Sharon Pugh describes her neighborhood, North Portal Estates, as an “unknown jewel.”
She’s right on both counts. These days, not many D.C. residents have heard of the small residential area at the very northern tip of the District. And yet it’s a bucolic community with a strong suburban vibe whose houses — unlike the similarly detached homes in many other Northwest Washington neighborhoods — still usually sell for under $1 million.
North Portal Estates’ low profile might come from the small number of houses for sale there at any given time. That’s a result of a low turnover in residents. “We have people who’ve been here 40 or 50 years,” said Pugh, who is president of the Civic League of North Portal Estates. She grew up in the neighborhood and moved back to look after her elderly father. “People come here and they tend to stay,” she added.
It’s that kind of neighborhood. Residents take pride in their homes and their large, rolling lawns, which tend to be impeccably maintained; they wave as they drive by and will check in on neighbors they haven’t seen in a while. But there’s also a sense of privacy; people cluster in back yards, not on front porches. It’s suburban-like, in other words.
Different takes on the past: North Portal Estates has always been one of those vaunted “suburbs in the city.”
The neighborhood was originally inhabited largely by Jewish families, who built its mostly brick ranch houses and ramblers in the 1950s and ’60s. As those residents gradually moved away or died, African Americans moved in, and North Portal Estates became one of the District’s premier black neighborhoods, along with nearby Colonial Village and Shepherd Park. In the 1980s and ’90s, D.C. Council members, television newscasters and the heads of federal agencies lived there, and residents were careful to maintain the neighborhood’s upscale character.
But as Washington has changed, so has North Portal Estates. The community is still home to some of Washington’s boldface names, but it has gradually become a much more mixed neighborhood, with a range of ethnicities and ages represented.
The neighborhood pride is still there. Nate Sims, 32, has lived in the neighborhood since he was 4 years old; his grandparents were part of that first wave of African Americans in the community. “They’re very proud of the history,” he said.
But Chris Franklin, 30, who also grew up in the neighborhood, argued that younger residents don’t care as much about traditions and the past. “Our parents are very much immersed,” he said. “I’m not immersed. Gen Y residents in the neighborhood aren’t immersed.”
Lush buffer: One thing both new and longtime residents say they appreciate is the area’s remarkably quiet atmosphere. National Park Service land serves as a buffer between much of the neighborhood and the rest of the city, giving it an appealing lushness, and there are only two roads connecting North Portal Estates with surrounding areas.
But some neighbors bemoan the lack of commercial offerings nearby in the District. True, downtown Silver Spring, with its many restaurants and shops, is only 15 minutes away by foot. But in the District, the closest commercial strip is upper Georgia Avenue, which doesn’t have a wide range of retail options.
Luckily, said Acqunetta Anderson, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission representative for the community, “we’re in the process of seeing three major developments” nearby: the old Walter Reed site, on Georgia Avenue; the Blairs, an apartment complex under renovation just across the D.C. line that will include parks and new retail spaces; and a new development where Eastern and Georgia avenues meet. New grocery stores are being discussed for all three sites.
“It’s a great opportunity for North Portal Estates,” Anderson said.
Living there: North Portal Estates, Zip code 20012, is bordered by East Beach Drive to the west, Verbena Street to the northeast and North Portal Drive to the southeast.
According to Marilyn Charity, an agent with Washington Fine Properties, one house in North Portal Estates is currently on the market, a four-bedroom, five-bathroom contemporary for $1.199 million. One house is under contract for $749,000; it’s a four-bedroom, three-bath rambler. Five houses have sold in North Portal Estates in the past 12 months; all were ramblers or split-level houses with four or five bedrooms, at prices ranging from $600,000 to $842,500.
Schools: Shepherd Elementary, Deal Middle and Wilson High.
Transit: North Portal Estates is a 15-minute walk from the Silver Spring station on Metro’s Red Line, and a range of buses also serve the station. The neighborhood is also a short walk from 16th Street NW, which has frequent bus service running to downtown Washington.
Crime: According to D.C. police, one burglary and two thefts from automobiles were reported in North Portal Estates over the past 12 months.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.