John and Mary Vihstadt grew up in small towns in Nebraska and Iowa. When they looked for a house to buy in the Washington area a dozen years ago, they sought a neighborhood with a small-town feel, a place where the houses have character, neighbors become friends and local shop owners know customers' names.
Tara-Leeway Heights, an Arlington enclave of 821 Cape Cods, colonials and ramblers built around World War II, suited the Vihstadts perfectly. "It's absolutely true what people say about Arlington," said John Vihstadt, a lawyer. "We have an urban village here, and when people come to the D.C. area, I encourage them to move to city-close, country-quiet Arlington, because that's exactly what it is."
Lynne Lilly, a real estate agent at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. who moved to Tara-Leeway Heights seven years ago, agrees. "People are attracted to the convenience, charm, and beauty" of the neighborhood she said, adding that the area, nestled between Washington Boulevard and Lee Highway, attracts a mix of single professional people, families and older people. This year, home prices have ranged from $315,000 to $629,000.
On the weekends, the Vihstadts and their children stroll to the neighborhood park, one of several nearby playgrounds or the Westover Shopping Center, a strip of stores and restaurants. On weekdays, John Vihstadt carpools downtown with two neighbors.
Other residents ride the Metro: The East Falls Church and Ballston stations are about a mile from either end of the neighborhood. A few catch the bus on Washington Boulevard or Lee Highway.
Short commutes help the neighborhood maintain a convivial atmosphere, said Mary Vihstadt, a government affairs specialist who works at home. She also is president of the Tuckahoe Elementary School Parent Teacher Association.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, a mother of five, said she appreciates the friendly community as well. Her family, along with other neighbors, participates in a relaxed French club every Wednesday afternoon, where they sing songs and play games. The same group helped organize a Halloween party on their block, Harrison Street, last year.
Newcomers Ralph and Melodie Baxter hope their son, Chad, 3, will soon join the French group. The Baxters moved from a development in Leesburg to a brick Cape Cod in Tara-Leeway Heights in December to be closer to Ralph Baxter's technology consulting jobs.
Good public schools played a role in their selection of Tara-Leeway Heights. But one drawback to the local schools, residents say, is that children attend three different elementary schools and two different high schools, which breaks up the neighborhood and the children.
The Baxters have not focused on that issue just yet. Instead, they are enjoying their new surroundings, even if moving meant giving up a roomier house with a two-car garage. "It's nice that all the houses don't look exactly the same, like tract homes," said Melodie Baxter. "Even though it's smaller, it's a much more comfortable house. It's got character, hardwood floors and mature trees."
The old-fashioned details of Tara-Leeway Heights also attracted the Baxters' neighbors, Robin Schmid and her husband, Ron Graft, who moved in six years ago. The couple thought they would eventually buy a bigger house. But a few years ago they decided to follow many of their neighbors and build an addition instead, because they loved the location.
The night their daughter Lauren was born two years ago, the couple walked to Arlington Hospital, which is just outside of the neighborhood, for the delivery. Although some residents say having medical services nearby is a boon, others voice concern that the hospital's $200 million-plus expansion will bring more traffic and noise.
Some residents have already taken measures to slow traffic. Marion Recktenwald-Braswell and her husband, Willis Braswell, along with others on the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Committee, helped persuade the hospital to spend $50,000 to build six speed bumps along 16th Street, one of the neighborhood's main thoroughfares.
Other building projects also are underway on the edges of Tara-Leeway Heights: A new Harris-Teeter grocery store will open this fall on Lee Highway and Harrison Street, and new homes will soon appear on George Mason Drive. In addition, the county plans to triple the size of the Westover Library, a nearby neighborhood branch. Some residents want the library to stay put while others want it moved near the former Walter Reed School, now a Head Start facility, near the Westover Shopping Center.
The Tara-Leeway Heights Civic Association supports the Reed School location, said Jonathon Newman, a member of the association's board, because it would add increased vibrancy to the Westover business district.
That business district along Washington Boulevard includes restaurants, a post office, dry cleaners and a grocery store. It takes the Stump family 10 minutes to walk to the ice cream shop, Scoops Beauregard, for their favorite flavors: strawberry, Oreo, black raspberry and mint chocolate chip. Ted Stump, president of the Tara-Leeway Heights Civic Association and an engineer, also praises Ayers Variety and Hardware store, a neighborhood institution since 1947, where he found a softball glove for his daughter that he couldn't find anywhere else.
Although the ice cream store, nearby parks, and schools make the neighborhood a haven for families with children, many adult-only families live in Tara-Leeway Heights as well. Jay Eiche and his wife, Tanya Harvey, both lawyers, moved to the neighborhood in 1992 and fell in love with the beautiful houses and mature trees -- they have two oaks more than 120 feet tall on their property -- as well as the friendly atmosphere.
They pitch in to pet-sit for neighbors when needed, and their neighbors know to save donations for the annual yard sale Harvey organizes as a fund-raising event for the Women's Home, a neighborhood residential treatment center for women recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.
Another residential home, for developmentally disabled adults, is a few blocks away, but residents do not seem to mind the presence of either facility, preferring instead to focus on the quiet neighborhood's personal appeal.
"We looked a long time, at a lot of houses," said Eiche, who used to live in Falls Church. "In most of Arlington the houses all look the same. In our neighborhood the houses are all different, and all are attractive."