If it weren’t for all the yard signs for D.C. politicians, there would be nothing to distinguish some parts of Granolan Heights from its surrounding suburbs. The fanciest, wealthiest parts of the area—North Portal Estates and Colonial Village, wedged between Rock Creek Park and 16th Street at the northernmost point of the District—are totally off the grid. The streets are all named after flowers and they curve in crazy directions. Detached colonial mansions sit atop sloping lawns far back from the sidewalk and far from one another.
A thing often pointed out by folks somewhat familiar with the area is that it is a white-collar zone but not necessarily a white-person zone, as is the case on the other side of the park. Granolan Heights is mostly black and very wealthy, with average household incomes in the nicest parts between $100,000 and $200,000.
Moving southeastward toward Takoma, Granolan Heights changes from uppermost crust to slightly crusty as numbered streets and city grit reappear. Takoma retains a certain suburban, leafy ethos, but the houses are much smaller, more modest one-story deals. There is the occasional chain-link fence and crumbly concrete walkway, and a distinct lack of immaculate retaining walls and superlong lawns.
Right in the middle is Shepherd Park, one of the city’s wealthiest African-American neighborhoods. Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, known as the “father of modern Washington” for infrastructural advances he pushed in the 1870s, built himself a Victorian summer home near what is today the corner of 13th and Geranium. The neighborhood sprang up around it, with floral street names nodding to the Boss’ enthusiasm for botany.
If you’re not an insider in this region, neighbors will know. Suspicious-looking strangers get noticed if spotted cruising between the colonials, ramblers, and Sears bungalows. There’s not much crime, and what does go wrong is easily blamed on outsiders. Raccoon sightings (horrifying in their own right) might be a more frequently discussed topic than muggings on the neighborhood Listserv.
The Shepherd Park Citizens Association exemplifies the abundant civic-mindedness of the area, steering the neighborhood agenda on such hot-button issues as, say, traffic, and hosting regular meetings and candidate forums around election time. This spring, the association held a fundraiser for the local public elementary school, auctioning such items as lunch with the mayor and a mink coat, for which bidding started at $1,500.
It’s smaller and crustier, but Takoma might have the largest reputation of Granolan Heights’ sub-neighborhoods. Takoma Park was founded as a Washington commuter suburb in the late 1800s, without regard to jurisdiction, so the neighborhood actually straddles the District and Montgomery County, Md. (To clarify: People refer to the city of Takoma Park, Md., as “Takoma Park,” and to the D.C. part of this area simply as the “Takoma neighborhood.”) It’s Takoma Park, not Takoma, that has earned fame for being filled with environmentalists and earthy types, for having strict rules limiting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, but the green reputation bleeds across the border.
The D.C. side of Takoma does have a feistiness of its own. Like in any solid hood, neighbors band together to fight unwanted development, as with a yearslong (and not yet successful) effort to prevent the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority from selling mostly green land by the Takoma Metro station for high-density housing. A key beef with the proposed 80-townhouse development is that each unit is supposed to have a two-car garage.
The upshot of the whole sleepy-suburb motif of Granolan Heights is that unless residents live within a walk of the Takoma Metro station, they can’t get to anything without driving. Georgia Avenue, the only commercial strip in the vicinity, doesn’t offer much. There are only a few sit-down restaurants, and there’s hardly any retail at all. While much has been made of revitalization along the strip, it still looks like old familiar Georgia Avenue. Standing at the hectic intersection of Georgia, Alaska Avenue, and Kalmia Road, standout food and drink options are Eddie’s Carry Out and Morris Miller liquor. And with the sub-prime mortgage crisis blooming and abundant talk of recession, it’s hard to envision flashy development taking over the corridor soon, so don’t move to the hood anticipating a Michelin-rated restaurant or even a Starbucks.
• The Walter Reed Army Medical Center looms on the southern border of the neighborhood. To the disappointment of city officials, the Army sold the land to the federal government; the hospital is slated to close in 2011. Though nearby residents opposed the Army’s plans to add extra structures to the 113-acre site in 2004, now they worry about what might take its place. They lament the loss of a neighbor. Not for long will they hear the sound of taps drifting through the black metal bars that surround the campus.
• Donald Morgan’s garden in Shepherd Park is a 3-D simulation of Jamaican coastline, mostly made of concrete and complete with moving water and an electric train. It gets frequent visitors, according to a profile in the Washington Post. It’s refreshing to see that an historic upper-middle-class neighborhood can embrace the occasional gaudy display that might be out of sync with the goose steps of militant preservationists.
• The Takoma Park Neighborhood Library is the original neighborhood branch of the D.C. library system. The library opened in 1911 thanks to a donation from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The District is planning to renovate the facility soon, giving it a makeover like the one that transformed the Southeast Neighborhood Library from a decrepit cavern into a beautiful Barnes & Noble-esque place that regular folks actually enjoy visiting. Hell yes.