- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Way back when, the suburbs were everything a sweat-stained urbanite could want. Fresh air, green space and backyard barbecues all conspired to lure the city dweller out to the wide-open places beyond the District line.

Today, of course, hip urban neighborhoods are the draw.

But don’t forget the suburbs. Not all of Washington’s suburbs are charming, but there are plenty of places around that still boast fresh air, wide lawns and a lifestyle that is a step or two removed from the frenetic pace of the city.

“Walk around Cherrydale after 6 p.m., and you’ll see people just congregating on street corners,” says Frank Jackson, a broker with RE/MAX Preferred Properties in Vienna. “They’re out walking dogs, riding bikes. That’s what’s really pleasant about it.”

Many suburbs around Washington now reflect the region’s increasing diversity, both architecturally and on a human scale.

Vietnamese and Latin cafes sit cheek by jowl with Indian grocery stores and Thai dress shops.

There are block parties and picnics, dog walkers and bike riders. And of course, on summer evenings, the ever-present smell of charcoal wafts into the air from scores of backyard barbecues.

Washington’s suburbs began growing in earnest after World War II, as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill, provided low-cost home loans to veterans.

Banks also took advantage of the postwar prosperity to provide loans to many returning soldiers. Most of these veterans were white. Before passage of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting housing discrimination, many suburban builders refused to sell their homes to blacks, who also had difficulty procuring loans regardless of military service.

Newly constructed highways and lower crime drew onetime city dwellers farther into the countryside.

Businesses followed residents out of the District. So did government agencies such as the Naval Hospital, the Atomic Energy Commission and the CIA. The area’s first shopping mall, Wheaton Plaza, opened in 1960.

Soon, it was possible to live, work and shop in the suburbs without ever having to go downtown.

In the Arlington neighborhood of Cherrydale, revamped postwar houses sit next to turn-of-the-century bungalows and brand-new housing developed by Morris-Day. There’s an active civic association, bingo at the volunteer fire department and a great view of the Washington Monument from the corner of 21st and Randolph streets. The prices, though, are skyrocketing.

“Cherrydale used to be a sleeper, but in the past few years, little bungalows that used to go for $350,000 now start at $450,000,” Mr. Jackson says. “On top of that, people are doing major renovations. We have sales now for over a million dollars on some of these homes.”

Some of the most picturesque suburbs in the Washington metropolitan area, however, are older. Many began in the late 19th century as stops along the newly constructed rail and streetcar lines. Railroad suburbs such as Mount Rainier billed themselves as healthful, salubrious places to raise a family.

Some suburbs even predate the railroad.

Oella, in nearby Baltimore County, didn’t start out as a suburb. It began as a mill town in 1808 and didn’t even get public water or sewer systems until 1984.

Yet over time, the metropolitan areas surrounding Washington and Baltimore have sprawled out to meet it. Named for the first woman to spin cotton in America, according to town lore, Oella has managed to retain much of its rural character, with large, spreading trees and old company houses complete with gingerbread.

“It’s quaint and hilly, and the community is very close together,” says Rob Kinnear, Realtor with RE/MAX Advantage in Columbia, Md.

“But the housing is very diverse, from concerted mill houses to million-dollar homes and everything in between,” he says. “It’s such a wooded area that you can drive through and feel like you’re far away from everybody.”

Hyattsville, along U.S. Route 1 by the Anacostia River, didn’t start out as a suburb, either. In the 19th century, it was a farming community named for the Christopher Hyatt, who had settled in the area in 1860. Even in the 1930s, when the post office got its murals, the area was still fairly rural.

That all began to change after World War II, as developers began to construct low-cost housing for young families searching for a bit of green to call their own.

The heart of Hyattsville, however, continues to be the old town, where Victorian bungalows can be had for the mid-$200,000s. Stretches of ethnic eateries and mom-and-pop shops are just a short distance away.

“Hyattsville is changing all the time,” says Howard Simons, a broker at Diplomat Realty 2000-Plus in Chillum. “There’s a real diversification of types of homes.”

It may be best known for the house that was the inspiration for “The Exorcist,” but these days, Mount Rainier has a lot more to boast about.

Diversity, community and affordable living are hallmarks of this old B&O; Railroad suburb just up Rhode Island Avenue from the District line.

After 1897, the Maryland and Washington Railway connected Mount Rainier to the District, so the town became a streetcar suburb as well.

Early circulars touted Mount Rainier as a suburb that was “high and healthy,” away from the city’s heat and noxious odors. Even the tiniest-framed bungalow had a front porch to catch the breezes.

Today, the city of Mount Rainier is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are an active library group and numerous civic organizations, including Boys and Girls Clubs.

Less than 30 miles from Washington is Chesapeake Beach, an unassuming neighborhood of about 3,000.

Perched on Maryland’s western shore, this small but friendly community was incorporated in 1894.

The first railroad out to the town proved a bust, but another one, the Chesapeake Beach Railway, began operating in 1896.

For years, it brought vacationing families from Washington and Baltimore, joining those arriving by steamer, to stroll the mile-long boardwalk, ride the roller coaster that stretched out far into the bay and stay for a week or two at one of the quaint summer cottages that lined the streets.

The railway went bankrupt in the 1930s, and the amusement park stopped operating in 1972, but many of the cottages live on, now winterized for year-round enjoyment. And the median price is less than $200,000.

A new kind of suburb — a planned community — emerged during the 1930s, part of a New Deal effort to reshape the lifestyle of the American family.

Today, Greenbelt is ringed by typical late-20th-century split-levels and town homes, but its core retains much of the art deco architecture that made it a model town during the Great Depression.

Greenbelt was one of the three model towns that were built at this time. The others were Greenhills, Ohio, and Greendale, Wis.

Pedestrian paths snake around the town center, part of the effort to make this particular suburb friendly to walkers, strollers and shoppers who could leave their cars at home and come down to Main Street.

What gives the best suburbs a face beyond the price points and architecture are opportunities for neighbors to work together. Successful suburbs often boast community centers and community events, which provide a kind of mortar to bind the members of the community together.

At Hollin Hills, a post-World War II community between Alexandria and Mount Vernon, a pottery class, one of several neighborhood-sponsored clubs, helps to unite the community.

Yet Hollin Hills also celebrates the need to escape. Modern-looking structures of glass and wood nestle closely into the surrounding trees on lots that provide a kind of natural curtain. Prices run in the $500,000 range.

Just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, Cheverly’s winding streets and rolling hills let visitors know they have escaped the city’s grid.

There is something of a small-town flavor about this spot, where neighbors know one another and children still get together for a pickup game or two.

Cheverly boasts a mix of housing, including some town homes and older ranches and Cape Cods, which can be found in thousands of suburbs around the country.

Surrounded by old trees and carefully tended gardens, however, even a bland 1960s brick house can be extraordinary. And prices rarely rise above the mid-$200,000s.

“It’s such a good community over there,” Mr. Simons says. “People buy over there, and they stay. Everyone knows everyone.”

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