Jimmy and Chambliss Mitchell were among a small number of young couples in Fenwick Park when they moved into the Fairfax County neighborhood in 1973. Back then, the community consisted largely of elderly people — former GIs who bought the then-new Cape Cod bungalows right after World War II.
The Mitchells’ neighbors included a man in his 70s who enjoyed tinkering with his car, another elderly man who loved watching baseball on television and a teenager who earned money doing chores for his aging neighbors. The homeowners were primarily people who had worked in the trades — and they were virtually all white, as required by the now-outlawed racially restrictive covenants on their 1947 homes.
Today, the Mitchells are again in the minority — this time as among the older couples. Their neighbors include several dual-income couples with small children, a young couple who are both lawyers, and an Asian American family with teenagers. The streets bustle with neighbors digging gardens, jogging, and congregating to chat while their kids circle on bicycles. “It’s a vibrant, diverse, multicultural community with lots of kids and young professionals,” Mitchell said.
“Most original owners were GIs who had no college education but were skilled workers with good incomes who wanted solid, affordable homes,” added Mitchell, a retiree who worked in public health. “Then their children went to college and [college-educated people] began to move in because this is a stable community with an easy commute, decent schools and good, solid houses.”
Those houses began as two-bedroom Cape Cod bungalows marketed to veterans for $12,150 with $750 down, according to “Fenwick Park & Vicinity: A Historical Glance,” written by resident Rick Castelli. (Castelli also learned the neighborhood was named after the Fenwick family, owners of the land from 1925 to 1943; Charles Fenwick was instrumental in establishment of George Mason University.) Although homes in the just-inside-the-Beltway neighborhood remain relatively affordable — most around $500,000 — Fenwick Park has dodged the knock-down-and-overbuild syndrome that many similar communities face.
“In the mid-2000s, everyone was concerned people would tear down these charming old homes to build McMansions,” said Castelli, who is self-employed in real estate services. “But only a few have done that. Most are just expanded. New homes that’ve been built fit well into the neighborhood.”
Affordability and convenience brought the Mitchells’ son, Andrew, back to Fenwick Park 12 years ago. “I had no intention of coming back,” said Andrew Mitchell, an employee of a Tysons Corner technology management company. “But with a very pregnant wife, I was in the market for a house, and I couldn’t find one within my budget that had a reasonable commute.” Andrew Mitchell now calls his decision a hidden blessing. “Fenwick Park used to be a neighborhood of older people, but it’s turned into a neighborhood of young, fun couples,” he said.
Rick Castelli’s wife, Emeline, has a similar tale. She grew up in Fenwick Park after her family moved from the Philippines in the 1970s, and returned in 2000 to buy a home near her parents. “The neighborhood had changed from when I was in high school,” said Castelli, a federal employee. “There are a lot of young families, young professionals. . . . It’s a good community feel.”
That community feel now includes active civic involvement, something that was virtually nonexistent when the Mitchells moved in. The change started in 1983, when Kam Costa, the person generally credited with revitalizing Fenwick Park’s civic association, moved in.
“My house was the school bus stop, but there were no sidewalks and no stop signs. . . . There were kids out in the streets,” said Costa, a teacher who recently moved out of state. She learned that getting Fairfax County to install sidewalks was more likely with a civic association behind the effort. Since the Fenwick Park association was effectively defunct, Costa called a neighborhood meeting, and the association was reborn. The sidewalks were installed, and the association has remained robust.
Michelle Minstrell, a project manager who moved to Fenwick Park in 2008, is now association president with a mission to improve communications. “When I moved in, the association really wasn’t using electronic communications other than e-mail,” said Minstrell, who first learned about the organization from a weather-worn newsletter she found in her bushes. “Now, we have a Web site, a Yahoo group and a Facebook signpost to let people know we exist.” Newsletters are online, but print copies are delivered by volunteers. “It connects volunteers to their neighbors, and neighbors to the association,” Minstrell said.
The association fosters good relationships with local officials and businesses and has successfully advocated for neighborhood improvements such as upgraded sewer lines and street lighting, new stop signs, and speed humps. The community, sandwiched between Lee Highway and Arlington Boulevard, expects additional housing and more traffic when nearby Merrifield Town Center is completed.
Minstrell said many residents are active, even though it is challenging to fill all leadership positions. “We agreed it’s important for the association to be a mouthpiece for communications with the county,” Minstrell said.
Despite all the changes, Jimmy Mitchell said one thing about Fenwick Park remains unaltered: “It’s always been a tight community. . . . When we were the young couple, our older neighbors mothered us. Now we do the same for others.”
Albert Crider, an Avery Hess realty agent who has sold 19 homes in Fenwick Park, noticed that conviviality when he brought his snow-cone equipment to the community picnic last year. “I arrived at 3 and left at 9, and there were still about 50 people there socializing,” Crider said. “It wasn’t like most community parties where people just come, get food and leave. These people genuinely like each other.”
Andrew Mitchell agreed. “Sometimes I go for an evening stroll around the block at 7 and I’m not home until 11 because everyone stops to talk,” he said. “Imagine walking down the street and knowing you are among friends.”
Cheryl A. Kenny is a freelance writer.
ZIP CODE: 22042
BOUNDARIES: Roughly, Lee Highway to the north, Arlington Boulevard to the south, Stuart Drive to the east and Lawrence Drive to the west.
SCHOOLS: Pine Spring Elementary School, Luther Jackson Middle School and Falls Church High School.
REAL ESTATE INFORMATION: There are currently no homes for sale in Fenwick Park, according to Albert Crider and Judy Radvanyi, real estate agents known as “The Match Masters” and affiliated with Avery-Hess. There are two homes under contract, which had list prices of $465,000 and $559,000. Between April 2011 and April 2012, three homes sold, for $429,000, $496,000 and $530,000.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Thomas Jefferson Public Library, Tyler Park, and the stores and restaurants in West Falls Church Outlet Center and Loehmann’s Plaza.
WITHIN 15 MINUTES BY CAR: Seven Corners Shopping Center and numerous small strip malls along Route 50 (Arlington Boulevard) and Route 29 ( Lee Highway), Inova Fairfax Hospital, Jefferson District Golf Course, Providence District Recreation Center, Lee-Graham Pool, and major roads including Interstates 495 and 66.
TRANSIT: The Dunn Loring and East Falls Church Metro stations are each about two miles away. Bus routes along Arlington Boulevard and Lee Highway run to the stations; routes also go to the Pentagon and into Washington.