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The neighborhoods of Chevy Chase, Hawthorne, Barnaby Woods, and Pinehurst Circle have something of a nomenclatural problem: They’re not a city so much, and certainly not the suburbs, in spite of the nicely manicured lawns. More of a village.
A well-heeled village, that is, with ample stock of well-built houses, a smattering of apartment buildings, and enough combined disposable income to support the upper Connecticut Avenue commercial strip with all the hallmarks of upper-crusty consumerism—gourmet and antique shops, a yoga studio, and a Starbucks, not to mention an independent movie theater.
True to its village ambience, the business district just south of the Chevy Chase Circle also has a baker, a fishmonger, and a cobbler. The strip’s CVS keeps things real.
The banner-holder for Upper Caucasia’s throwback ways may well be the American City Diner, whose billboard reads, “There’s no way like the American Way.” Down to the train set that loops around the diner’s interior and the coin-op horse rides on the exterior, this is a business that knows nostalgia. It even shows popular old movies on a dining room screen, and the fare is all chocolate-malt-and-grilled-cheese classic.
Upper Caucasia is bordered on the west by Maryland’s richest county—Montgomery—and on the east by the rustic walking trails and countrified roads of Rock Creek Park. The equally suburbanized Friendship Heights and American University Park neighborhoods flank it to the south. Its roomy farm houses, American Foursquares, and neo-colonials, with their high ceilings and ample backyards, were built a century ago to attract D.C.’s affluent families. Today, the schools are part of the draw. The public Lafayette Elementary School is known as one of the city’s best, while the neighborhood is home to two well-regarded Catholic schools: Blessed Sacrament Elementary School and St. John’s School, which offers grades 7 to 12.
While not the wealthiest part of D.C., Upper Caucasia is in the solid upper-middle class of District nabes—and low on poverty and crime. There are block parties and community gardening; garden tours and outdoor concerts at the Chevy Chase Community Center. “Slow Down! Kids are everywhere!” signs are posted along some of the streets. Upper Caucasia has no shortage of elders and several retirement homes. The neighborhood singles—mostly grad students, white-collar working stiffs, and retirees—help populate the upscale apartment buildings that have graced the neighborhood’s main drag for decades. Walk the streets here, and you’ll see quite readily why some sort of riff on “Caucasian” is an appropriate nickname for the hood, though there is an African-American enclave at its northern tip.
Regardless of age or marital status, the Chevy Chase Community Center and the public library branch next door are common gathering points. Besides the typical after-school childcare and summer camp options, the center’s adult offerings go heavy on the health-club-style selections: There’s Pilates and tai chi. For the domestic help, the center offers English as a second language classes especially geared toward the needs of neighborhood nannies.
While city officials expend considerable effort to stimulate commercial development in other parts of the District, the emphasis is on controlling growth in Upper Caucasia so it doesn’t trample the residential attributes. Zoning rules that ban construction of gargantuan new stores and limit public parking have saved the area’s small businesses from the likes of the big-box retailers.
But just because the area was founded as one of D.C.’s first so-called “streetcar suburbs” doesn’t mean everyone is taking the bus or hoofing it to the nearest Metro outpost in Friendship Heights. Nearly every household has a car here, making it much more autocentric than the city average. Traffic tends to pile up along the commercial strip on Connecticut Avenue. It’s gotten so bad that in recent years pedestrians have been left to navigate intersections while waving bright orange “Stop” flags in the air as they cross, a mode of pedestrian safety that has been hotly debated for a few years now.
Such are the concerns that raise the blood pressure in Upper Caucasia. It’s a decidedly “civic” neighborhood. The Chevy Chase Citizens Association, formed in 1908 to preside over “issues of public concern,” will celebrate its centennial next year. Residents chipped in and saved the Avalon movie theater in 2001, reopening it two years later as an independent theater with a combination of Hollywood, art house, and children’s movies. Typical village behavior.
• The founding fathers of Upper Caucasia, Nevada Senators Francis G. Newlands and William M. Stewart, both made their fortunes in the Comstock Lode, the first major U.S. deposit of silver ore, discovered under what is now Virginia City, Nev. Both men went on to become long-serving congressional representatives. Besides Newlands and Stewart, countless other politicians have called Upper Caucasia home, not the least of whom was John W. Hechinger Sr., lifelong Chevy Chase resident, hardware-chain scion, and champion of D.C. home rule. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Hechinger as the city’s first city council chairman in 1967, a post Hechinger used to push his aspirations for the District. They were partially realized in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon signed a Home Rule law allowing D.C. to elect a mayor and council but denying residents a voting representative in Congress.
• The neighborhood had been home to the longest continually operating movie theater in Washington in 2001, when Loews Corporation shut its doors. Rather than mourn its passing, local residents raised the money to restore and reopen it. Since 2003, the Avalon has operated as a nonprofit cinema showing a combination of Hollywood and art-house hits. The Chevy Chase Players, a community theater troupe, meanwhile, stages plays at the community center that run from Broadway hits to Woody Allen scripts.
• The neighborhood is one of the greener corners of the city, with parkland that includes nine-acre Lafayette Park, offering a playground, tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and landscaped garden areas that neighborhood residents have been tending like their own backyards for decades.