Where We Live: Warwick Village, a townhouse complex in Alexandria, Va.
By Lea Winerman,
For James Foley, moving back to Warwick Village 10 years ago meant getting his weekends back. Foley, 51, grew up just a few blocks from the Alexandria neighborhood. When he decided to buy his first home in 1992, the red-brick 1950s townhouse community — close to the city and to his parents — was a natural choice.
But the call of more space beckoned, and a few years later Foley decided to rent out his townhouse and buy a bigger place in Springfield.
“I thought I wanted the suburban dream,” he said. “I hated it.”
Foley, a chef, didn’t like having to drive everywhere, and he didn’t like spending his weekends mowing his lawn and tending to a house that felt too big. After about five years, he sold the house in Springfield and moved back to Warwick Village.
A decade later, he and his family — wife Colleen Byrne, a psychologist, and two young daughters — are happily ensconced in their townhouse, and he doesn’t have any plans to move again.
“We love the neighborhood,” he said. “You can walk to everything . . . and something about the townhouse setup seems to encourage neighborliness. You see people sitting on their front steps talking.”
Those attributes, convenience and neighborliness, draw many residents to Warwick Village.
The neighborhood, which spreads over 12 hilly streets, is just a few miles south of Washington and an easy commute downtown by bus and Metro. It also borders the trendy Del Ray neighborhood. Mount Vernon Avenue — Del Ray’s lively main street, lined with shops and restaurants — is about a 10-minute walk away. Residents can also walk to five neighborhood parks, two farmers markets and other amenities.
Warwick Village includes more than 600 nearly identical brick townhouses built beginning in 1953 on what had been the Warwick estate, the country home of a wealthy D.C. businessman named Frank Hume. The townhouses were originally built as rentals. In 1970, they were converted to individual properties.
From the outside, the neighborhood’s homes are almost indistinguishable from one another, save for some different paint choices. But inside, residents have reconfigured the two-story-plus-basement brick boxes in every possible way, sometimes combining three small bedrooms into two larger ones, opening up kitchens and adding bathrooms.
“One of the nice things about the houses is that there are no interior load-bearing walls, so you can really do whatever you want,” said Jen Walker, a real estate agent with McEnearney & Associates.
Nora Mead, who moved to Warwick Village from Crystal City four years ago with her husband and two children, says that she loves how friendly the neighborhood is. Her children and her neighbors’ children play freely in one another’s front yards. On nice evenings, the grown-ups might gather, too, for an impromptu happy hour or birthday party. Mead also says she appreciates the neighborhood’s diversity: She’s from Mexico and her husband is American, and they have neighbors of a variety of races and nationalities.
“It really is perfect — the way you imagine old small-town America, but also culturally rich,” she said.
Longtime residents say that Warwick Village went through some tougher times in the 1980s and 1990s, when robberies, drug sales and other crimes were more prevalent. But the neighborhood always had an active citizens association that worked to combat the problems. Audrey Williams, 84, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1977, remembers organizing neighborhood watch patrols and calling the police often enough that they knew her by name.
In recent years, as property values have gone up, the neighborhood has seen the same forces of gentrification at work in other parts of the D.C. area. Many investors who had long held on to houses as rental properties have decided to cash out, and Walker estimates that the neighborhood has gone from about 40 percent owner-occupied a decade ago to about 60 percent owner-occupied today.
“It’s all young professionals moving in now,” Williams said.
Those new residents do without some typical suburban comforts — for example, individual parking spaces. The neighborhood’s streets are lined with access roads, with parking spots reserved for residents. Residents don’t officially “own” any one spot. But an unwritten rule says that each household has dibs on the spot in front of its home.
Parking “was one of our few concerns when we moved in,” said Don Puglisi, 39, a federal worker who moved to Warwick Village last year. “But it really hasn’t been a problem.” Neighbors respect one another’s spaces, he says, and let clueless visitors know about the neighborhood’s unwritten parking rules.
Although some residents find the about-1,600-square-foot houses to be just the right size, others say that their growing families could use a bit more space. Mead says that although she loves the neighborhood, if she had one wish it would be “for just one more room.”
The townhouses’ vertical layout can also become problematic for elderly residents. Williams says that many of her neighbors moved when the stairs became too much for them. She, however, installed a chairlift on her staircase and has happily stayed put.
One family found its own creative solution to the space problem. Sesy Bermudez’s parents, immigrants from El Salvador, moved to Warwick Village in 1982 with the oldest five of their nine children.
When Bermudez, 27, and her younger siblings were born, she said, “it got a little cramped.” So 1987 they the family bought the house next door. In 1992 they bought the one next to that. They weren’t able to combine the units, but, Bermudez said “we would leave the back doors open.”
When the siblings began to marry and move out, the family sold one house. But Bermudez’s parents still live in another with their two youngest sons. And their connection to the neighborhood has deepened: Two years ago, Bermudez’s father, Oscar, who had cooked for years in Italian restaurants in Washington, opened a place of his own on Mount Vernon Avenue, Sapore D’Italia, with his daughter Gloria Dominguez and her husband.
Meanwhile, Sesy Bermudez, a medical technician, moved back to Alexandria from Connecticut two years ago. She now lives in the house next door to her parents, and she enjoys seeing the same neighborhood traditions — such as the annual Christmas luminary display — that she remembers from her childhood.
“It’s a really nice neighborhood,” she said. “It seems like once you get here, you want to stay.”
Lea Winerman is a freelance writer.