Margery and Mel Elfin moved into their house on 30th Street in Forest Hills on May 23, 1984. The house was their second residence in DC. Like many in Washington, they were transplants, moving to DC from New York when Mel was offered a position as Newsweek’s bureau chief. They had hoped to find a house with a pool and a big garden because Mel often worked late on weekdays and Saturdays, and the family could rarely get away from the city on weekends. Instead of a house, however, the Elfins found a nice piece of land in Forest Hills. Even though they had never thought about building a house, they took a chance. They knew what they liked. While living in Boston, they had admired contemporary deck houses, which were being developed at MIT at the time. So they ordered a prefabricated custom-made home that arrived from Massachusetts on trucks. It took them over two years to build the house and the pool but, in the end, they got their dream home.
Dzenita: Was there another reason for your family to move into Forest Hills in addition to finding a nice lot to build your dream house? While talking to people about this area, some have mentioned that Forest Hills used to be referred to as “Hanukkah Heights.”
Mel: Yes, we knew what they were calling the neighborhood. It is because Jews, as well as blacks and other minorities, could not buy in other sections of the city.
Dzenita: So how was it that minorities were able to live in Forest Hills?my book about Forest Hills. After World War II, there was something called restrictive covenants (“a legal obligation imposed in a deed by the seller upon the buyer of real estate”), which allowed builders, developers and owners to refuse to sell to minorities.
I interviewed one man who grew up here. He said that when he returned from World War II he and his wife wanted to live in the district. They looked at the houses in Spring Valley on an open-house day. At one house, they saw a sign on a fireplace mantel that said: No Jews, no blacks (must have said Negros), no Filipinos. It was a listing of people they would not sell to. That was quite common at the time. Even after court rulings finding these covenants unconstitutional, they continued in effect.
The District of Columbia was geographically part of the south and very segregated. Its theaters and restaurants were segregated, its stores were segregated — department stores refused to hire blacks and even refused to permit them to enter and buy anything. However, Jewish merchants did not follow that policy of discrimination.
As for housing, one reason Jews could buy here is that unlike Spring Valley, where most of the homes were built by one builder who had a restrictive covenant policy, Forest Hills homes were built by individual builders. So in this neighborhood, which is one of the delights of living here, the houses are very different. This is also a very desirable and convenient neighborhood and, once blacks and Jews found they could live here, they started to move in…
Dzenita: It seems that journalists and authors liked to live in this neighborhood, too?
Marge: Yes, because they did not like to live in segregated neighborhoods. Forest Hills was known as an open community that did not discriminate, and some well-known civil rights activists also lived here.
Dzenita: In fact, I live in the house of Izzy Stone, a radical journalist, who died in the ‘80s.
Mel: He was one of the heroes of my youth…
Marge: We used to see him walk in the neighborhood.
Dzenita: It has been about 30 years now since you moved here. Do you have a feeling that the people in the neighborhood were more connected then?
Marge: I do not have the answer to that. I think it depends on where you are in your own life. When you are very busy with children and with work you are not coming and going as you might be later on in life. I also think that having dogs really integrates people into the neighborhood. Unhappily, what organized us most recently into a community was a very negative cause– keeping a school out of the neighborhood.Dzenita: You are talking about the Owl’s Nest house and the Jewish Primary Day School controversy. (The Owl’s Nest home, located in Forest Hills, was built in 1897 by prominent DC architect, Appleton P. Clark, Jr.) Tell me about it.
Mel: The Jewish Primary Day School bought the land where the Owl’s Nest sits in 2001, but did not complete the deal because the property was not zoned for a school. They were going to tear down the old house and put in a school– two buildings for their three hundred students… and the children would use the Forest Hills playground (they did not have any athletic field).
Marge: They did not have school buses so they would have had to transport kids and faculty to school with hundreds of cars every day, clogging that narrow Gates Road. And they planned to tear down the most historic house in the neighborhood. So people started getting together – it is always easier to organize negatively than positively – and this was responsible for the emergence of Forest Hills Neighborhood Alliance.
Happily, that was a very strong bonding experience. We met some very good friends in that cause and got more interested in the neighborhood– not just as a nice place to live but as a nice place to connect with people.
Mel: Essentially the spirit of Forest Hills as a neighborhood rose from something negative.
If only we could have a piazza
Dzenita: Are there any other controversies or events that have influenced the neighborhood in some important way?
Mel: The neighborhood has changed in four positive ways: the opening of Metro, the arrival of UDC, the changed face of Connecticut Avenue with new stores and restaurants and of course, the valuable addition of Politics and Prose. It has made us a destination and has become a national institution. People ask: “Where is Politics and Prose?“ Oh, it is in the Washington, DC, area called Forest Hills. The bookstore has helped to promote the neighborhood even though it started as a very small thing.
Marge: The playground was another unifying factor for the neighborhood. The children of the original playground are now graduate students, and the playground has since been reconfigured and redesigned.
Mel: The ball field near the playground was going to be professionalized and, again, the neighborhood fought back. I think we were very lucky that the city ran out of money and eventually gave up.
Dzenita: Are there any things from when you first arrived in the neighborhood that do not exist anymore and that you miss nowadays?Marge: I am sorry to see how many small businesses have closed. There used to be something called the China Closet and a few other nice stores to shop in. When you go way back, our neighborhood had a skating rink, a bowling alley and a drugstore where you could sit down and have a milkshake.
Mel: When we moved here, at the corner of Albemarle and Connecticut, there were branches of fashionable New York stores. One of the reasons those fashionable women’s stores were there was to cater to the widows of World War II officers.
Dzenita: What about the way people socialize, organize parties, etc.
Marge: I think what we really miss is not having a physical community center. It would be ideal if we did. As you know, in European cities, particularly in Mediterranean climates, life is centered around a piazza with outdoor cafes and walks. Forest Hills is a nice neighborhood and you appreciate it but there is no center. In Chevy Chase DC, there is a recreation center and the library. In Cleveland Park, there is also a library and the Cleveland Park Club. We do not have anything like that.
Dzenita: If somebody asked you today if you would recommend Forest Hills as a place for families, what would you say?
Mel: It is a wonderful neighborhood! I’ve lived in a lot of places and different economic levels but, as I look out the window and see the houses down the street, I think… it is quiet… Having grown up in New York I appreciate that quiet.
Marge: Forest Hills does not seem ghettoized by age. It is not a retirement community; there are a lot of older people, but it is mixed by age. It is upper-middle class, but it is not like Potomac: it is not super-affluent, it is not filled with mansions. What I am really happy about is that more people in the neighborhood are using the (public) elementary school, which is unifying. In the Forest Hills Connection, there is a piece on boundaries that shows that now there are far more in-boundary students in Murch Elementary School than in the past. That continues to a lesser degree with the middle school and the high school, because that is going to take some time.
15 minutes from history
Dzenita: If you had guests who wanted to learn about the history of the neighborhood, what are the most interesting things or historic places you would tell them about or take them to?Marge: Maybe the place would be Rock Creek Park. We have taken guests for walks through Soapstone Valley, and they cannot believe that they are in the middle of the city.
Mel: Every time I take the dog through the Soapstone Valley, I remember that, after the American Civil War, this was where the Grand Army of the Republic had their encampments. There is no plaque, but when I read about this I was absolutely astonished. So when I walk with the dog through Rock Creek Park, I feel history, I feel a connection to the Civil War.
The nine acres or so that belongs to the Peruvian embassy is another historic place. It was the site of the Battery Terrill, a fort used to defend Washington during the Civil War. In the Civil War, the North put forts on the boundaries and dozens and dozens of them were in Forest Hills. There are other stories about Union officers who quartered their horses near the Methodist home, and they used to ride down what is now Connecticut Avenue. That is history. We also had a president who lived here in an apartment house, the Truman house.
Dzenita: Is there anything that you would like to add at the end?
Marge: This is a very good neighborhood. Our children live in suburbs, one in a Maryland suburb and one in a Virginia suburb, and they do not have sidewalks. They have to drive if they want to buy something. If there is a snowstorm, we can still walk to get what we need. We can actually survive better because we are not totally car-dependent.
Mel: We have to remember that in the age of the Metro and the car so much of this country’s history is 15 minutes from here–and you keep discovering things. For instance, we went to the celebration of the battle of Fort Stevens (located at 13th and Quackenbos streets NW), where the Confederates attempted an assault on Union forces and the White House in July 1864. The Battle of Fort Stevens was won by the Union and, if this city had not rallied, we might be two countries today. While the battle was not in Forest Hills, it is certainly part of the city that I love.
Denise Warner says
This tribute to the Elfin’s is marvelous. Thanks for writing!
sandi stewart says
I am buying the book!
Caroline James says
What a wonderful and informative interview!
Mary Beth Ray says
Dzanita and Marlene– Thanks for this informative interview. I learned so much.
Mr. and Mrs. Elfin– Thanks for your years of dedication to Forest Hills. We are so fortunate to have you as neighbors! I hope the next generations will continue to build on our already fascinating history, and that we will continue to grow in our sense of community.