Bethesda’s Brookmont neighborhood is a ‘Kayaker’s Camelot’
By Amy Reinink,
When Chris and Elliot Weintrob met in the late 1980s, they were living in a group house in Bethesda’s Brookmont neighborhood, where Elliot, then a competitive kayaker, was training for the 1992 Olympics.
The neighborhood, little more than an extended cul-de-sac off MacArthur Boulevard, has two walking paths to the C&O Canal, and sits minutes away from a world-class whitewater slalom course, which made it a draw for dozens of young kayakers and their coaches in the 1970s and 1980s.
The couple moved away from Brookmont for about six months before they got married in 1996, but when it came time to buy a house, they found themselves gravitating to Brookmont again.
“You have easy access to everywhere, both by car and bike,” said Chris Weintrob, now 48, a certified holistic health counselor. “You have a young, active group of people living here. And it’s a great neighborhood for kids. That’s why a lot of kayakers in my husband’s generation eventually ended up buying homes here after living here in group houses. They liked it enough to buy a home and raise their family here as well.”
Brookmont, which a 2004 New York Times story described as “a neighborhood that to kayakers is akin to what the Hamptons is for aspiring social climbers,” is still a haven for athletes of all stripes. But its cohesive sense of community and hidden-gem location make it appeal to a wide variety of other residents, too.
Brookmont was developed in the 1920s, when a farm once owned by the Brooke family was subdivided into a few hundred lots, according to Clara “Tiggy” Green, who in 2008 co-wrote a book about the neighborhood, “Brookmont: A Neighborhood on the Potomac.” Developers targeted Brookmont for its proximity to a trolley line and to the Potomac River, according to the book.
Property in the neighborhood didn’t sell all at once, though, and the gradual development led to an eclectic mix of housing styles that includes Sears “kit” houses and modern architecture, said Green, 66, a retired teacher who moved to the neighborhood in 1975.
Brookmont sits just above the C&O Canal and the Potomac River, and is also a stone’s throw from the Feeder Canal, which George Washington originally built to skirt the rapids at Little Falls, Green said.
The canal eventually became a mechanism to let the Potomac River “feed” more water into the C&O Canal. In the 1970s, a kayaker hung racing gates in the feeder canal to make it a whitewater slalom practice course, and Brookmont’s reputation as “kayaking’s Camelot” was born.
“Little by little, Brookmont became known by kayakers as a great place to practice and a great place to live,” Green said. In the 1970s, that meant group rental houses full of kayakers, like the one Chris and Elliot Weintrob lived in.
“When we moved here in 1975, it wasn’t a chic place to be, but it was funky and great in its own way,” Green said. “When my children were growing up, there were young people waking up at 5 a.m. every morning to walk out their front doors and walk down to the canal with their kayaks.”
Prices have skyrocketed in the past couple decades, with many home sales in the past year topping $1 million. Today, world-class kayakers aren’t the only ones to enjoy the proximity to the Potomac and C&O Canal.
Weintrob said she likes running along the C&O Canal Towpath, and said many residents bike to work on the towpath or the Capital Crescent Trail. Barbara Torrey, 70, who co-wrote “Brookmont: A Neighborhood on the Potomac” with Green, said she moved to Brookmont for the sunsets.
Torrey and her husband were looking to downsize from a house in Bethesda’s Westbard neighborhood, where they raised their kids, and found Brookmont by gazing up from the towpath during an afternoon walk.
“We looked up at the neighborhood above us and said, ‘They must have the most wonderful sunset views,’ ” Torrey said. “We looked at what was on the market in Brookmont, saw a house for sale, and we bought it. We bought kayaks right after we moved in.”
Brookmont also attracts nature-lovers of all sorts, from bird-watchers who spy great blue herons and bald eagles along the river or fishing enthusiasts who cast their lines for bass and shad.
Easy access to the outdoors is one of many reasons the neighborhood is a great place to raise kids, residents said.
There’s also the cohesive sense of community created by the “village green,” a grassy strip of land where the trolley once ran, which now serves as a gathering place for neighborhood kids. It’s also the site of the Brookmont Civic League’s annual Easter egg hunt, autumn Blues Bash and Halloween and holiday parties.
The same is true for grown-ups, who gather at the Brookmont Church, a nondenominational house of worship that serves as a community center for the neighborhood, offering yoga classes, an arts group, a social justice group and a pre-school.
“Because there’s only one road in and out, everybody passes everybody else’s house every day coming in or out,” Torrey said. “And most people don’t have garages, so you meet people going out to your car. You get to know people here, whether you like it or not.”
One feature that keeps some folks away from Brookmont are the same features that attracted its current residents: Houses and lots are small and close together. Garages are mostly nonexistent. Lawns are small, if they’re present at all.
“We live on postage stamps,” said Weintrob. “Very few people have large yards. But as a result, people actually get to know each other. Kids go outside and roam freely. We don’t have as much space or privacy as other neighborhoods, but it’s more of a community as a result.”
Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.