Tom Quinn has lived in Friendship Heights for a little less than six years. Ask him where people from his community go—to gather, to socialize, to commune, if you will—and he has no idea.
“Where do people go? That’s a good question,” he says, utterly bemused. “I’m not sure. I’m not really sure what the answer is.”
You can explore Subarubia—an amalgam of American University Park, Tenleytown, and Friendship Heights—for days at a time, by foot, by train, or by Subaru Outback, and not find the center of the place. Live there for six years, and you still may never find it. Many have resigned themselves to the fact that such a center does not exist. Because of this, Subarubia’s residents are a people at odds: with themselves, their neighbors, their traffic, their commerce, their history, their destiny. Asked outright, folks in Subarubia find it strikingly difficult to describe their hood:
“That’s a tough thing for me to answer. It’s weird…up here, I’m not sure what the neighborhood vibe is.”
“I guess it’s ‘inner suburban.’”
“I say this to everybody: It’s just a really nice neighborhood.”
“Oh, no, no, no, I don’t live here.”
Most everyone does say that Subarubia’s parks are the place’s lifeblood—from a morning stroll around 41st and Livingston, to a grueling week of baseball camp at Turtle Park. At 409 feet above sea level, Subarubia even boasts the highest point in the District. During the Civil War, this crest became Fort Reno, a strategic hot spot for defending the capital against the Confederates; later it became a community for freed slaves; now Fort Reno Park is the closest thing this hood has to an atrium, replete with dogs, children, an impressive free summer music series, and relatively harmless levels of arsenic.
But since the Civil War, Subarubians have had to redirect their fighting spirit; consequently, the neighborhood has no dearth of alliances, brigades, or coalitions in support or defiance of various and sundry causes.
“We’ll fight anything that we don’t like,” says Candice Lyons, a Tenleytown resident for 11 years.
Take, for example, the Stop the Tower Coalition, which fought fiercely for six years against the construction of an HDTV broadcast tower on 41st Street and was eventually successful in convincing the District to tear down the partially completed eyesore. It turns out the city’s highest elevation doesn’t attract only intrepid view-seekers and Union army lookouts, but also communications gurus—hence the enclave of signal towers known as “Broadcast Hill.”
Or how about one of Lyons’ own causes célèbres from six years ago, in which she and a group of sleep-deprived neighbors rallied triumphantly against late-night hours at Round Table Restaurant, whose raucous clients were routinely spoiling an entire block’s slumber. To celebrate the victory, Lyons hosted a party—presumably a very quiet party—now an annual tradition deemed the “Ellicott Street Potluck.” Within a few years, soaring rent forced Round Table and its truncated hours out of business.
Two hundred years ago, the Round Table’s fate would’ve been considered blasphemous. D.C.’s second-oldest neighborhood, Tenleytown was originally Tennallytown, as in John Tennally, the keeper of this early community’s central hub: not a church, or a schoolhouse, or even a bucolic park, but rather a widely known bar and inn called John Tennally’s Tavern.
A prime stop on the road from Washington to Frederick, Tennallytown was born as a place to travel through, not to. That transient element remains in the form of Montgomery County commuters, but it is countered by the overwhelming development of Wisconsin Avenue. Today, the visitor to Tenleytown finds a commercial corridor stocked with destination retail and the skeletons of new buildings that will soon showcase more of the same. As a result, low-density neighborhoods sit just blocks away from a high-density thoroughfare.
“We’re almost literally drowning in cars,” says Quinn, a harsh critic of Wisconsin Avenue and a member of the smart growth advocacy group Ward 3 Vision. Quinn and his cohorts bemoan the lack of neighborhood-serving retail and a pedestrian-friendly main strip, which Quinn says is a detriment to the community’s identity and economy.
To be fair, Subarubia does have some noteworthy independent businesses. There’s an outpost of the local Booeymonger restaurant chain, where Lyons and her husband enjoyed Friday night dates, and whose staff always remembered their names. Rodman’s, the eclectic and exotic drugstore-of-all-trades, is another. And then there’s neighborhood institution Camillo’s, the little barbershop where Ezra Marcus, a Cleveland Park native, gradually realized that every male he knows gets his haircut.
Still, Quinn maintains that he and his family spend a disproportionate amount of their time and money in other parts of the city or in Montgomery County.
“Restaurants that seat under 80 people are few and far between in my neighborhood, but there are eight places to buy a suit,” says Quinn, whose last memorable purchase in Subarubia was a pair of shorts at Lord & Taylor several years ago. “You’re more likely to run into neighbors in other areas than you are in the community.”
• One of the most persistent debates in Subarubia is over development, especially close to the Metro. Take the Tenley-Friendship Neighborhood Library, which was demolished in October 2007 so that it could be rebuilt on its prime Metro-proximate lot at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street. One faction wants the reconstruction to be mixed-use, with retail and residential spaces integrated into the library building. Others contend that this would seriously undermine the sanctity of the library. And then there’s a third type of people, who, while everyone else rants and raves, curl up with Jane Austen books they borrowed from the interim library a few storefronts down the road.
• In the early days (that is, the turn of the 19th century), the civic life of this nascent community centered on John Tennally’s Tavern, one of the first true local haunts in D.C. If you were hankering for the vaguely delicious-sounding “Hott diet,” you swung by Tennally’s. If your servant ran away, you asked around at Tennally’s. If you misplaced your precious surtout coat with the yellow buttons on the breast, you advertised a $2 reward in the Times and Patowmac Packet to whomever returned it…to Tennally’s. Indeed, this was Tennallytown.
• The summer music series at Fort Reno is one of Subarubia’s most highly anticipated traditions. Folks have been jamming in Fort Reno since the Civil War. Back then, a regiment called the Rhode Island Volunteers was stationed at the fort, which they gradually shared with more and more freed blacks. Both groups would dance and play music. In addition to their “manly voices,” the soldiers got down with two violins, a guitar, banjo, and tambourine, not to mention a triangle and bones. There are also accounts of the freemen doing their thing, be it on the fiddle, singing a cappella, or doing the “double shuffle” at a good-old-fashioned hoedown.