George Idelson, now in his 90s, has lived in Washington since 1950 and in Cleveland Park since 1967. He has a long history of leadership in community organizations, particularly on preservation issues. In this oral history conducted in November 2017 by CPHS board member Abigail Porter, George reflects on what’s changed and what hasn’t over fifty years in Cleveland Park.
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AP: When did you buy your house?
GI: We bought our house in 1967. The owner had worked for a Congressman who had been defeated. But why here, why did we move here? We were at that time living in the Foxhall-Reservoir area, very close to the river and very much in the flight path of National Airport. My wife is particularly sensitive to noise and it became a matter of some concern to do something about it. Well, we did try to do something about it, to help organize an activist group called the Committee Against National. And we had some successes. But you don’t readily change the flight path of the airplanes, not with Congressmen flying home on weekends. We finally decided that we had to move.
AP: Had you seen a house that you liked?
GI: No, but I would have liked to have built one. My idea was to find a house with an empty lot, move in temporarily, get away from the airplanes, and build a modern, no-maintenance house. Cleveland Park was particularly appealing because it really wasn’t on the flight path, and close to our jobs downtown. And we loved the feeling of living in a village in the city. We never did find such a lot. Houses were very hard to come by in Cleveland Park at the time. You didn’t see signs out front that said “For Sale.” If you moved into Cleveland Park, it was usually because somebody told you about it. And indeed we were wandering around in the neighborhood and struck up a conversation with somebody across the street who was out tending his garden. We told him we were looking and he said, “Well that house across the street is going to go up for sale. But they haven’t given it to the agent yet. And you know if you buy it now you might get it a little bit cheaper.” So we did. We walked up the stairs. To me it seemed very Victorian looking, and certainly not the modern no-maintenance house I had in mind. Big, probably bigger than I imagined we would want. But we bought it.
AP: Do you remember what you paid for it?
GI: Yeah, sixty-six thousand, and later thought maybe we’d offered too high a price. I don’t feel that way today (laughs) but… and we’ve come to love it. I don’t really think of it as Victorian any more. Queen Anne is probably a better description. Many people see it as one of the prettiest houses in Cleveland Park. That’s helped by my wife’s ideas about how it should be painted and cared for, and her garden that she tends so arduously. It does have a lot of steps, but we decided that if we age in place in Cleveland Park those steps would either make or break us. I’m not sure which it’ll turn out to be but we’re certainly aging in place at the moment.
AP: And can you think back and describe what your neighborhood was like when you moved here? Has it changed much?
GI: Well, I’ve always thought of Cleveland Park as sort of an intellectual neighborhood, certainly a liberal neighborhood. And in those days people took care of their own gardens and they cut their own grass — things like that. Now they hire people to do that. Evelyn is still the gardener, but we are older now and we need help. So that’s that’s a big difference. People who move in today are moving into a much more expensive neighborhood. You know a lot of us old timers say we couldn’t afford to move into this neighborhood now.
GI: But Cleveland Park hasn’t changed all that much. Many of the things that made it attractive and appealing still make it attractive and appealing. And part of that is because in 1986 we became an historic district, which was a way to protect its historicity and to give us a voice in the kind of development that could take place here. Even so, we’ve had our share of development controversies. It helps to have lawyers.
AP: How did you get into advocacy?
GI: It actually started at a CPCA meeting. Pete MacDonald got up and said there would be a protest on Capitol Hill against the design of the proposed World War II Memorial. This was around the year 2000. I am a World War II veteran – fought in the Battle of the Bulge – and thought that the design and location were wrong. When I got there, the media picked up on my remarks and I had my fifteen minutes of fame on national and local media. The woman who organized the protest was Judy Scott Feldman, an art historian with a special interest in the National Mall. Judy started up an advocacy group called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall (now the National Mall Coalition) and invited me to join. I have been an active board member ever since.
AP: What wasn’t right about it?
GI: Well it was in the wrong place and the wrong design. It was to be on the on pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial and looked like it belonged in Arlington Cemetery. Compared to the Vietnam Memorial it totally lacked emotional impact. Incidentally, my work on the Memorial drew the attention of Isabel Furlong, retiring president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association. I was asked to run for the office and the rest is history.
AP: So that’s when you took over as President?
GI: Yeah, and that’s when the Giant development issue was bubbling up. There was also another interesting development issue that was brewing at that time. A 13-acre property on Macomb Street west of Connecticut Avenue was owned by an Israeli developer who wanted to erect a hillside “village” of 100 to 200 homes. Macomb Street is barely passable now, and the thought of a huge new development really roused the community. The property, a woodland estate with trails and streams, had been owned by families going back to Alexander Graham Bell. The property was kind of a neighborhood treasure and a group called the “Friends of Tregaron” had been fighting to stop development there for years. Eventually their efforts succeeded, Tregaron was landmarked and the developer could no longer build on it. As part of a final deal, he donated some of the land for what is now a 13-acre Conservancy. I wasn’t particularly involved in this fight, but as President of the Citizens Association I was added to the Conservancy board. I am still on the board and now actively involved.
AP: What time period was that? 80s, 90s?
GI: I was president between 2002 and 2009. The Conservancy was formed in 2006. To restore the property, it has to raise money, and they are doing a great job. People need to be reminded that this beautiful property, with trails and gardens open to the public, could have been a hundred or more houses.
AP: Were you involved at all in the Rosedale issue?
GI: The Association supported the efforts to protect Rosedale, but I was not personally involved. But that’s another example of how neighbors fight to preserve a beautiful, historic property from overdevelopment. So, if you wondered what this would be like a hundred years from now, you might say, “Well, maybe not all that different.”
AP: So can you articulate–I think you have, but maybe more precisely–what it is you love about the neighborhood? Even going back to what brought you here?
GI: I just love the people. I love the quiet countrified look. It’s just different. I love the fact that it’s so close to downtown. That you can indeed walk to stores, the library and the post office. We live on a steep hill here on the top of Newark Street and it’s not so easy for me to do it, but my cardiologist says I should walk. So I use errands on Connecticut Avenue as an occasion to do that.
And we now have a farmers market on Saturdays, which is another reason to go down. We love our little shopping center, but it’s important that we patronize it if we want it to thrive.
AP: Did the coming of home rule change how you felt about being a resident here?
GI: Well I’m disappointed that we didn’t really get home rule and I remain so. It’s a bitter pill. Taxation without representation is what we really have. Many people who live in Washington did not grow up here and go back to where they came from to vote. I suppose someday it will change, but it’s been a tough battle. What do I love about Washington? I’m a political junkie and this is the place to be if you’re a political junkie. Although it’s not much fun these days.
AP: Do you have hope that may change or do you think we’re going to be in a long period of…?
GI: Well, you know I’m going to be 93 in February. I’ve seen a lot of changes and have learned to be a little more patient in my old age. We’ve been a lucky country. We’ve had oceans to protect us. We’ve had time on our side. We’re losing that. The oceans don’t matter anymore and time doesn’t matter anymore because climate change is upon us. So if you think about Washington 100 years from now, part of it may be under water.
Narrators and interviewers have granted copyright to The Cleveland Park Historical Society (CPHS), which makes the transcripts freely available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC BY 4.0).