Some people yearn for back yards, trees and flowers but can't bear to leave the city buzz. For them, there's American University Park.
The neighborhood in the District's far northwestern corner teems with former Capitol Hill and downtown dwellers who crept north on Wisconsin Avenue as they settled down and had children. Homeowners also include many who grew up in the neighborhood and returned as adults.
John Guenther, a government lawyer, said he would be nowhere else. He and his wife, Betsy Oster, chose to raise their two young sons just blocks from where his parents still live. "I wouldn't leave it for anything," Guenther said. "It's perfect."
Residents said they especially cherish the urban convenience combined with neighborliness. AU Park is sandwiched between two lively shopping corridors on upper Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, and near the Tenleytown-American University Metro station. Development in Friendship Heights and Tenleytown assures that the people who live near those commercial areas have no shortage of options for upscale home goods, fresh-brewed coffee, ethnic restaurants and gourmet food.
Within its boundaries, however, AU Park retains its traditional residential spirit. The houses, built mostly from the 1920s to the 1940s, are a collection of brick Colonials, bungalows, a few Tudors, original farmhouses and occasional newer ramblers. There are stoops or front porches, white picket fences, gardens, and grass in almost every front yard. Most of American University's campus is really in adjacent Spring Valley, except for the law school building at the neighborhood's fringe on Massachusetts Avenue and 48th Street.
Sidewalks flank both sides of most streets and contribute significantly to the neighborhood's social life, residents said. Alleys run throughout, giving children common play and bike-riding space as well as providing ideal venues for block parties.
"We live on a street where everybody knows each other," Guenther said. "Across the alley, probably every other week, there are three or four families who have dinner together. All the kids play, and all the grown-ups talk. And we do that with such regularity that the kids are in and out of each other's houses."
For years, AU Park was considered the bargain neighborhood of expensive upper Northwest. Current homeowners, however, have been astonished to watch housing prices jump to more than double what they were in the late 1990s. Prices for the brick Colonials or bungalows now generally range from $500,000 to $900,000.
Add-ons are popular as residents try to stay in the neighborhood. "A lot of the houses are a little tight for growing families; people need more family space, and they don't want to move," said Brenda Kuo Pfeiffer, an architect who, with her family, has lived in two different AU Park houses in 14 years. Pfeiffer specializes in residential design and has helped neighborhood clients modify kitchens as well as add family rooms and bedrooms.
On a sunny day, AU Park residents might be with their dogs at Fort Bayard Park; with their children at Friendship Park, informally known as Turtle Park; at the neighborhood Starbucks coffee shop or bagel store; or strolling along the sidewalks headed to parks, playgrounds, the Metro, school or shopping.
On a recent rainy afternoon, a half-dozen women talked about AU Park over miso chicken soup in Lena Frumin's kitchen.
Frumin, an artist and mother of three, said she and her husband, Matthew, rented a house in the neighborhood 13 years ago and were hooked. When it was time to move, they tried not to go far. "We had a really nice little community," said Frumin as she dished out the miso in the Albemarle Street house where her family has lived for 10 years. "We looked all over to find this house. So many of our friends were close here."
Strong ties are forged through neighborhood institutions and by mingling on the streets and sidewalks, residents said. Most of Frumin's guests had met through Janney Elementary School, a well-regarded neighborhood public school. So many residents send their children to Janney -- or went there themselves -- that school activities become neighborhood gatherings.
The women talked of Halloween parties, alley-wide barbecue dinners when the power went out after last fall's hurricane, and informal gatherings that occur late afternoons on one of the neighborhood's coveted front porches.
Civic involvement is high. There is an e-mailed community newsletter, itself a volunteer effort. Recent editions have served as forums about such issues as public water safety and traffic hazards (busy River Road cuts right through the neighborhood). There also were requests for home-repair recommendations, invitations to events and announcements of moving sales.
The neighborhood aligns itself with the larger Tenleytown neighborhood, with which it shares its history, and residents have vigorously voiced concerns about a city plan to redevelop the upper Wisconsin Avenue corridor.
Amy McVey, who chairs the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and has lived in AU Park all her life, said the community generally welcomes redevelopment -- the new Container Store and Best Buy in the long-empty old Sears building were nice additions, she said. But residents said they worry that too much residential density would overload the existing infrastructure -- Metro, parking, schools and emergency services. The Tenleytown fire station has been closed for two years, and whether it will be rebuilt to satisfy modern day needs is another concern, McVey said.
Friendship Park, which most people continue to call Turtle Park, is both a neighborhood gem and another target of local, organized support. Its shaded playground, basketball courts and well-kept baseball fields draw children and their caregivers from all over the city.
Susan Jaquet, a real estate agent with W.C. & A.N. Miller Cos., spent her childhood on Yuma Street, attended Janney and St. Ann's Academy at Tenley Circle and remembers whiling away summer afternoons and early evenings at Friendship playground playing basketball. She is in her third house within the neighborhood, where she lives with her husband, who works for the International Monetary Fund, and their two teenagers.
"There's just a spirit here. People are friendly; people know each other," Jaquet said. And, "Like many people in AU Park, once you're here, you don't want to go anywhere else."