For most of its history, Burke was a rural town in Fairfax County, Va., defined by railroads, dirt roads, church life and general stores. But given its proximity to the District, its current identity as a sprawling Washington suburb was perhaps preordained.

Burke’s transformation from rural to suburban began in the 1950s, when the federal government decided its gently rolling hillsides would make an ideal location for an international airport. The Truman administration announced plans to condemn thousands of acres in Burke to build the airport, uprooting families who had lived here for generations.

“When the airport came in, most people who lived in Burke moved because they assumed the government had bought their property,” said LaVerne Carson, a fifth-generation resident whose family owned two general stores in the area between the 1940s and the late ’60s.

But Burke wasn’t going to accept this fate without a fight. Residents sprang into action, holding hearings and imploring friends and family to write letters to Congress opposing the airport. The public pressure was so fervent that the government eventually settled on Chantilly, Va., for what is now Dulles International Airport.

“In the ensuing struggle of David versus Goliath, David prevailed,” the Burke Historical Society said in a book about the area.

Even so, the battle over the airport changed the community irrevocably. By the time the government retreated, many families had already fled. Large parcels were sold to Fairfax County while other tracts were auctioned off to homeowners and developers who transformed Burke’s pastures into parkland and planned communities.

“So much of Burke was just destroyed at that time — the human part of Burke — because the people moved away,” said Carson, whose grandmother’s house once stood where Burke Lake is today.

Since then, Burke has been rebuilt as a bedroom community with a variety of neighborhoods, including Cherry Run, Lakepointe, Longwood Knolls, Signal Hill, Crownleigh and Rolling Valley West. Some, like Burke Village, are townhouse communities, while others, like Rolling Valley West, are dominated by single-family homes.

Although Burke Centre is one of the most recognizable developments in the area, there’s some debate whether it’s considered part of Burke. Burke Centre has a separate census designation, but the communities share annual festivals and other amenities.

Residents say Burke retains its small-town feel despite its development. Amy Dutton, who’s lived in the community for 23 years, said she recalled warning her daughters, “Don’t do anything stupid, don’t act a fool, because somebody I know will see you.”

When Ronaldo Cruz moved to Burke in the mid-1980s, he said, the now-bustling Braddock Road was just a two-lane highway. Cruz was initially drawn to the area’s affordability and family-friendly environment, including its competitive schools, but now appreciates the area even more.

“With time we realized it was really a wonderful investment we made moving here because now there are nature trails, running trails, bird sanctuaries,” he said. “It is just what a big-city suburb area is supposed to be.”

And prospective home buyers have taken notice.

“Prices have definitely gone up and you see them creeping up,” said Tam Nguyen, a Realtor with Buck and Associates. “Anything that’s priced correctly, it’s going to be gone in one or two weeks max.”

Another draw is Burke’s accessibility. Many residents commute to work on buses that take them directly to the Pentagon, and others depend on the Virginia Railway Express — a route that loosely traces the tracks of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad that preceded it.

In many ways, railroads are the reason Burke exists. Silas Burke, for whom Burke is named, was instrumental in bringing the railroad to the area in the 1850s. A landowner, entrepreneur and enslaver, Burke donated land for the right of way to the railroad company, and Burke’s Station became a stop along the O&A line. The Silas Burke house remains a local landmark, now owned by an assisted-living provider.

Aside from the few remaining homes and historical markers that pepper the area, much of the physical past has been lost to suburban sprawl.

“There’s very, very few houses left or landmarks that you know, you wouldn’t even know where you are,” said Carson, “and that’s part of an area, it grows up. It changes.”

But local lore remains alive and well, including an urban legend about the Bunny Man. In the 1970s, reports of a man wearing a rabbit suit and wielding a hatchet began circulating in newspapers, including The Washington Post. Over time, the story took on a number of eerie variations and young residents still flock to the Colchester Overpass, known as the “Bunny Man Bridge” on Halloween, according to Mary Lipsey, a retired teacher and historian who taught at Lake Braddock Secondary School.

This summer, two local Fairfax residents are planning to open Bunnyman Brewing on Guinea Road, giving new life to this local legend.

Living there: Burke is an unincorporated area in Fairfax County roughly bounded by State Route 645 (Burke Lake Road) to the north, State Route 638 (Rolling Road) to the east, and the Fairfax County Parkway to the southwest and west. According to Buck and Associates, there are 14 homes for sale in Burke, ranging from a two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo for $193,000 to a five-bedroom, three-bathroom Colonial for $765,000. Last year, 642 homes sold in Burke, ranging from a two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo for $180,000 to a five-bedroom, six-bathroom Colonial for just under $1.4 million.

Transit: Burke is served by Amtrak and the Virginia Railway Express as well as multiple bus lines, including routes that take residents to the Pentagon and Franconia Springfield Metro stations. Burke is also easily accessible to Braddock Road and I-395 and I-495.

Schools: There are 15 schools that serve the Burke area, including three high schools, three middle schools and nine elementary schools. There is also one special education center located in Burke.

Correction: A caption in an earlier version of this article, showing three children exploring a creek, misstated the age of Nate Fowler. He is 13, not 23. The caption has been corrected.

If you’d like your neighborhood featured in Where We Live, email kathy.orton@washpost.com.