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The clerk at CVS eyed my friend and me as though examining something unsavory on the sole of her shoe.
“You ask me where you can find a bar? On a Monday night?”
“You two should be at home on a Monday night. Don’t come in here asking about a bar,” she said, chewing her gum. “Go ask a policeman if it’s so important to you.”
Stunned and apologetic, we left the store feeling like a pair of children bound for the principal’s office. Had she understood the question? What was the big deal? The next man I asked gave a kindlier, if no less puzzling, response.
“A bar?” he asked with a furrowed brow. “Well, do you know where Dupont Circle is?”
I had hoped to find a local watering hole that might serve as a base of operations for reporting on the neighborhood. I didn’t catch a break, though my hunt yielded some information I hadn’t expected. If the Bungalowlands is the driest neighborhood in the District, it is also one of the quietest; there is a powerful insistence here that living in the city need not imply city living.
This area, after all, came late and leisurely into the commuter fold. Early railroads did not precipitate the boom in the Bungalowlands that they did elsewhere; it was only with the emergence of streetcar service (we didn’t get the electric conduits going until 1896) and the 1906 extension of Rhode Island Avenue east from Langdon Road (a two-decade project) that the area became wired into D.C. commerce.
But there was one point of assimilation that required more than roads.
The 1930 census reported “only white households in the Woodridge area,” a fact attributable to a policy of restricting deeds so that “no blacks, no Chinese, and no Jews,” as the uniformly white Rhode Island Avenue Citizens’ Association (RIACA) put it, could live there. In September 1942, the RIACA grimly if euphemistically acknowledged “the changing face of the neighborhood” and issued the following statement: “This Association will continue to see that the face of this community does not change in fact. The homeowners are asked to continually maintain the all-white character of the community.”
But the face of the community kept getting darker. Between 1948, when the Supreme Court ruled against “racial covenants,” and 1960, the “non-white” population rose to almost 70 percent north of Rhode Island Avenue. And as Woodridge went, so did the rest of the Bungalowlands.
The area today still gives the impression of uniformity, though not in all ways that the RIACA would have liked to predict: street after street of single-family homes, well-manicured lawns, and black middle-class families. This suburban unity inheres, too, in the lawn signs (nothing but Kwame Brown and Barack Obama), the ambient athletics—tennis at the Dwight M. Mosley Athletic Complex, soccer on the green 3400 block of Chillum Road, kickball outside the Backus Middle School, pickup football in front yards from Fort Lincoln to Fort Totten—and the persistent desire to keep unsavory elements far at bay.
Because like most quiet neighborhoods, the Bungalowlands tend to define themselves as much by what they aren’t as by what they are.
Way back, a Lamond-Riggs coalition blocked a proposed freeway incursion into its neighborhood. In 1991, a group of residents rallied against building a homeless shelter on the 5500 block of South Dakota Avenue. In 2004, Michigan Park was up in arms over the bizarre and pervasive stench wafting from the direction of the Fort Totten Waste Transfer Station. In 2007, residents lobbied to block a recreation center in Michigan Park because, as one zealot told this paper, they didn’t want “a lot of kids with boombox radios, hanging around bringing in trash.”
In a similar vein, the motto of nearby Woodridge is “A Good Community Getting Better” or “A Community Working Together”—they don’t seem able to decide, but whichever one you choose, it is a community with adamant standards based on good fences, good neighbors, and a strong neighborhood watch.
“This is a simple, quiet, reverent neighborhood,” James, a lawyer and a D.C. native, told me while scrubbing his white PT Cruiser to a sterilized sheen. “People take care of their houses, their yards. People help one another. We don’t have to worry about crime too much.”
Two doors down, a resident named Thomas aimed a hose at his own vehicle and emended his neighbor’s statement. “Around here, we have lots of little crimes,” he said. “You see this here?” He snapped his rag, like a towel in a locker room, at the rear left wheel of his sparkling Lincoln Continental. “These punks took off my hubcaps. I have a Corvette in the backyard, too, and one day I look out there and see these kids going to town on it—I hollered at them and they bolted…with 20 of my lug nuts! If I hadn’t seen them, they’d have had the tires off my car.” Thomas attributes the spate of (mainly automotive) robberies to the proximity of low-income housing over the border in Maryland. “They know when we go to work, when we come home, when we’re out of town. It’s not violent. It’s quiet crime,” says Thomas.
On a warm summer night in Woodridge, when the only sound is the ticking of lawn sprinklers, it’s hard to begrudge folks their standards, even if you’d have an easier time getting a drink in Kabul. It’s hard to beat the Bungalowlands for sheer calm. Everything’s quiet here—even the crime.
• Wonder why D.C. has so many goddamn row houses? For the answer, look no further than George Santmyers’ house on Brentwood Road in Woodridge. One of D.C.’s most workaholic architects, Santmyers designed almost 6,000 buildings between 1925 and 1940—more than a fifth of all buildings constructed in the District over that period—most of ’em classic row houses that came to define the look. (His signature touch was the brick “soldier course” running between the ground level and second story.) One might say that space-effective housing was the Bungalowlands’ main export.
• When Archie Edwards died in 1998, the Bungalowlands lost their blues sage, as well as the cheapest barber in the area. Forty years before, Archie founded his “Alpha Tonsorial Parlor” on Bunker Hill Road in Woodridge, where—in between trims and shaves—Edwards played the blues patriarch, hosting a rotating Saturday jam session open to everyone from local amateurs to visiting blues luminaries like Mississippi John Hurt. As one resident puts it: “If you got there between 12 and 1 on a Saturday, if you saw a can of Budweiser, some KFC, you’d have to wait to get your haircut. That’s when people brought by their guitars, their harmonicas. Often he’d tell you just to come back on Tuesday. He was married. That was his release.” The tradition continues at HR-57 on 14th Street NW, but old-timers seem doubtful that the spirit will be the same.
• A tale from one lifelong Bungalowlands resident: “One gentleman, his nickname was Archie Bunker to my mother because of the way he complained to my parents about me as a kid. I used to throw apples at his German Shepherd—we had an apple tree, and I thought this was funny—that dog used to stand at the gate, and bark, and spin around in a big old circle. Don’t know what I was thinkin’, but I started in with the apples, so the owner got riled up, spoke to my mother, and said something pretty…well, racist. So he got the nickname ‘Archie Bunker.’”
• Fun with Catholicism: Much of the Bungalowlands’ most thrilling Catholic history comes straight from St. Francis de Sales Church and School in Woodridge. Besides the fact that St. Francis is the patron saint of journalists (and himself a prolific scribe), the church and congregation have shown the sort of tenacity one can only expect from Catholics and Clintons. The third generation of the Queen’s Chapel churches, St. Francis today boasts the “oldest continuing congregation in the District of Columbia,” dating back to “about 1722.” The Queen’s Chapel church was razed thrice—during the revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. The congregation held on (hence the “oldest continuing” designation), and these days, the church Web site exhorts “all persons to come and taste how sweet the Lord is!”