- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

Walk around just about any neighborhood in the Greater Washington area, and you’ll see more than a few signs of spring. The requisite “For Sale” signs have appeared along with the warmer weather - but certain neighborhoods have special touches all their own, such as block parties and community events, that can make all the difference in when those “For Sale” signs become “Sold” signs.

Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” calls it “social capital,” the ability of neighbors to form formal and informal networks that together spark a spirit of community. It’s a collective characteristic seen in the variety of day-to-day interactions between neighbors who routinely keep an eye on the neighborhood and an eye out for one another’s children.

When social capital is involved, the size of your home or your bankbook matters a lot less than a willingness to know - and engage with - your neighbors. Increasingly, that kind of neighborhood personality is just what many of today’s homebuyers are seeking.

“In the buyer’s mind, it adds value to the neighborhood,” says Brian Block, a managing broker with RE/MAX Allegiance in McLean, Va. “It’s about having a sense of place, where you can go home and get to know your neighbors.”

Tucked away just past the heart of Old Town Alexandria, Del Ray is place where residents can walk to get an evening ice cream or the morning paper. Its success and neighborly feel have a lot to do with the built environment. Many of the homes were built in the 1920s, when front porches were common and built-in garages were not, so Del Ray residents get to sit outside to catch an evening breeze and can catch a chat with a neighbor when they are walking from the car to the porch.

Contrast that to the cookie-cutter suburbs of the post-World War II years. They may have been safe, snug and residential, but they didn’t always make it easy to be neighborly, with built-in garages, no front porches and nowhere to walk.

“Developers then didn’t pay much attention to local dynamics,” says William Hanna, professor in the urban studies and planning program at the University of Maryland. “Suburban neighborhoods can be very far away from resources.”

For the past several years, Mr. Hanna has been focusing on Langley Park. The Prince George’s County neighborhood is one of those midcentury suburbs and today presents a number of challenges for the new working-class residents who have come to live in its apartments and modest homes, built at a time when developers were less concerned with walking neighborhoods and green space. In the meantime, it is poised for development with the arrival of Metro’s new Purple Line.

“That’s the main challenge,” Mr. Hanna says. “How do you maintain a viable neighborhood when some people want to bulldoze?”

These days, just about everything - from geography to parents who are working longer hours to smaller families and greater and more frequent mobility - can make social capital pretty difficult to come by, regardless of your socioeconomic status.

“People have more insecurity in their own lives,” says Gregory Squires, professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. “That means they are more reliant on personal resources than on the neighborhood.”

That’s one reason many recent developments have attempted to borrow something of the “feel” of Del Ray and neighborhoods like it, mixing retail with residential space in various price ranges, promoting strolling with sidewalks and parks, and adding a commercial core within easy walking distance of homes.

“Kentlands [in Gaithersburg, Md.], Cameron Station [in Alexandria] and others are all trying to capture that small-town feel,” says Mr. Block, whose own condo community hosts happy hours and other events designed to bring neighbors together.

Because the built environment is not always enough, successful neighborhoods sometimes give their residents a little push as well as a helping hand. That means special events.

On Sundays in Palisades in far Northwest Washington, many residents set their alarms a little early.

“It’s the Sunday morning promenade,” says Spence Spencer, president of the Palisades Community Association. “You’ve got about 400 people heading for the farmers market.”

-The farmers market is just two years old, but it already is seen as a community institution, a chance for people to talk, buy fresh food and even listen to a band.

Then again, community efforts in Palisades have always been part of the neighborhood, whether you’re living in a 1920s-era bungalow or a 21st-century McMansion. Along with the farmers market, recent efforts have included the institution of Palisades Village, a volunteer organization that provides an array of services to older neighbors.

“It’s a small town in the big city,” Mr. Spencer says. “I’m always amazed at the willingness of neighbors to think beyond their little tract of land.”

The streetcars to Glen Echo may be no more, but Palisades’ Fourth of July parade down MacArthur Boulevard lives on and manages to snag politicos from throughout the city. Meanwhile, the antics of ad hoc neighborhood groups like Millwood Lane’s Millwood Mob, which famously cuts the parade line every year, keep residents of Greater Washington coming back for more.

Then there’s Hillcrest, a far Southeast Washington neighborhood. Like its Northwest counterpart, Hillcrest, which has partnered with Palisades in a series of events for the past 12 years, has its own definition of what it means to be neighborly and it’s an old-fashioned one.

“We’re more alike than different,” says Karen Williams, president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association. “That’s the basis for what we do.”

Warmer weather in Hillcrest means the kids are outside, like the 12-year-old pedaling his bike leisurely up a hill on a winding street. Passing cars slow down so neighbors who are out weeding their front gardens or clipping hedges can wave.

Hillcrest, which is home to numerous block parties showcasing each section of the neighborhood, began as a “suburban” development that was billed as a healthful alternative to the hustle and bustle of downtown. These days, Hillcrest’s mix of architectural styles is joined by a new recreation center and a number of new families who are bringing new life into a community that still boasts neighbors who have lived there for 50 years or more.

“People who move here stay,” Ms.requested Williams says. “They raise children, who grow old, and then the children come back to raise their own.”

Deep-rooted families also are a mainstay of the Brightwood community in upper Northwest Washington. Located around Georgia Avenue in the Walter Reed area, Brightwood offers a distinctive interpretation of small-town living, where residents sit out on front porches to watch the world go by but frequently move off them to lend their neighbors a helping hand. Elderly residents keep plastic bags on hand for the many dog walkers who live in the area. And when senior citizens need help with an errand, they know they can call on the dog walker down the street.

“You forget that you’re in an urban area,” says Kamili Anderson, past president of the Brightwood Citizens Association and chairwoman of the Business Improvement Committee (and a dog person herself). “It’s not exactly pastoral, but it’s certainly relaxing.”

The neighborhood is also home to a number of religious institutions, including Emory United Methodist Church, that are strongly rooted in the community and offer a number of activities that enable residents to come together. Emory’s Clean Team can be seen every day picking up litter along Georgia Avenue. St. John the Baptist Church will be the host for the Brightwood Day activities in July, which will showcase commercial development potential along the Georgia Avenue corridor.

During the mid-20th century, Georgia Avenue was host to a number of popular businesses that attracted shoppers from nearby neighborhoods. Since then, Brightwood has had to deal with the decline of its commercial core and the move of some of its more prosperous residents to the suburbs. Still, both new and longtime residents insist Brightwood is bound to come back.

“Brightwood is like a sleeping giant,” Ms.requested Anderson says. “There are a lot of factors keeping it asleep, but we’d like to wake it up a bit.”

Core values also are important to the residents of Takoma Park, a self-consciously progressive enclave that straddles the line between the District and Maryland. Residents hold block parties and host music festivals, participate in progressive dinners that span its leafy streets and pride themselves in knowing their neighbors and respecting the century-old homes in which many of them live.

“People that live here want their friends to live here,” says Meg Finn, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who lives and works in Takoma Park.

It began in 1883 as one of the many developments to spring up around the new Metropolitan Branch line of the B&O; Railroad. Over time, it grew to encompass a variety of housing stock, including large Victorians with sweeping front porches, modest bungalows and everything in between.

“People are looking for that proverbial charm and character in a house,” Ms. Finn says. “The specific style is less important.”

That front-porch feel is certainly easier to achieve if you actually have a front porch and sidewalk, but the lack of either doesn’t preclude doing what it takes to raise the social capital of your own neighborhood. Just witness what happened in neighborhoods of all stripes during the February snows, when longtime neighbors got to know each other quickly over shovels of snow and bags of salt. Now it’s time to invite the neighbors in- maybe for some lemonade?

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