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City Vs. Suburbs: A Gap Where The Sidewalk Ends

At least we agree on parks. We like them, and trees, too. We crave the respite they provide from the strains of everyday life. But that's about all we agree on.

Ask residents of the District and each of the Washington suburbs what they love about where they live and the responses are as different, and as similar, as a crowded city sidewalk and a lakeside path teeming with groundhogs, rabbits, geese and ospreys. No matter where folks live, they value gathering places, the public settings that define our larger sense of home. But our ideas about what kind of public places enrich life are very different.

Let's burst one expectation I know I had: The hundreds of passionate notes The Washington Post received when the Extra sections asked readers to write about why they relish their home towns mostly do not break down as another case of city vs. suburb. That's good news.

(Well, there's one aspect of life where the city-suburb divide does ring true: Readers in the suburbs wrote passionately about the quality of their local schools. Only one D.C. reader mentioned the topic.) Rather, each part of our region has its own personality, and that comes through powerfully in what you and your neighbors chose to write about.

Montgomery County readers repeatedly speak of the joyful clash of languages and cultures in a place of stark economic and social contrasts. High school student Stefani Schaper writes of people she has met from "Pakistan, Vietnam, Peru, India, the Philippines and many other countries" and how "it really opens your mind to the world."

Frankie Blackburn of Silver Spring talks about people who find ways to connect despite the too-fast pace of work, school and commuting: the neighbor who opens her home to others on the block, the guys who make certain their old Blair High friends get together regularly, the immigrant women who organize potluck dinners in their apartment complexes.

On the other side of the invisible line that divides Montgomery from Prince George's County, the submissions have a different emphasis entirely. Here, social connections seem more intimate, more insular. Many people write about small hangouts, the neighborhood eateries where you see the same neighbors all the time, the crab feast in Greenbelt where the DJ teaches line dances, the farmers market in Cheverly where kids meet llamas, the ice cream place in Brandywine that unites the generations. Here, unlike other parts of the region, readers write in praise of their churches, of pastors who connect with their flocks and members who reach out to those in need.

In both Maryland counties, much is made of the swim leagues, PTAs, community baseball, and cultural and library programs that link people who might otherwise never meet.

Across the river in Fairfax County, it's nature that stands out, a palpable passion for river access, hiking trails and wildlife preserves laced throughout a place better known for congestion and development battles.

"No summertime grandchildren's sleepover is complete without a ride on the delightful Accotink Park merry-go-round," writes James Dolson of Springfield. Ruth Tatlock of Herndon loves her town's recreation center, Fourth of July celebration and the old rail station and its red caboose. David Gorsline of Reston is devoted to Huntley Meadows Park and its freshwater wetlands, where six species of turtles make their home.

But more than any other place, Fairfax draws expressions of ambivalence, a persistent undercurrent of discord as residents who came to love the place for its open spaces, easy pace and fine schools now find themselves snarled in traffic, crowded by development and struggling to afford housing.

"Rents are high and are pushing many of us out," writes Louise Werner-Rhoades of Lorton. Jean Dempsey says the things that attracted her to the area near George Mason University "have somehow mutated. Traffic is a nightmare. So many changes -- not many good ones." Readers plead for the extension of Metrorail through Tysons Corner and out to Dulles International Airport, and for road improvements. The shopping is splendid and the schools top-notch, they say, but it's hard to enjoy parks and other amenities if you're stuck in the car for hours on end.

"I do love the convenience and variety of life," writes Anne Sheerin, but "because we are all sitting in our cars, there is less and less feeling of community or human interaction, adding to the soulless nature of Northern Virginia."

Certainly the expectations for public services seem higher in Fairfax than in the District, where readers tend to love not what government provides, but a combination of urban bustle and private oases.

In the city, too, there's talk of trees and wildlife: Paula Day lies in bed in Anacostia at night and hears rabbits and squirrels rustling under oak, pine and maple trees, while Nancy Merritt on Capitol Hill cherishes the sailboats, houseboats and tour boats on the Potomac.

The District's museums, memorials and cemeteries inspire residents, but the most pride is attached to secret places: Margery Sher writes of the hidden garden behind the Old Stone House in Georgetown, Doris Brown of the catacombs at the Franciscan Monastery in Brookland, Deborah Hefferon of all-season escapes to the gardens at the Hillwood Museum.

D.C. residents focus on cultural events, dining and walking. When they mention the trip to work, it is only to boast. Peter Ehrenhaft writes of how the city let him "escape commuting and enjoy the rich local urban culture of theater, opera, museums, restaurants, lectures while living in the type of home Americans regard as most suitable for our family-oriented lifestyle."

In the end, there is a bit of a city-suburb split. Many suburban residents love where they live but labor to pry open hours in which they can take advantage of what they've worked so hard to be near. City residents lose out on amenities such as libraries and recreation programs, and on essentials such as strong schools, but gain something some find equally precious: time.

By Marc Fisher |  April 29, 2008; 7:25 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

No comments from anyone in Alexandria and Arlington?

Posted by: Anonymous | April 29, 2008 8:42 AM

What the comments indicate is diversity of housing options is a good thing. Young singles, newly married couples and empty nester seniors can take advantage of the attractions of dense urban living while families with children gravitate to the suburbs. Different strocks for different folks.

BTW, we need to be clear about what constitutes urban vs suburbs. Many areas inside the DC city boundaries are farther from downtown and less densly populated then Virginia suburbs such as Falls Church. Also, many "exurb" communities beyond the suburbs are really rapidly growing small towns with amenities such as small resteraunts, clubs, community theater etc more normally associated with DC neighborhoods. My townhouse in Woodbridge is within 1000 feet of a library, a rec center, a day care center, a veternaian and a small mall with 7 resteraunts, a fitness club, a grocery store and a CVS. Try finding a neighborhood that walkable in Arlington or Alexandria. Plus I am a 5 minute drive from every possible type of shopping outlet in Potomac Mills or the more funky shops in Ocaquan.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | April 29, 2008 9:23 AM

"My townhouse in Woodbridge is within 1000 feet of a library, a rec center, a day care center, a veternaian and a small mall with 7 resteraunts, a fitness club, a grocery store and a CVS. Try finding a neighborhood that walkable in Arlington or Alexandria."

I've got all that (minus the vet) plus an additional 30 or so restaurants within 4 blocks, a view of the Capitol, a bike path -and- even more importantly a metro stop.

I must admit that this is the first time I'm hearing someone refer to Woodbridge as walkable - but congratulations on your strip mall.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | April 29, 2008 10:59 AM

I wouldn't consider a community with a manufactured "town center" mall an actual urban community. It's still a mall.

Posted by: M Street | April 29, 2008 6:35 PM

I wouldn't consider a community with a manufactured "town center" mall an actual urban community. It's still a mall.

As compared to Pentagon City, Potomic Yards, Ballston Commons and the new development on Wilson Blvd? Hey, I lived in Arlington when you could still play putt putt in balston and snarf down burgers at White Castle. If the actual "urban communities" were so wonderful, why did the county work so hard to replace them?

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | April 30, 2008 10:33 AM

"the joyful clash of languages and cultures in a place of stark economic and social contrasts"

I loved my childhood in the rich areas of Silicon Valley in it's heyday. All of the clash of languages and cultures, but none of the stark economic and social contrasts (unless you count our maids). One of the things I miss most of the Bay Area was the clear delineation between the have's and the have-not's. At the end of the day, the poor people drove back to their squalor in the exurbs. I'll take Atherton, Los Altos Hills, or Saratoga to either Great Falls, McLean, or Chevy Chase any day of the week. With stupid requirements for affordable living (i.e. town-house sprawl), there is no place truly elite in this Metro area. The only thing you get from socializing with the unwashed masses is fleas.

Posted by: Leesburger | April 30, 2008 4:28 PM

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