If someone asks you where Wisconsin and Nebraska meet, don’t say Iowa! No, they’re talking about Tenleytown. Replete with loitering high school students and chains like Popeye’s, Best Buy, and Chipotle, Tenleytown is essentially a suburban strip mall. The difference? Far less parking. So take the Metro up there. A free shuttle will escort you away from Tenleytown’s retail trappings and bring you to the neighborhoods of Upper Northwest Washington, a gorgeous, monied enclave with exceptional parks and its fair share of intrigue.
After alighting at the Tenleytown Metro stop and scaling one of America’s largest escalators, you’ll emerge amid a Panera, a Starbucks, a Whole Foods, and a Container Store. But you’re not here to shop. You’re here to catch a free American University shuttle to Spring Valley.
The American University shuttle
Hop aboard the free American University shuttle by the Metro exit, down by the bike racks. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a hoard of average-looking young Americans, backpacks to the wind. Technically the free shuttle is only for American students and faculty, but they never card. If anyone gives you a hard time, just tell em you’re a prospective grad student and The American seas will part for your arrival.
There’s much to hear and see on the four to six minute ride along Nebraska Avenue. Be sure to eavesdrop on the bucolic college chatter around you. The American spirit is a hopeful one, ready to change the world, but comically ignorant of how that world functions. Take in talk of internships and reflect on how old you’ve become, how youth is wasted on the young, and other wistful cliches. But don’t get too lost in thought. You’ll want to look to your left: behind a fence, some outbuildings, and a parking lot, you can almost make out the Department of Homeland Security. Next up on the left is the National Broadcasting Corporation, where your favorite political media stars like Chris Matthews and Chuck Todd earn their millions.
Oh, but don’t forget to look to your right! You don’t want to miss the fence and manicured shrub that obstructs most of your view of the Japanese Ambassador’s Residence. This is the American University experience in a nutshell: close proximity to power and influence without access, save the occasional glance. And you didn’t even have to spend $200K!
The shuttle will drop you on the southern tip of The American University, a fully accredited institution with the power to confer degrees. And boy do they exercise that power! Beyond the parking lot and down a hill, you can make out a picturesque track and field. If you’re lucky, a practice will be in action. You could stop and watch (how long has it been since you’ve seen any field hockey?), but you won’t. You’re not in Upper Northwest Washington to spend time at The American University.
Walk off University property and hang a right on Rockwood Parkway. To your left is a thin line of bamboo where American underclassmen come to smoke pot every night, a lazy choice considering the lack of cover and the presence of large parks within a few blocks.
At the bottom of Rockwood, on your right, is the picturesque mansion residence of the South Korean ambassador. Just a few houses down, on Glenbrook Road, is The American University president’s residence, but that’s not why this block and this neighborhood is so infamous. During World War I, our military used the land surrounding then-rural The American University to test chemical weapons like mustard gas. When the war ended, soldiers and scientists simply buried the stuff in unmarked pits; we’re talking thousands of munitions and drums of poison and even a few live bombs. The toxic testing site was named Death Valley, later renamed Spring Valley by a euphemistic developer. To date, the Army has spent about $200 million excavating and cleaning the area, now one of Washington’s wealthiest. That’s enough dough to put almost 1,000 students through The American University! So gawk at a few mansions and then be on your way; you don’t want to get contaminated.
Taking a left on Indian Lane, you’ll re-emerge on Nebraska Avenue, cross the street, and walk down Chain Bridge Road. Here, abutting beautiful Battery Kembal Park, you’ll see a slew of modern homes worth at least three or four mil. Sloping Chain Bridge Road is even more exclusive than Spring Valley, complete with its own historical controversies. Whereas the ritzy rue is presently home to white millionaires, it was once occupied by freed slaves after the Civil War. The Chain Bridge Road School–a historic landmark where freedman’s children learned to read–still stands vacant. The adjoining mansions look all the more stately by contrast with the simple schoolhouse.
A decade ago, one of Washington’s biggest developers bought land along Chain Bridge and tried to have the schoolhouse demolished and replaced by ever-larger homes. Those already living in large homes on Chain Bridge were outraged and a high-profile battle for the street ensued. The residents prevailed.
Among those residents were Washington power couple Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell. Within the the walls of their house sits a seminal bathtub. Greenspan, who served as Federal Reserve Chairman for six terms, famously preferred to work in his tub. It was likely here, half-submerged in soapy water on Chain Bridge road, where Greenspan read his beloved Rand and set America’s economic policies for two decades. Policies, it must be added, such as strict opposition to derivatives regulations and gleeful support of exotic mortgages in the mid-2000s. Greenspan loves his bubbles, housing and bath alike. Amazing isn’t it, that an anonymous citizen like yourself can just walk up to the front door of the man most responsible for the 2008 global economic collapse? What a country!
Once a Union Army defensive fortification, sprawling Battery Kemble Park now serves as a giant neighborhood dog park; Ted Kennedy used to let his Portuguese water dogs poop here. Enter the park from Chain Bridge road and take in the sloping hills, ideal for sledding in the wintertime. Don’t hesitate to pet a few pups on your way into the forested trail section of the park, which winds down towards MacArthur Boulevard alongside Maddox Branch, a picturesque stream that empties into the Potomac.
Walking the trail straight through takes about thirty minutes, but you’re in no hurry. Break from the path and let your inner child out to play in the woods; hop across the stream stone by stone, or cross on a felled tree. Pick up sticks, throw some skippers, get your knees dirty. Inured, black and grey squirrels will make little effort to get out of your way. Try not to step on them. You’ll also see frogs, garter snakes, and a majestic assemblage of songbirds in the canopy above. You’ll delight at big dogs jumping into the stream after tennis balls and chat with their friendly middle-aged owners, who are more than happy to let you pet their pride and joy. Before long, you’ll forget you’re in Washington at all. Until you realize how hungry you are.
Reaching trail’s end, you’ll emerge on MacArthur Boulevard and walk two blocks to the right, where a bevy of restaurants are found. Don’t pick the Belgian bistro on the right, Sur La Place. It’s just okay. Pick the Belgian bistro on the left, Et Voila! Chef Claudio Pirollo wasn’t named “Best Young Chef in Belgium, 1994” for nothing; sorry St. Arnold’s, but Et Voila!’s steamed mussels are the best in Washington, and the Flemish beef stew is a delight. With a tall glass of Belgian ale and a reasonable tip, you’ll spend about $36.
And that’ll conclude your trip to the suburbs, without ever leaving the city. You can figure out how to get back to civilization on your own.