Written by Carl Lankowski (November 2013)
Editor’s note: With this contribution, HCCDC launches an effort to capture the texture, topography, demographics, institutions, everyday and notable events, rhythm of the community and the issues that animate Chevy Chase as it materializes in the actions and perceptions of our neighbors. In so doing, we are complementing the oral history project we launched in early 2011 with a round of interviews aimed at reconstituting the neighborhood from the 1920s to the 1950s. In that case, the aim is to reconstruct the past from memory. In this case, it is about reflecting the present or just-past. Making use of the archival potential of digitized records, we hope we are contributing a record that will be useful to historians in generations to come.
Snowmaggedon—February 2010, one of the biggest snows over the course of a century—did not particularly distinguish Chevy Chase DC from the surrounding region, but that is the week we moved to McKinley Street from our previous home in Friendship Heights DC. This residential upgrade was a counter-intuitive move in light of our recent graduation to the status of empty-nesters. In fact, the upgrade—with greater and more genial space, a nice garden, a deck—was designed in part to attract our adult children back with families they would presumably acquire in the coming years. In between these visits we hoped to embrace a life more involved in the community than before (if that were possible for parents of a Deal and Wilson student). We expected to make an important life transition.
We already knew something of Chevy Chase DC—at least around the Connecticut Avenue artery—since we made frequent visits, sometimes on foot, from Friendship Heights to the Avalon Theater, Potomac Video, and Politics & Prose Bookstore. Indeed, I had lived for a year on Quesada Street in the early 1990s, when I was on the faculty of American University and was still a jogger. My route ran down Utah into Rock Creek Park.
Quickly we learned that we had landed in a logistical sweet spot. All the E Metro buses stop across the street from our house. The Community Center and library are five minutes by foot; Politics & Prose is a 13 minute walk; and the Broad Branch Market is literally around the corner. Not to speak of the Lafayette tennis courts. The new location did add two miles to my 18 mile round trip to and from work, which I sometimes walk.
The house itself is a gem: a “kit house” from the Lewis Manufacturing Company of Bay City, Michigan—the Chevy Chase model shown in Lewis’ 1920 catalogue. A classic bungalow, it was built in 1919 on land subdivided from a large estate. Street legend has it that the four Lewis homes constructed on McKinley Street behind the “farm house” (which faces Nevada Avenue) were designed to advertise what LMC had on offer. Ours had three owners in the 90 years since it had been built before we moved in. It has been structurally modified only slightly and so projects an authentic sense of the style’s arts and crafts origins. Parts were pre-cut and shipped by rail, then assembled locally by the owner or a builder. Local components included the granite blocks used for the foundation and chimney, which came from a quarry possibly in Cleveland Park or Kensington. Those blocks are ubiquitous in area homes.
Speaking of blocks, my wife’s role as neighborhood watch block captain on McKinley Street conveyed with the property acquisition. The previous owner, a designer-architect, had been the block captain and we had just received the training for the program in our other neighborhood. So, it was natural that she assumed the responsibility. It was a smart move on our part, since it forced us to ring our neighbors’ doorbells within the first two months after the move. We learned something important about the character of the place that way: if there is a mechanism for meeting the neighbors, you will find them very welcoming. Otherwise, they will be discreet in approaching you. We also learned early on about the life-paths of those most proximate to us—a resident since ’67 from across the street sold up and moved to the west coast to be near his son after his brother and co-tenant passed away. The process was bittersweet, as neighbors came together to mourn and subsequently to party once the property had been sold. Another welcome party was arranged for the new neighbors—also a local move of new empty-nesters. Another neighbor suffered a stroke, communication made the rounds about that and meals were coordinated for the family. The District of Columbia is famously a city of transients, thanks to its role in national and international relations, but Chevy Chase effortlessly mixes continuity and change. Through HCCDC’s oral history project, we have learned that many residents can trace their Washington roots back two generations or more.
We also learned that neighbors are differentially gregarious. We have connected with three block neighbors with whom we occasionally have dinner—or at least drinks on the deck or front porch. And then the conversation is about the €urozone, China, the DC school system, experiences with development aid agencies, or trading notes on gardeners-landscapers, plumbers, or other service providers. Sometimes these rendezvous are quite spontaneous. We call on each other in small but meaningful ways—keeping an eye on the house when the neighbor is away, collecting the newspapers or mail.
History is to be found embodied in most of the neighbors we have met. There is our Ukrainian neighbor who after experiencing alternating German and Soviet occupations, had a split-second decision to make that allowed her to survive and later prosper. ChCh is expatriate rich. Until recently, the Swiss embassy counselor for science and technology lived two doors down with his family. The Washington bureau chief of a mass circulation Berlin newspaper lives a couple of blocks away with his Polish wife. A Danish journalist also lives close by. Many older neighbors have immigrant backgrounds and are connected with major doings in DC. One neighbor is an internationally regarded astronomer whose work on angular momentum of galaxies provided the basis for “dark matter” theories of the cosmos. The father of one of our ANC representatives is a descendant of the engineer who executed the trolley line plan for ChCh’s initial development. He came to DC in the 1930s as a New Deal intellectual who was married to a woman born in Berlin of an American mother and German father. There was a thriving German-Jewish community in DC in that same decade and their descendants also count among our neighbors.
Six months into our residence on McKinley Street we took the walking tour organized by Historic Chevy Chase DC. Chatting with HCCDC president, Chas Cadwell, after the event while sipping an iced coffee in the Avalon café, it became apparent that his second grade school teacher in Stratford, Connecticut and my mother were the same person. So, we signed up for HCCDC. We represented the “new blood” following a phase of retrenchment once the historic district movement, led by HCCDC, failed to carry the day in 2007. Who are we? Post-55 professionals interested in the community—an architect, a builder, a real estate agent, a think-tank guy, a journalist, and a few retirees from or late career employees in federal service or quasi federal service—State Department, Archives, National Academy of Engineering.
HCCDC has advanced community self-awareness. So, too, has the Chevy Chase Listserv, to which we are plugged in, especially for the safety announcements (wearing our block captain hats). But we also purchased a canvas by a Peruvian painter through it, were alerted to Chevy Chase Citizens Association meetings, found out about estate/yard sales in the neighborhood, and followed spikes associated with local elections, planning issues, and especially service providers, e.g., PEPCO response after power outages. The ChCh Listerv is more comprehensive than its Friendship Heights counterpart.
Carl Lankowski is an HCCDC board member, reachable at email@example.com.