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The bus turns left onto Westover Drive SE and climbs a hill, up a winding street lined with houses. Standing at the front, microphone in hand, is Jim Byers, guide to the 10th Annual Hillcrest Garden Tour. Byers gestures out the window at one side of the road, which drops off into a valley of trees. “The topography of Hillcrest reminds a lot of people of San Francisco,” he says.
During the workweek, Byers serves as the marketing director for the Arlington Cultural Affairs Division. But in his free time, he loves to market Hillcrest, the D.C. neighborhood he moved to five years ago. Hillcrest, a serene enclave of generously spaced single-family homes, is tucked away in relative obscurity, south of Pennsylvania Avenue, bordering Maryland in Southeast.
Last year, Byers and a handful of neighbors formed a marketing committee dedicated to promoting their neighborhood to the rest of the city. Their first project was to revamp the garden tour. The bus ride, for example, is a new addition, meant to provide visitors with an overview of Hillcrest before they scour a smaller section of the neighborhood on foot.
In the District, where geography is destiny, selling Hillcrest is a tricky task. Byers grew up in McLean, Va., and went to the Sidwell Friends School on Wisconsin Avenue. He knows all about the quadrant’s stigma. “I grew up thinking that Southeast was a place you went to do volunteer public service,” recalls Byers. “And then you got out.”
So to promote Hillcrest, Byers has to uplift Southeast and, at the same time, distance Hillcrest from the rest of his quadrant. Byers doesn’t disparage the other, less-affluent communities in Southeast (“This isn’t about dissing other neighborhoods,” he says); he hardly mentions them at all. Instead, his musings tend to wander westnot always as far as San Francisco, mind you, but west of the Anacostia River, anyway. Cleveland Park will suffice.
Promotional materials for the tour declare that “Hillcrest should have been Cleveland Park.” Citing a 1928 issue of the Hillcrest Bulletin, the position paper explains that when President Grover Cleveland sought a site for his house, he originally wanted to build in Hillcrest. Land speculators eventually foiled the plan, according to the Bulletin, and the president “had to select another place, that he did not like so well. He finally decided on what is now Cleveland Park. That is the reason why Hillcrest is not Cleveland Park.”
At first glance, the story seems absurd. There are a million reasonsfrom the historical to the paleoclimaticwhy Hillcrest isn’t Cleveland Park. But underlying the anecdote about Grover Cleveland is a subtle bit of marketing that exploits the psychology of contemporary house-hunting in the District: Today, we all have to settle for our second choice.
For the first time in decades, the District isn’t hemorrhaging population. We have a mayor who wants to attract 100,000 new residents in the next 10 years. And they’re not all going to fit in Cleveland Park. Newcomers will have to go elsewhere.
If the president of the United States once had to settle for Cleveland Park instead of Hillcrest, what’s the shame in settling for Hillcrest instead of Cleveland Park? Real estate is topsy-turvy. Fortunes change. Already the second-tier neighborhoods of the mid-’90splaces such as Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, and Logan Circlehave transformed into status-enriching addresses. To hear Byers tell it, Hillcrest could be next.
The bus rounds a corner and levels off at the crest of a hill. “We have views of Washington you couldn’t buy in Chevy Chase,” Byers tells the bus. Now and again, flashes of the federal core pop into view, only to disappear again behind a thick canopy of trees.
The bus keeps rolling from hill to hill, and there’s no blight in sight. Just lots of red brick houses and green, trimmed lawns. It looks a lot like the suburbs. Byers tells the tour group that people often mistake Hillcrest for its Maryland counterpart, Hillcrest Heights. When people drive to Hillcrest for the first time to visit him, he says, they often say, “Oh, it’s so nice here. I thought we were already in Maryland.”
Hillcrest, Maryland. Maryland, Hillcrest. The ambiguity is the goal. Bad neighborhoods stick out. Nice neighborhoods blend together in their comforts.
The places of interest are far between. At one point, the bus passes a house where J. Edgar Hoover once lived. Later, it drives by Marion S. Barry’s old pad. Two unforgettable characters. Two forgettable houses.
After about 20 minutes of zigzagging through the neighborhood, the bus pulls over. Everyone gets out.
Every summer, neighborhoods throughout the District host similar house and garden tours. In Hillcrest, visitors are, for the most part, limited to the gardens. Of the 10 or so houses on the tour, only two allow visitors to step inside. Everyone spends a lot of time looking at patches of grass, bushes, and flowers. The back yards are quaint and quiet, unique to the homeowners, interchangeable to everyone else.
Byers escaped to Hillcrest from the din of Adams Morgan. “I had driven through Hillcrest before, going out to Maryland or to the country or whatever,” says Byers. “I thought what probably a lot of people thought: that there were nice houses on [Pennsylvania] Avenue but that it probably turned into Wild World off the beaten path.”
Then Byers’ partner drove through Hillcrest on a sunny afternoon. “Instead of seeing craziness, he saw people outside playing and washing their Lexuses,” recalls Byers. “He told me that he had driven by a house for sale. I thought he was out of his mind. I thought he had to be joking.”
After looking at houses in Takoma Park, Silver Spring, and Arlington, Byers and his partner settled on the house in Hillcrest. “We couldn’t find anyplace that matched the friendliness and the price,” says Byers. “Nothing else made any sense.”
The final stop on the tour is Byers’ own housea ’20s bungalow with a Le Baron parked out front and a pool in the back. Byers introduces his house with the perfunctory mix of pride and self-deprecating humor. “I don’t have a green thumb,” Byers tells the group. “I have a gangrene thumb.”
Byers invites everyone into the back yard for a barbecue. There are hot dogs, baked beans, couscous salad, and cold drinks. It’s the quintessential summer scene and it could be happening in almost any desirable neighborhood in the D.C. areaChevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Spring Valley, McLean, Hillcrest. It could be anywhere. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.