As their family grew, George and Gwynette Lacy, both Washington natives, thought briefly about moving to the suburbs, but quickly rejected the idea. Gwynette Lacy said she'd seen too many young, educated black families leaving the city.

Then she recalled North Portal Estates, a small triangle of stately homes with velvety lawns amid the trees of Rock Creek Park at the District's northern edge. She had seen the neighborhood first when she was a child. Suddenly, she knew it would be home. "This was a happy compromise: suburban atmosphere, still in the city," Gwynette Lacy said.

The Lacys moved to North Portal Estates in 1982 and recently nearly doubled the size of their home on Tamarack Street with a huge family-room addition and a back yard pool.

Such commitment is not unusual in the neighborhood, where children grow up, leave to get their educations and professional starts and then return to their birthplace.

Longtime residents mention an old-fashioned warmth, what Gwynette lacy called "a sense of community and caring," when they talk about the neighborhood's lure. She and other said neighbors watch out for one another, but not in an intrusive way.

"You may not socialize with people a great deal, but you wake up on Christmas Day and find gifts set on your front doorstep," Gwynette Lacy said. Several neighbors have left presents for her two youngsters, Gharun, 14, and Gayna, 8, since the family moved in.

Residents pay dearly for the privilege of living amid such friendliness. Prices for the estimated 220 homes in North Portal start around $300,000 and can reach $600,000 and beyond for a few of the most substantial homes, said Evelyn Jones, a real estate broker and a resident since the 1960s. Several homes have swimming pools and one has a tennis court.

With price tags like those, the neighborhood draws professionals: lawyers, doctors and professors, and many two-profession couples, such as the Lacys. Gwynette Lacy is a Howard University professor, and George Lacy is a labor lawyer.

One resident is worried that "it is becoming unaffordable for single families." She said some houses have been sold to churches or embassies.

The neighborhood was originally built by wealthy Jewish families, and blacks began to buy in the late 1960s, as the old families left. While it is racially mixed, North Portal is predominantly black and has become home to a number of well-known Washington residents. D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis has lived there for years, as has Joseph P. Yeldell, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness. Television newscaster Andrea Roane is a resident, and the late Max Robinson, once co-anchor of the ABC-TV nightly news, lived there. Bishop Walter McCullough, head of the United House of Prayer for All People, lives in a Tudor home on Redwood Terrace famous for its sparkling Christmas decorations.

Prominent civil rights lawyer Wiley A. Branton lived on Tamarack Street NW until his death in 1988. His widow, Lucille Branton, said she had her eye on the neighborhood from the day in 1965 when the family moved here from Atlanta. At first they settled in Southwest, closer to Branton's office, while their children were growing up.

But in 1983, the family was ready to move, and her choice was North Portal. "You feel at home here, relaxed," Branton said. "I love the trees and flowers. It's a great environment."

The community has started experiencing a few of the problems that plague all city neighborhoods, and about two years ago instituted a neighborhood watch program because of a handful of purse snatchings and burglaries, said Hosea Taylor, who heads the Civic League of North Portal Estates. "I don't have any statistics, but I think the situation has improved," Taylor said this week.

The community's biggest worry now is the glut of commuters who drive from beyond the neighborhood and park there to walk several blocks to the Silver Spring Metro station.

"Sometimes they park in front of a driveway, or so close on both sides that you can't get in or out," said Taylor. The civic league just acquired neighborhood parking status for three blocks along North Portal Drive to prevent commuter parking.

Still, most of the civic league's energies are spent on more enjoyable pursuits: planning outings for retirees, holding the annual block sale and raising money for a scholarship fund for inner-city children.

Branton said this is one of the strengths of the neighborhood: "A lot of people here care about Washington and do things to promote its health." But the biggest attraction is still the combination of country living in the city.

William L. Robinson, dean of the District of Columbia School of Law, lived for years on South Portal Drive, just outside the official boundary of North Portal Estates. Last year, the Robinsons moved, but only three blocks to Redwood Terrace.

"When my kids were little, they could walk across the street {to Rock Creek Park} and catch tadpoles," Robinson recalled.

Robinson, who grew up in a small Ohio town, said: "In a major urban center ... you fear that your kids won't have the same opportunity to do all the little childhood things that you did. But this neighborhood offers that opportunity, and so much more. There is a sense of freedom and safety which most people in the city don't really have. Children can explore and enjoy ... without your constantly watching over them. You have that sense in our neighborhood."