estate transactions, Hart said, the area is one of the city's higher-priced neighborhoods. Homes typically sell for between $250,000 to $375,000, he said.
"A lot of it's been lost, but there's still some of Tenleytown left," said Marvin Tievsky, 70, the president of the Tenley Citizens Association, the oldest group of its kind in the city. Tievsky, who once owned a liquor store on Wisconsin Avenue, has lived in the neighborhood since 1924.
"There's still a few small shops -- the kind everyone here is trying to keep," Tievsky said. "We still have some good things going. You know, every time a house goes up for sale around here, it's sold right away."
Tievsky and other Tenleytown residents say a sense of community is still strong in the neighborhood. That, along with the proximity to downtown via the Tenleytown Metro station, makes it an attractive place to live.
"There's a lot of character here," said deHartman, who recalled that years ago, having a home in Tenleytown "felt like country living."
DeHartman recalled riding trolley cars from Tenley Circle to Georgetown. The trip took nearly an hour, she said. Tievsky remembered an old country doctor who had a small office on Wisconsin Avenue. He treated most Tenleytown residents. The doctor's office is long gone, replaced now by a car dealership, Tievsky said.
"We were a long way from the city, but still in the city," deHartman added. "And you want to know what the best part was? It was so quiet."
Earlier this year, the Tenley Circle area was downzoned, a move that was praised by residents as perhaps the last and best way to limit growth. Under the new downzoning rule, it is believed that commercial development on a major section of Wisconsin Avenue near Tenley Circle will be significantly reduced.
Tenley residents have bitterly opposed developers seeking to transform the neighborhood. These developers view the area as one of the last in which the District has a chance to compete with commercial growth in the suburbs. Local developers contend that the downzoning measure unfairly reduced the investment value of their land.
In the 1986 District elections, residents protested the development trends in the neighborhood by running a protest candidate for mayor. Lawyer Joel Odum, a Tenleytown resident for the past three years, received more than 1,500 write-in votes, and has been dubbed "the mayor of Tenleytown."
Odum and a few other area residents were once arrested for blocking the path of a bulldozer that started construction on a controversial roadway adjacent to Glover Archbold Park. That was not the first time Tenleytown residents felt compelled to fight for their neighborhood.
In 1984, after protests, they convinced the Metro board to name the long-anticipated Metrorail stop on Wisconsin Avenue "Tenleytown," and not Tenley Circle, as was proposed.
"We're trying to hold on to what little we can," Odum said. "When I first got here, there was such a warm feeling in the neighborhood. It was like a small town tucked inside a big city. A real community had been preserved. That's what we're still trying to do."
The attempts to preserve Tenleytown's past are more militant now. For years, as a matter of tradition, Tenleytown residents have gathered at annual reunions at St. Ann's Catholic Church or at The Dancing Crab restaurant. A 1983 Washington Post story about the reunion referred to Tenleytown as a "now-vanished" neighborhood.
At the reunions, Tenleytown old-timers have reminisced about the past and celebrated Tenley heroes -- including Margaret Gorman Cahill, who became the country's first Miss America in 1921, and star Tenley athlete Gary Jawish, a Golden Gloves boxing champion who eventually fell victim to another unknown named Cassius Clay.
"I think the area has regained a strong sense of community because of the fight over development," Odum said. "There's almost a nationalistic feeling. We know if we don't fight it'll all be gone in a second, and this whole area will just be known as an office and entertainment strip.
"We don't just want to be a stop on the Metro where people see the sign and say, 'Tenleytown? What's that?' "