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This is like Sweden, it’s so beautiful,” says William “Spence” Spencer, as he motors along Potomac Avenue NW in his convertible Sebring. Houses line one side of the street; on the other, bluffs overlook a sharp, densely forested drop to the C&O Canal and the Potomac below. Somebody’s set up Adirondack chairs, the better to take in the vista—down the leafy slope and across the river, you can see cars zipping up the George Washington Parkway below McLean.
The view’s no less unusual on MacArthur Boulevard NW, a few blocks to the east. Early-20th-century Sears catalog homes brush up against McMansions and what Spencer likes to call the “shotgun shacks” on Sherier Place NW. The neighbors are the types of people who quietly keep the world running when they’re not trimming their hedges. Alan Greenspan lives here, and Spencer, president of the Palisades Citizen Association, worked on the Iraqi constitution. It’s leafy. It’s quiet. Cops will actually stop you if they see you driving and talking on a cell phone.
And then there’s the kiosk. Just outside the Safeway on MacArthur, a hundred yards or so from the small-town-style welcome to the palisades sign, it’s neatly plastered with ads for dogwalkers, nannies, and photocopies of newspapers that mention local doings—a New York Times A1, for instance, from last August, with an article about some Palisades residents who’ve formed a network to help elderly people stay in their homes, right below a story about the resignation of Palisades resident Karl Rove.
Palisades sage Mat Thorp, Spencer says, divides his neighbors into two groups: You’ve got your “river rats,” who populate the aforementioned bluffs, and the “forest-dwellers,” who congregate near parks like Battery Kemble, where trees in an old-growth forest soar 150 feet over a dog park where no one uses leashes and “when the Park Police come ticketing, everyone runs away,” Spencer says.
That’s about as much crime as Palisades will tolerate. Last July, Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s plan to move the police district that comprises Dupont Circle and part of U Street NW into Palisades’ turf raised some hackles. Spencer was quoted in the Post saying, “We want to keep what we have and maintain a very good crime record.” From 2001 through 2005, for example, there were eight murders in the police district that serves Palisades; the neighboring district had 125 in the same period.
“You’ve got to stand up for your neighborhood,” Spencer says.
Lanier moved the boundries anyway, and Palisades residents’ concerns, if local Listservs are any indication, shifted to speeding on MacArthur and Sherier, rumors that Best Buy planned to open a guitar shop in Tenleytown, and, most controversial, whether the replacement of cherry trees on MacArthur was warranted. The MacArthur Beautification Group, which like many Palisades organizations, is entirely run by volunteers, contends the old trees were diseased; some residents, such as Palisades Museum of Prehistory founder Doug Dupin (“Just the Artifacts, Ma’am,” 10/13/2006) are skeptical: “I would like a second opinion from the city arborist,” he wrote in a May 27 post. He got it.
To the north and west, past the almost entirely residential enclaves of Wesley Heights, Senate Heights, and Foxhall Village (with its stately Tudor manses), there are actually burning issues. Well, eye-burning, anyway. According to a 2000 article in Washingtonian, the campus of nearby American University was the site of “the World War I version of the Manhattan Project.” The Army made chemical weapons at AU, then tested them in the nearby countryside. “Soldiers tied dogs, goats, and other animals to stakes, set off chemical bombs, and watched the animals struggle and die,” Harry Jaffe writes. “Mangled dogs showed up in nearby yards. Soldiers called it Death Valley.”
You can just call it Spring Valley, though, perhaps the nation’s most desirable neighborhood that’s also a Superfund site. When the Kaiser was defeated, departing soldiers buried ordnance under what was soon developed into sprawling homes that would later house the likes of Lyndon B. Johnson and Jim Vance. And, unfortunately, the South Korean ambassador, under whose residence were found, according to a 2000 Post account, “more than a half-dozen artillery shells holding a toxic mustard agent.”
More pleasant discoveries await down Foxhall Road NW, past stately embassies to the Kreeger Museum, whose collection of French impressionists and African folk art is housed in a Philip Johnson and Richard
Foster-designed building that’s lovely to admire from the outside—which is just as well, since you need reservations to visit (except on Saturday). Cut through Battery Kemble, pushing through the bamboo by the dog run, to see what Spencer says are the remains of a private zoo whose owner lost his shirt in 1929 and eventually sent his animal stock northward, to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. There are Mies van der Rohe buildings along Chain Bridge Road NW, and a July 4th parade every year along MacArthur that rivals any small town’s. It’s enough to make you forget you’re in the District. Which, frankly, is the point of living here.
• The empty lot by the entrance of Palisades Park commemorates the Great Jesse Baltimore House Controversy of ’02-’07. A campaign to save Baltimore’s 1925 Sears kit house, which had fallen into disrepair, divided residents. Spencer says he switched to the pro-teardown side after he realized no viable plan to preserve the house had been offered and that “God wasn’t making any more D.C. parkland.” Currently, locals are evaluating proposals for a park entrance on the site.
• Foxhall and Palisades are home to two of the District’s rare instances of cul-de-sacs—Dexter Place NW, near 44th Street NW, and Fulton Street NW, off Dana Place NW. The latter is a classic cul, with houses spoked off a circle; the former is kind of tear-drop shaped.
• The arsenic in Spring Valley’s soil and the supposed arsenic that briefly closed Fort Reno Park last month can be attributed two entirely different environmental disasters! Fort Reno’s phantom poison was blamed on either another munitions dump or perhaps the bodies of 72 or more Union soldiers who were buried with arsenic-based embalming fluid.
• Palisades residents will tell you the Georgetown Castle Gatehouse by the Georgetown Reservoir is the source of the Army Corps of Engineers’ distinctive castle symbol. It is, in fact, one of several similar structures built by overly proud ACE battalions in honor of the symbol; others can be found in Honolulu and Michigan City, Ind.