Friday, June 1, 2012

A Dispatch From the MoCo Hinterlands

Over the last nine months or so since Mrs. 14thandyou and I packed up our belongings and decamped from one of the nation's top neighborhoods for childless adults to, as WCP scribe Alex Baca once tweeted "some place called North Bethesda," we've been getting the occasional email and comment asking us what life has been like for us in the land of the strip mall: Have we forgotten how to walk? What does a front lawn look like? And are we suffering from a lack of small plate restaurants serving modern adaptations of casual comfort food?

To that last question, the answer is yes. Sadly, small plates haven't so much found their way up to this section of Rockville Pike that, given the number of names people have given it (North Bethesda, South Rockville, White Flint, That Place With the Mall Where They Drive the Choo-Choo Train Around), seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. But to other questions regarding our general well-being, I'm pleased to report that we're getting along quite well.

First, it should be noted that, despite the tremendous differences in character between the Logan/U Street area and our current neighborhood, many aspects of our lives really haven't changed all that drastically. We're a 10 minute walk from the White Flint Metro station--a place within walking distance to a Metro station being my primary requirement when we moved--so although my commute to my Dupont Circle employer is (considerably) longer, it remains car-free and mostly predictable. We're also well-served by several bus lines just steps from our front door, which gives me a somewhat lazy alternative to schlepping across the strip mall parking lot and gravel-strewn sidewalks of Rockville Pike.

Mrs. 14thandyou still drives to her place of employment (transit not being an option for her), although her commute time has plummeted by about 2/3 of what it was before. We also have considerably more space than we could have afforded in any neighborhoods in DC that wouldn't have made the daily commute a living hell for Mrs. 14thandyou, making our day-to-day lives more enjoyable. Our third floor deck that overlooks a nicely landscaped courtyard is also a pleasant place to enjoy a beer and hang out with the cat. And although our home is adjacent to one of the region's busiest thoroughfares and commercial corridors, it is a remarkably quiet place, which is something we have increasingly come to appreciate.

Food and entertainment is a mixed-bag. The nightlife, it must be said, is wholly inadequate, but whether replacing the likes of Masa 14, Estadio and Bar Bilar with Joe's Noodles, Yekta Kabobi and Ambrosia Greek Diner is an overall step down is certainly up for debate. There is something to be said for an abundance of cheap, casual, flavorful ethnic restaurants, which our new neighborhood has in droves. We have not one, but two Jewish bagelrys within a short walk of our home--something that, at least according to most PoP commenters, many in central DC would sell their firstborn (or, as it were, their first dog) for. Tucked away in seemingly every forlorn-looking strip mall is a market, restaurant or store that merits attention. Nine months in, and we still haven't come close to trying all of the new places up here. And it is nice to be able to drop $20 on a meal, rather than simply on your appetizer or first round of drinks. Still, on that occasion when we're looking for a place to sit back and sip a couple of pints, it's basically Matchbox, Gilly's or Ruby Tuesday's for us. Admittedly not the most exciting options. (There is also the notorious Dietl's, which satisfies my occasional urge to drink watery canned beer.)

As to our physical environment, there's no question that we traded aesthetic beauty and urban vitality for a neighborhood that has substantially less of both. Gone are the stunning, ornamented Victorians of Logan and Dupont, replaced by architecturally bland and uninspired apartments, townhomes and shopping centers that represent the architectural dark ages of the 60s-80s. The streets have little life or energy, storefronts are set back hundreds of feet from the sidewalks and roadways, and to state that the car remains king here would so obvious an observation so as to not warrant a mention. Indeed, some of the pedestrian infrastructure is so poorly designed that it can only be described as either tremendously ill-planned or downright hostile.

As but one example, consider the case of the parking lot located at Montrose and Rockville Pike, which was (ostensibly) built to encourage individuals to park their vehicles and walk to the Metro or nearby businesses. Except, there is no sidewalk or other pedestrian access that connects the parking lot to the sidewalk on Rockville Pike. Pedestrians, myself included, have instead created a so-called "desire path" (pictured below) where a sidewalk should be. This makes no sense, and the neighborhood is littered with these poorly thought-out examples of pedestrian hosility.

And despite Capital Bikeshare's plans to expand the system into Montgomery County, a ride along Rockville Pike is such a harrowing and frightful thought that I can't envision myself doing it, in spite of years spent biking throughout central DC. Helmet or no, it strikes me as particularly unpleasant for a number of reasons. More on that will likely come in a future post.

And yet, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that an environment that appears on its face to be quite sterile still has its charms. The nearby Montrose Parkway, with its wide jogging and biking path that leads into Tilden Stream Park is quite enjoyable, as are a number of MoCo's fantastic nearby parks. And as pedestrian unfriendly as the neighborhood may appear, our walkscore of 82 and abundance of nearby businesses does make the neighborhood more approachable on foot than many more "typical" suburban enclaves.

So, what to make of all this? It would be untrue for me to state that there aren't things I enjoy about our new neigborhood--indeed, that there aren't things I enjoy *more* about our new neighborhood than the one we lived in before. I touched on several of them above. And Mrs. 14thandyou and I have established some patterns and rituals that we've come to greatly enjoy. Spend a Saturday morning with us sipping coffee and eating freshly baked scones while wandering Kensington's antique market and you'd get part of the picture.

But the thing I miss the most about living where we did before is the loss of a sense of community. Dense, people-packed neighborhoods, through various means, encourage--and in some ways force--one to interact with ones neighbors. Whether through my writings on this blog, meeting with local business owners, running into familiar people on the street and in local parks, or sitting in on the local ANC meeting, the fact is that I got to know a lot of people while living in DC. Many I consider friends, and even those who are merely acquaintences helped me to establish a connection with my old neighborhood that I have found to establish in my new one.

For all of the talk of DC being a rather unfriendly place where everyone is career-driven, I found the opposite story to be true. It's not that people hin our new neighborhood are unfriendly--it's that we simply don't interact with each other. There is a noticeably different mindset and approach to living in a suburban neighborhood--even one that is relatively dense (and about to become much denser) by suburban standards--than living in a Logan Circle, Shaw, Columbia Heights or any one of DC's numerous hoods. It's true that we haven't found ourselves engaging in local politics and community affairs nearly to the extent that we did while living in DC. Part of that is time demands, but part of that is a lack thus far is establishing a real connection or sense of ownership of where we live to help us get to the point where we want to participate in such things. I had that when we lived in Logan; I haven't yet found it here.

Perhaps we will get there, and a year from now I will feel differently and will be running for a seat on the Western Montgomery Council Citizen's Advisory Board. And when people ask me how two ex-urbanites are getting along up in the MoCo hinterlands, the answer is: we're doing fine, but there are certainly things we miss. The bars, nightclubs, restaurants, galleries, parks and other physical attributes are lacking but in many ways replaced; however, the human and emotional connection we had with our previous home hasn't been. And perhaps that is the true loss of suburban living.