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Alexandria’s Del Ray stays artsy as it grows

Lily Youngblood, left, and Elia Whittington play at St. Asaph Park in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria. (Photos by Maansi Srivastava for The Washington Post)
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It’s fitting that Katie Waynick, president of the Del Ray Citizens Association, is talking about what makes her neighborhood special while in her final week of pregnancy with her second child.

Near the intersection of Commonwealth and Mount Vernon avenues, the neighborhood’s two biggest thoroughfares, stands “Three Eggs in Space,” an ovoid limestone art installation. Although interpretations of the piece vary, many residents like to say it represents fertility, Waynick said. Nothing could be more fitting for Del Ray.

“During [my father’s] first visit to the neighborhood, we’re driving through, and he’s like, ‘Okay, where did you just move, and are you pregnant?’” she said. “It’s all strollers and dogs and baby bumps.”

A short walk down Mount Vernon Avenue shows why this neighborhood, about a 20-minute drive from the heart of Washington, is a haven for young families and animal lovers. Between inviting playgrounds and green spaces are businesses and eateries that nurture a certain lifestyle: Bellies & Babies, a child and maternity consignment shop; the Dog Store, an over-the-top supplier of everything needed to pamper fur babies; and the Dairy Godmother, purveyor of “frozen custard and nostalgic treats.”

Even decades ago, before Del Ray had its thriving business district, its vibrant farmers market and its celebrated Art on the Avenue festival, the neighborhood had a special magnetism, longtime residents say.

Pat Miller, who has lived in Del Ray since the early 1980s and was honored in 2012 by the Living Legends of Alexandria organization for her involvement in the neighborhood, said she knew when she arrived that the people contributed to Del Ray’s special quality.

“What’s really fun is seeing people standing on corners, they’re each walking their dog, talking to each other, being a neighbor, being friendly,” she said. “That’s the way we are here.”

Having a central gathering space on Mount Vernon Avenue fosters that community attitude, as do the closely spaced homes with open front porches, she said. Del Ray also has plenty of initiative-takers willing to spearhead projects to improve the neighborhood.

Miller founded the Del Ray Farmers Market 29 years ago, which continues on Saturdays on the open square now named for her, at Mount Vernon and East Oxford avenues. The following year, she helped establish the annual art festival, which now draws more than 50,000 visitors. Alexandria Celebrates Women, Miller’s most recent venture, has highlighted local figures and raised funds for the local domestic violence safe house since its founding in 2019.

And now, a new generation of Del Ray residents is stepping up to create fresh events and traditions.

Rachel Lazarus, activities director for the Del Ray Citizens Association, organized GardenFest, a free event with growing demonstrations, educational booths and seedling giveaways that will have its second occurrence in April. Lazarus, who moved to the neighborhood five years ago and who loves to shop for her 8½-year-old mastiff at the Dog Store, also uses her role to help those in need: In 2021, she organized the community to help a family displaced by a house fire, raising $36,000 within days.

As president of the association, Waynick in 2021 launched the social media campaign #DrainALX, drawing attention to Del Ray’s flash-flood problem, which can cause destruction and displace residents. The campaign led to better communication with the city of Alexandria about the problem, Waynick said, and more effective responses after flooding events.

Lazarus said community involvement comes naturally in Del Ray. “You know that when you’re moving to Del Ray, you get sort of that Main Street feel, you know, that if you want a community, that’s sort of ready-made. … I think people discover it and then they kind of want [to be] all in.”

Along with a high level of neighborly involvement is a live-and-let-live attitude, she said. There’s no homeowners association, and there’s little pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic or to keep the grass a certain length.

“It’s just a very chill, crunchy neighborhood,” Lazarus said.

The Del Ray neighborhood traces its roots to 1894. Many homes date to the 1940s, when the area was popular with railroad workers at nearby Potomac Yard. Today, Del Ray includes a mix of apartments, condominiums, single-family homes and duplexes. This allows for a broader range of would-be residents to find something within their budget; however, as is true throughout the area, home values continue to climb.

Elissa Laderach, a Del Ray resident and real estate agent with Shoshanna & Co. at Compass Real Estate, said she has noticed another interesting trend: Parents of grown children living in the D.C. area are shopping in family-friendly Del Ray for a second home for when they visit their kids and grandkids.

According to data provided by Laderach, 78 Del Ray homes sold in the past year, ranging from $730,000 for a cozy 1935 Colonial with two bedrooms to $2.5 million for a stately seven-bedroom on Commonwealth Avenue. There are four homes now on the market, ranging from $750,000 to $1.5 million. Average monthly rent for a one-bedroom in the neighborhood is $1,565.

The tension between creating relatively more affordable living spaces and residents’ desire to keep the neighborhood the way it is was on display during a recent bid by Bonaventure Realty to develop buildings on Mount Vernon Avenue for retail and residential use. A local “Save Del Ray” campaign has so far kept these efforts at bay.

Gayle Reuter, an Alexandria “living legend” who co-founded Art on the Avenue and who has helped with other local events, such as the Alexandria Turkey Trot, said she worries about the rising challenge of affordability, particularly for older residents. But Reuter, a 40-year Del Ray resident, is glad that revitalization and development so far haven’t changed what makes Del Ray so special.

“Luckily, there’s such a demand for small mom-and-pop businesses and stuff that we were able to keep that small-town feel of the avenue,” she said.

Schools: Mount Vernon Community School; George Washington Middle School; Alexandria City High School (formerly T.C. Williams).

Transit: The Blue and Yellow lines stop at the Braddock Road Metro station, just beyond Del Ray’s southern boundary. The 104 bus makes multiple stops along West Braddock Road, just outside the neighborhood’s western edge.