A Southeast Spot Blossoming With Charm


By Ann Cameron Siegal

Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 10, 2008

The fact that Hillcrest is a front-porch-sitting, dog-walking, back-fence-chatting, heavily voting community is not that unusual in this area.

Nonetheless, residents say first-time visitors are quite surprised to find such a neighborhood is east of the Anacostia River in the District.

"This is the Southeast you never hear about," said Michelle Phipps-Evans, whose family moved from Northwest Washington to Hillcrest four years ago.

Well-tended yards surrounding stately Colonials, cozy Cape Cods, striking Tudors, and cute restored Sears bungalows line rolling hills.

Arches, porches and hardwood floors are common throughout the community, developed in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

"The architectural diversity is a real asset," said Karen Williams, president of Hillcrest's civic association. So is the ample on-street parking.

Phipps-Evans said their 1937 brick Colonial reminded her husband, Antonio, of a fashionable bed-and-breakfast when he first stepped inside.

Their son, Nicholas, 14, describes the neighborhood as very quiet. "It's easy to go to sleep or to study here," he said.

Chuck Riley moved to Hillcrest three decades ago because his three boys "needed a place they could throw a football." Now a real estate agent, Riley said his customers are often relocating from Olney, Fairfax and Arlington as they seek shorter commutes and closer proximity to the District's museums and culture.

At 300 feet above sea level, Hillcrest is not the highest point in the District -- that honor goes to Fort Reno Park in Tenleytown at 409 feet -- but residents say that during the summer the community seems 10 degrees cooler than much of the city.

When the leaves are off the mature oaks, many residents enjoy views of the Capitol and the Washington National Cathedral. And, when the leaves are out, "It's like living in a treehouse," said Aimee Syms Carney, a four-year resident.

Carney, a daily jogger, notes that Hillcrest is 1.6 miles from Eastern Market and 2.3 miles from the Capitol.

Carney's family is only the third owner of a prefab concrete structure, built in 1937, that highlights the art deco style of John Joseph Early (1881-1945), a local craftsman who developed a technique of embedding stone mosaics in concrete panels.

As attractive as the neighborhood is, residents say its true appeal is how the community works with the police, elected officials and other neighborhoods throughout the city.

Gloria and Dennis Logan, residents since 1965, say it's all about communication. In 1989, they helped jump-start the community's neighborhood watch -- one used as an example by the police because of its design and effectiveness.

Dennis Logan, a retired deputy chief of the D.C. Fire Department, said the neighborhood watch's network of 170 zone leaders and block captains encompasses adjacent neighborhoods and keeps it all orderly.

"Once you get to know everyone, you break down those [geographic] divisions," he said.

"People really notice what's going on," Carney said. Suspicious activity gets reported, license plates of unfamiliar cars are noted, and police patrols navigate the hilly terrain by bicycle.

Hillcrest's first National Night Out -- part of a nationwide outdoor crime- and drug-prevention event each August -- was held in 1989 on the Logans' front lawn. The original sign-in sheet lists several people who still live in the neighborhood.

For the first time in decades, a Hillcrest resident doesn't hold the Ward 7 City Council seat, but the community remains politically plugged in.

The civic association's monthly meetings draw speakers at the forefront of local issues, most recently schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee; City Administrator Dan Tangherlini; and Emeka C. Moneme, director of the D.C. Transportation Department.

Whether the guest is a local police official, politician or owner of a tree-care company, attendance of 75 or more on a Saturday morning is common.

Ten years ago, Hillcrest entered a partnership with the Palisades community in Northwest Washington to foster communication between people on different sides of the city, emphasizing what they have in common.

A neighbors-through-arts program, shared community-service projects and joint celebrations show people that others have the same concerns regardless of geographic location, Williams said.

The two communities are collaborating on a chili cookbook to raise funds for the Francis A. Gregory library on Alabama Avenue SE and developing a DVD to guide other neighborhoods in establishing similar partnerships.

Hillcrest instituted an annual garden tour in 1992 to publicize the community. This year's tour, on June 14, will highlight about 15 gardens, including that of Gary Duke and Chris Lowery, the second owners of their 1937 center-hall Colonial. The greenery meandering around the perimeter of their property is primarily from family members and neighbors who exchanged plants, shared cuttings and offered tips while showering kudos on one another's green thumbs.

"We know so many more people who we consider good friends here than we ever knew [in their previous residence] on Capitol Hill," Lowery said.

Jarrin Davis and Dan Olds's yard, also on the tour, was an overgrown mess when they bought their 1926 cottage seven years ago. It soon became their "garden of discovery," Olds said, as they uncovered a brick walkway and created several cozy spaces out of gardens that had encroached on each other. They also shored up a dilapidated detached garage, converting it to a graphic-design office.

Hillcrest's residents do grumble about having to spend their shopping dollars in the suburbs or on Capitol Hill. The pickings of nearby grocery stores, restaurants and stores are slowly improving, though.

A Harris Teeter grocery is opening about a mile away, across the Anacostia River on Capitol Hill. The run-down Skyland Shopping Center, where Good Hope Road, Alabama Avenue and Naylor Road converge, has long been slated to become a mixed residential-retail complex.

"They built a whole baseball stadium in less time," Michelle Phipps-Evans said of that endlessly delayed project.

Although residents seem to like what they hear about redevelopment plans, "we just wished it would come sooner," she said.


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