Pomander Walk in Georgetown is "almost magical," "a secret place" or "a little community," depending on who is talking about life on a hidden, dead-end alley that is lined with 10 tiny rowhouses, each a different pastel color.
The century-old brick houses, each about 600 square feet, face on a driveway for garages at the rear of two of Georgetown's large homes. The Walk is so narrow that chairs, tables and grills placed along the street for an annual summer barbecue have to be hastily pushed aside if one of the neighbors with a garage at the end of the alley happens to drive through.
However, that one-lane alley also seems to foster a closeness between neighbors, many of whom buy treats for a mellow, yellow lab named Shelby Grace, who lives at No. 5 Pomander Walk with Patsy Jo Guyer.
"Shelby just opens the front door with her nose when she wants a treat," next-door neighbor Angela Miller said.
At the end of the row, Brad Welling has a smoked pig's ear ready for Shelby each evening. "She is the queen of the block," he said.
Neighbors take delivery of packages for one another and share a supply of firewood. Extra pansies or mums get passed along the block, and when snow comes there are always more people ready to shovel than needed to push the snow aside.
"It is so wonderful to live here," said Guyer, who runs her business, Jill of All Trades, from a corner of her living room. "We all look out for each other, but we also know how to respect privacy. You can sense when someone is too busy to visit or just doesn't feel like having company."
A problem every resident faces is where to put the extra stuff of life that seems to accumulate daily. Bookshelves have been built over doorways, cubbyholes under the stairway can house a stereo system and a bar built into the miniature backyard patio can do service year-round.
Miller, an environmental engineer, will be marrying her housemate, Ernesto Monter, also an environmental engineer, on Thanksgiving weekend in Mexico City. She bought the house this year and sponge-painted the first floor a dark rose color and the upstairs a deep yellow.
Monter recently arrived with just a few things, but is wondering where he will put other stuff he plans to ship to Washington.
"This is the dining room, living room, library, studio and exercise room," he said, waving his hand across the only room on the first floor other than the kitchen. "Those are my weights on the floor. Where am I going to keep them?"
"In the cupboard," Miller said, showing him that there was just enough space for the hand weights to fit next to the platters and tablecloths.
For Miller, the biggest problem is where to keep her shoes. She finally added a hanging shoe tree to the inside of a closet door.
Guyer resolves the where-to-put-it problem by continually rearranging her art collection as she adds more pieces. Paintings and masks are hung three or four deep vertically on all walls.
She regularly invites crowds of friends for cocktails or dinner, saying they seat themselves on the stairs or crowd onto the ottoman, armchair and couch. There are chairs on the patio and there is also room on the front steps.
For Thanksgiving there will be 40 for dinner, she said.
Welling, the federal affairs director for a large insurance and financial services company, solves the problem of extra stuff by not bringing it home. His house looks larger than the others because he has placed just a few pieces of colonial furniture in his bright white living room.
"I've learned to live with the minimum," he said.
Six of the houses on the walk have one occupant and four have two. There are no children, but a total of three dogs.
Built as alley dwellings--small rental properties at the rear of larger houses--the buildings originally had no running water or electricity. Each housed two families, one to a floor. At the time, the alley was called Bell's Court, named for Alexander Graham Bell, who lived close by and was one of Georgetown's biggest 19th century landlords, according to historians. The rental houses in Bell's Court were occupied primarily by African Americans who worked as domestics and laborers.
Bell's Court plays a part in the new novel, "River, Cross My Heart," by Breena Clarke, which is about a young black girl growing up in racially segregated Georgetown in the 1930s. Johnnie Mae is forbidden to venture into the court because her aunt said, "the noisy, card-playing folks packed in practically on top of each other . . . [were] an embarrassment to the colored race. Most were 'just this minute' up from the Deep South and hadn't had schooling and didn't know the first thing about city living."
In this example, Johnnie Mae obeyed her family.
The lives of those families, and other alley dwellers, were thoroughly disrupted in the 1940s as the Alley Dwelling Act of 1934 went into effect, legislation that was meant to eliminate what was considered substandard housing in the city.
Occupied alleys were seen as dark, menacing places where crime and disease were rampant. If these dwellings were eliminated, the theory went, the city would be a safer, healthier place.
At the same time, Georgetown had become the fashionable place for the New Dealers to live. A sudden demand for vintage housing resulted in the ousting of many renters, black and white, as houses were snapped up.
The families in Bell's Court were evicted in the late 1940s, and the assumption was that the houses would be demolished, just as hundreds of other alley dwellings across the city had been. Instead, a developer bought them, added running water, upgraded the electricity and renamed the block Pomander Walk.
In 1953, National Geographic included a picture of Pomander Walk in a feature story on the renovation of Georgetown. The caption read: "A slum alley in 1950, Pomander Walk presents a tidy look today. Authorities condemned ten houses in this small court as unfit for habitation. Restoration experts modernized interiors and repaired brickwork."
Guyer and other residents know the history of their block. But much of it took place decades ago, long before any of them moved to the street.
Andrew Higley, a finance officer for a telecommunications company, said it's the future that concerns him. He recently moved to the block with Cecilia Montalvo when she inherited a house there.
For Higley, the renovation of almost 50 years ago was fine for then, but he is ready for a new design.
"We want to put a roof deck on top," he said. "We've been up there and you can see the river, the fireworks, everything. Maybe we'll put in a basement. We'd like to have more light in the living room, so we may put in double French doors to the patio. Maybe we'll build out onto the patio."
His ideas extend to the street as well.
"We'd like to do cobblestones and gas lanterns," he said. "This is a really great place to live!"
BOUNDARIES: One short block off the 3300 block of Volta Place NW.
SCHOOLS: Hyde Elementary, Deal Junior High and Woodrow Wilson High schools.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Georgetown University, commercial Georgetown and the Potomac River.
SALES IN THE PAST YEAR: Five of the 10 houses have changed hands at prices ranging from $190,000 to $268,000.
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