Margarette Walton got quite a surprise when she asked the Falls Church police department about enrolling her son in an Officer Friendly class to learn how to protect himself against crime.
"They offered to come by the house and talk to him personally," Walton recalled. "I don't know how many places you could live in that would do that."
Walton liked that small-town touch, as well as Falls Church's location inside the Capital Beltway. When it came time to buy a bigger home last year, the family found a town house two blocks away, still within Falls Church city limits.
"I refuse to move out of this area," Walton said. "It's my ideal of a small town."
Falls Church became a city in 1948 for just that reason: Its residents pulled out of neighboring Fairfax County's giant school system to form their own, and education is still a major draw for new residents. Falls Church operates two elementary schools and a junior high-senior high school (George Mason) with an enrollment of 1,200, 1 percent the size of Fairfax County's school system. Falls Church has its own central government and elected City Council.
Officially a city, Falls Church could more aptly be called a town. Only 2.2 square miles in size and with a population of just under 10,000 people, Falls Church holds onto such community traditions as a farmer's market and a Memorial Day parade, even as it struggles with choking traffic on Broad Street (Route 7), one of its main arteries.
Falls Church is seven miles from the District of Columbia, just southwest of I-66, and generally west of the Sycamore Street exit. The West Falls Church and East Falls Church Metro stations are just outside the city limits.
The city adjoins neighborhoods in Fairfax County that also have Falls Church mailing addresses. Falls Church spokeswoman Barbara J. Gordon said prospective home buyers sometimes are so confused that they call her office to find out whether the address they are about to bid on is within city limits. Adding further confusion is the fact that Falls Church High School is located in the county and operated by the county.
The city won't allow buildings of more than seven stories in its small business district, and its tree-shaded residential neighborhoods are kept that way with the help of a full-time city arborist, who must be consulted if a tree is to come down.
The original Falls Church, an Episcopal house of worship built in the 1760s, is in the heart of the city's historic district.
More than 150 homes were built before 1910. Most of the rest, said real estate broker Merelyn Kaye of Mary Price Howell Properties, "are what people call charming houses that are 30, 40, 50 years old -- ivy-covered brick and that sort of thing." A few small new subdivisions also dot the landscape.
Charm doesn't come cheap. When real estate brokers talk about affordable housing in Falls Church, they mean dwellings priced less than $250,000. That keeps out most buyers except professionals, often with husband and wife both holding full-time jobs.
A recent Census Bureau report showed that Falls Church in 1987 had the nation's highest income per capita -- $23,169. (Alexandria, and Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties also made the Top 10.)
Still, as is typical of older suburbs, Falls Church offers a range of prices and housing types, often on the same street. A recently built block of luxury town houses on Park Avenue, priced above $400,000, is around the corner from woodsy brick bungalows costing half that amount.
The median price of a home sold last year in the Falls Church Zip code, which includes portions of Fairfax County, was $194,750, according to "Sales Trends," published by Rufus S. Lusk & Son Inc., a regional real estate information service. For condominiums, it was $132,900.
Realtor Sarah Arnold-Bouscaren of Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. consulted the single-family house listings on her computer this month and found that the lowest-priced in Falls Church was on the market for $179,900, the highest for $595,000. Ten homes were listed at less than $200,000, a dozen more less than $300,000.
Small condominiums can be had for $80,000. Town houses in Winter Hill or Falls Chase are priced at less than $150,000.
Life in the city is not flawless: Debates rage over how to accommodate growth yet preserve the city's spirit. Three years ago, a group of residents concerned that the established political party, Citizens for a Better City, was allowing too much development, formed a new party, the Falls Church Citizens Organization. But Citizens for a Better City still holds a 4-to-3 majority on the City Council.
Residents brag about the back roads they find to circumvent traffic on Broad Street, which Virginia Transportation Secretary John Milliken calls one of the worst highways in Virginia. A widening project for another main artery, scaled back after anti-development protests, is planned from West Street to the western boundary of the city.
The prized school system offers the region's only international baccalaureate program, under which honors students can earn college credit through an intense study program.
Almost all of George Mason's graduates go on to college. Yet the city school buildings are aging: Mount Daniel Elementary School, which enrolls kindergarten and first grade, was remodeled this year; Thomas Jefferson School for grades two through five may be expanded next year; and then the city will face the costly job of upgrading the George Mason facility.
Carol W. DeLong, a former mayor and soon-to-retire council member, said the city faces large capital expenses for schools and other buildings, but "the community can handle it."
The council recently dropped the property tax rate to 84 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation, but the average bill rose 15.6 percent because of rising assessments. The tax rate is lower than those in Alexandria and Fairfax County, and slightly higher than in Arlington.
Laura Frimer said the tax bill increase is worth it. When she went looking for a larger town house last year, she also insisted on staying in the city of Falls Church, where she had lived for eight years. Frimer dines at local Oriental and Mexican restaurants, feels safe walking around at night and likes being only a short hop from her job in Rosslyn.
"It's a little bit of city living," she said, "but being in the suburbs."
Richard Stanton and his family ended up in Falls Church on the advice of friends when they moved here from Danville, Calif., last year. Their first priority was a good school system; second, a quick commute for him into the District; and third, good home resale value. They bought in upscale Broadmont.
"When you're out, you're in Tysons Corner," Stanton said. "Here, it's nicely landscaped. Kids can ride bikes."
Dennis R. Carnahan wasn't focused on Falls Church when he and his wife went house hunting; they just wanted something they could afford. A real estate agent turned up the house they eventually bought last year -- just down the street from his in-laws in Falls Church.
"We knew the neighborhood," he said. "We knew the neighbors. We're pleased with it."