Darth Maul was the topic of conversation the other day as three teens gathered around an outdoor table in the center of Cabin John. Or at least what could be called the town's main hub, MacArthur Plaza.
Lineage was key here, the teen pointed out to his friends, explaining where Maul had come from. They waxed philosophical about "Star Wars: Episode 1--The Phantom Menace" while eating their takeout pizza, which had come from Pizza Hut next door. That they were actually sitting in front of the Market on the Boulevard was no big deal. Loitering over a cup of coffee--or a slice of pizza--is encouraged.
It's a community thing.
Ralph and Frank Osborn, owners of the market, have been catering to the town for six years, since they moved from Glen Echo. "The community has been very supportive of us. The kids come in the afternoon, and they'll sit over there and drink Coke all afternoon. It's fine. We love to have them," Ralph Osborn said.
In the age of George Lucas, high-speed Internet connections and the millennium bug, Cabin John is a respite from the wired world, a vacation spot of sorts that evokes memories of a summer retreat.
That is how Lori Rieckelman sees her three-level salmon-colored house on 79th Street. For her it's a dream house that has been a reality for the seven years that she and her husband, both psychotherapists, have lived here.
"I don't feel the need to get away," she said. Compared with Silver Spring, where the couple lived first, Cabin John is "more rural, more connected to nature because it's right on the canal. This doesn't have that same kind of suburban feel," she said.
"There's such a variety of homes, it just felt like it had a little more character," she said. "It does make it unique that you have such beauty nearby. It almost feels like you choose to live here rather than end up here."
Barbara Martin made that choice 29 years ago when she left Southeast Washington because the neighborhood was no longer safe for her children. She lives with her husband, Reed, in a Sears and Roebuck kit house on 79th Street, just a few doors from the Rieckelmans. "It seemed like an idyllic place," she said. "The neighbors knew each other, the children played together. It looked so wonderful."
Today it's just as magical to this grandmother of 10. "We get together for potlucks and take care of each other's kids--and I mean take care of each other's kids."
To the neighborhood children, the Martins are "Aunt Barbara" and "Uncle Reed." Children can come to their back yard to jump on the trampoline, kick their legs out on a tree swing or scramble over climbing equipment.
But Martin and other neighbors are worried that growth will turn the eclectic neighborhood into another suburban enclave for the affluent. "Hear the hammer?" Reed Martin said as he cupped his hand to his ear. "Mansionization. What we do not need in Cabin John."
That perceived need for more square footage has been a source of contention in the community as small homes on large lots have been scooped up by developers who then tear down the original house and replace it with a larger, more modern structure. Meanwhile, some neighbors are adding on to their houses. Reed Martin said he used to be able to see MacArthur Boulevard from a second-story window. Now he sees the results of one neighbor's desire for more interior space.
"A modest house like ours will go up for sale, and the developer will buy it for the location and acreage. That's sad. It changes the character of the neighborhood," Barbara Martin said, adding, "but not its friendliness, thankfully."
She also bemoans the skyrocketing cost of housing. When she moved to the area, she bought her house for $25,000 and added in $25,000 for repairs. Today it would fetch at least $300,000.
Barbara Abeille, a real estate agent with Pardoe Real Estate ERA in Bethesda who has served the area since 1987 and lives across the street from the Rieckelmans, said the average sales price of a house is $400,000, with some of the newer houses selling for $625,000.
There are 600 homes in Cabin John, ranging from mansions overlooking the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal to 85-year-old bungalows to the recent addition of an adobe-like structure that has the neighbors wondering where the windows are.
The average household income is $147,000, but the community has retained its socioeconomic diversity and includes retirees, artists, carpenters, lawyers and teachers.
Lee Arbetman said when his real estate agent found out he was a musician with the Jazz Barristers, a lawyers-led jazz band, she immediately pointed him in the direction of Cabin John.
Arbetman moved to the area 5 1/2 years ago after a stint in the District. "I like the big city. When I'm not working, I like the small-town sense of community we have in Cabin John. In some ways, I have the best of both worlds living here and working in town," he said, adding that he and wife, Oona Stieglitz, enjoy walking the neighborhood, taking in its diverse nature.
Cabin John is not a city unto itself, but it does have an active citizens association, which recently won approval of a $150,000 proposal to repave the bike path along MacArthur Boulevard.
The next project concerns increasing traffic, said Burr Gray, association president. "There's a lot of commuter traffic going back and forth. . . . Figuring out how you can keep the speed low and provide for pedestrian safety is a big thing."
Living in balance with nature is also dear to the area's residents. The association, which will celebrate its 80th anniversary in September, has spearheaded cleanup days along the canal and along Cabin John Creek, which was declared polluted about 25 years ago.
Gray and his family moved to their three-level Victorian house in 1991. "Once you're out here, you really begin to learn about Cabin John. It's actually a unique place," he said.
For example, nobody really knows where the name Cabin John came from, but stories abound: One has it that the name originated with Capt. John Smith, founder of Jamestown and the first man to map the Potomac; another says the town was named after "John of the Cabin," a hermit who fled England after he killed a man in a fight over his wife; and there is the claim that the area was named after a mysterious pirate named John who buried his treasure in the town.
Which brings up the romantic notion of finding buried treasure. If residents do find booty on their property, they must give half of it back to the Tomlinson family, as is stipulated in many of the original deeds. J.S. Tomlinson, after whom Tomlinson Avenue was named, was an early developer.
"That's the stuff you find out after you've been here," Gray said.
And that's just scratching the surface.
Let us know about your little corner of ever-greater Washington and maybe we'll tell everyone. Write to Where We Live, Washington Post Real Estate Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
BOUNDARIES: Generally from the Potomac River to the south to Persimmon Tree Road to the west, Capital Beltway to the north and Cabin John Parkway to the east.
SCHOOLS: Bannockburn and Carderock Springs elementary schools, Pyle Middle School, Walt Whitman High School, Clara Barton Center for Children
NUMBER OF HOMES: 600
HOME SALES: 37 sales in the past 12 months, from $151,400 to $694,000, said Barbara Abeille of Pardoe ERA
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: MacArthur Plaza, which includes the Market on the Boulevard, Bethesda Co-op, Pizza Hut, restaurants, a bank, an art gallery, post office, fire department and dry cleaner.
FIVE MILES AWAY: Major grocery stores.
CAPTION: Reed and Barbara Martin, who live in a Sears and Roebuck kit house, are known to neighborhood children as "Aunt Barbara" and "Uncle Reed."
CAPTION: Joseph Deniker takes a break at the Market on the Boulevard, where lingering over food and drink is encouraged.