Brooke Kidd was tired of the “lawyer in every other apartment” vibe of trendy D.C. neighborhoods such as Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan. Instead, she wanted to live where there were big-city opportunities but with a diverse and small-town feel. “I wanted to live next door to a mechanic,” she says.
Kidd settled on Mount Rainier, a little city in Prince George’s County on the District’s northeastern border, 16 years ago. There she started Joe’s Movement Emporium, a nonprofit community performing arts center that provides educational and cultural programs for children and adults. A mainstay in this art-centric community, Joe’s hosts free weekly yoga, ballet and hip-hop classes as well as after-school programs, wellness workshops, summer arts camps, and performances from local and visiting artists.
Joe’s and Glut, a 42-year-old natural foods co-op, are mainstays of this former streetcar suburb, which is now home to about 8,500 residents. Often overlooked by commuters traveling along Rhode Island Avenue/Route 1 toward College Park and Laurel, this working-class 1.7-square-mile community calls itself a “model village for artists, environmentalists, pacifists, multiculturalists and other liberals,” according to the city’s Web site.
Consequently, it is an affordable alternative to its kindred soul, Takoma Park, from which many of Mount Rainier’s newer residents have moved, says Long & Foster real estate agent David Maplesden, who’s worked in Mount Rainier for 15 years.
That’s because it’s possible to snag funky Arts and Crafts and Sears bungalows, Victorians, and ramblers on larger-than-average lots for an average of about $181,000, and still be close to downtown Washington and the Capital Beltway.
The community comprises approximately 1,100 single-family homes and three large apartment developments (Kaywood Gardens, Queens Manor and Queenstown). Renters occupy 68 percent of total housing. In 1990, the history and architectural value of Mount Rainier’s diverse housing stock earned its historic district a place on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation recognizes a place’s importance to the community and confers a measure of protection from federal or state activities.
Mount Rainier was built as a suburb along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The 100-acre Thomas Clemson farm on which the town was built was purchased by real estate developers after the Civil War ended. Clemson, a diplomat and son-in-law of John C. Calhoun, returned to South Carolina with his family where they founded their namesake university. Local rumor has it that the surveyors of the new development were from the Pacific Northwest and gave the town its name after the Washington national park.
A streetcar line connecting Mount Rainier with downtown Washington began in 1897, with a stop at the intersection of Rhode Island Avenue and 34th Street, which remains its main drag. Citizens petitioned the Maryland legislature to incorporate the town in 1910.
“There tends to be a certain amount of civic pride that you don’t get in unincorporated areas. The council is proactive in a lot of ways,” Maplesden says of how Mount Rainier’s history reflects its character today.
The community is also proactive, which is one of its main draws, Kidd says. Last spring, the community painted a street mural at 34th Street and Bunker Hill Road. Joe’s held a “Sweeping the Avenue” event in which residents cleaned up city streets and participated in film showings, workshops and performances. Last fall, a resident organized a “Day of the Dead” celebration, a Mexican tradition to remember departed loved ones, by making lanterns together, constructing an altar in the local park and gathering at a bonfire in another resident’s yard.
Mount Rainier and its neighbors, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville, joined forces in the late 1990s to create the Gateway Arts District, which was aimed at revitalizing a two-mile stretch of the Rhode Island Avenue/Route 1 corridor. The first of the Gateway projects, Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, created 44 affordable-housing units for artists in a new four-story building one block from the D.C. border. This $11.7 million project also contains 7,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor.
But the town has struggled to keep businesses, particularly since the recession. There are several vacant commercial spaces along 34th Street. Kidd says the Mount Rainier Business Association, of which she is a member, is working to launch a “shop local” campaign and fill vacant space with studios and galleries.
“The movement to having a sustainable business community is coming,” Maplesden adds. “The Route 1 arts corridor has made a big difference to the city.”
Residents agree. The city’s eclectic, arty charm and tightknit community keep Atiba McKell, a self-proclaimed Rastafarian, in Mount Rainier, where he’s lived for almost three years.
“It’s pretty cool. The area is quiet. There’s more artists. There’s a lot of good folks who live in the neighborhood. It’s a community that really keeps together,” he says.
Kayleigh Kulp is a freelance writer.