To Malka Ostchega, Riverdale Park is one of those places where you can always call on your neighbor to come to your rescue. For instance, there was the time when she showed up at the neighborhood firehouse to borrow a wrench. It seems her boyfriend needed the tool to fish something out of the sink.
The town is "a strange sort of microcosm. Everybody knows each other," said Ostchega, 25, who discovered the village-like setting while completing her master's degree in elementary education a mile away at the University of Maryland.
Riverdale Park is an incorporated Prince George's County municipality of nearly 7,000 residents, cradled between Hyattsville and College Park, six miles from Capitol Hill. East-West Highway splits it into north and south halves, and railroad tracks split it east and west.
"I think it's diverse," Ostchega said, "but it's diverse in its sections. It seems to be fairly white on the west side of the railroad tracks and Hispanic and African-American on the east side." The neighborhood has also become a magnet for natives of Vietnam, the Philippines and Portugal.
Jennie Reinhardt, who said part of the reason her family chose the town was its varied ethnic and racial flavor, said she is pleased with Riverdale Elementary. The increase in the number of Hispanic businesses in town has spilled over into the makeup of the school, which she said now stands at 85 percent Hispanic enrollment. "They have an excellent parent liaison that's bilingual," she said.
Her husband, David Hiles, said he loves where he lives because it's an almost-painless 20 minute trip via MARC train to his office at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, across the street from Union Station in Washington.
Dannielle Glaros, 32, said she and her husband, Steve, were attracted to the town for reasons including its strong public transportation network. The College Park Metro and Riverdale MARC train stations are in easy walking distance, as are bus lines. She works for a nonprofit in downtown Washington, he works for one in Alexandria, and they wanted to avoid having two cars.
Last winter, the couple found a vintage 1906 folk Victorian house on the north side of Riverdale Park. Price tag: $245,000, less than half what a similar house would have cost in many Washington suburbs.
"The house has a lot of light, high ceilings, original moldings, a porch with a swing, and the original mantel piece," she said. "It has a sizable kitchen, which is great, because we both like to cook."
Others have been drawn to what they see as housing bargains, too. "A lot of people who can't afford Takoma Park are coming over here," said Audrey Bragg, of Gerrety & Bragg Realtors. "The Victorians are always very popular and the first to go."
Bragg, who is also president of the town's business association and half owner of the Riverdale Bookshop & Coffee Depot, said the employment base of Riverdale Park is a mixed bag, with some residents making the quick drive to the university while others hold jobs in the District or in Baltimore.
Riverdale Park also boasts its own tiny high-tech job corridor. At the far northern border, along River Road, are the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the American Center for Physics and the Riggs Bank Operations Center. A block away, just inside the College Park border, is a sprawling Food and Drug Administration laboratory.
Mention the name Riverdale Park to some, and you might draw blank stares. Many who have lived in the area for a while are inclined to refer to it simply as "Riverdale." In 1998, the town council officially changed the name to Riverdale Park.
According to Mayor Guy Tiberio, the reason for the name change was to differentiate the town from the unincorporated area near Riverdale Heights on the east side of Kenilworth Avenue. The two areas share a 20737 Zip code.
"Every time there was a crime, every reporter would say 'armed robbery in Riverdale,' " he recalled.
Indeed, to many, Riverdale -- or Riverdale Park -- remains a crusty strip of Kenilworth Avenue teeming with businesses ranging in size from Giant Food and International House of Pancakes to small family-run Mexican chicken outlets and pawn shops.
The town includes that commercial stretch. But it also includes tree-shaded residential neighborhoods of Cape Cods, Victorians and foursquare houses, popular with young singles and young families. There is also a stretch of the Northeast branch of the Anacostia River, lined by hiking and bike trails.
The town is also site of the historic Riversdale mansion. According to "The Riverdale Story: Mansion to Municipality," published for the town's 75th anniversary in 1995, a Belgian aristocrat began building the mansion in 1801. It was occupied by his daughter and her husband, George Calvert, descendant of the Fifth Lord Baltimore. It is a five-part, neoclassical affair and a head-turner along Riverdale Road. Walk-in tours, special group tours, exhibits and special events such as a summer concert series create a year-round festive atmosphere.
The imposing mansion claims several firsts, according to its director, Edward Day. "The first telegraph was sent from here," he said, referring to experiments by telegraph inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, more than a month before Morse's historic "What hath God wrought" message from Washington to Baltimore. "The University of Maryland was founded here. And this was the first headquarters of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission," he said.
Morse's telegraph lines followed the railroad tracks. Those tracks remain an attraction for some even beyond their convenience for commuters.
For instance, on one recent afternoon, Doug Saxty munched on a salad outside the renovated Riverdale MARC station. Saxty, a member of the Riverdale Rail Fans, likes to come by after work to watch the passenger and freight trains that barrel through town.
He said, "When the weather's nice, people will come down and bring their lawn chairs on a Friday or Saturday night, socialize and watch the trains."