July-August 2009

Best Place to Live

Is the Bethesda area the best place in the country to live?

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Fueled by the arrival of Discovery Communications Inc.’s world headquarters in 2003, the downtown scene continues to evolve, with more restaurants moving in along Georgia Avenue and plans in the works for Live Nation’s 2,000-seat music hall across from the AFI.

Mae Jones, who has lived in Silver Spring since 1992, says the redeveloped downtown has provided new opportunities for her family, including classes and camps at the Round House Theatre Education Center, and film festivals at the AFI. “I love the whole experience of Silver Spring,” says Jones, who walks from her home to the Silver Spring Metro station to get to work in Washington.

Who needs Broadway?

Why travel to New York—or even into Washington—when world-class drama, music and other arts and entertainment are available down the street? The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda and numerous live theater stages, including Round House Theatre, Imagination Stage and the Bethesda Theatre—are located within the Bethesda area.

The larger communities—Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring—each sponsor numerous events and festivals, including summer concerts and movies, art shows and theatrical performances. In Bethesda, there’s the annual Bethesda Fine Arts Festival and Imagination Bethesda, plus the monthly Bethesda Art Walk in which 13 galleries open their doors to showcase the work of local, national and international artists.

When it comes to the number of arts related businesses, Bethesda is on par with some of the country’s other wealthy communities. According to figures provided By Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing the arts, at least 44 Bethesda businesses are involved in the performing arts, and 122 in the visual arts.

That’s about the same as in wealthy communities such as Newton, Mass., and La Jolla, Calif. By contrast, about 25 businesses in Fairfax County are dedicated to performing arts, and 32 to visual arts. Shellie Williams, marketing and program services director for the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, says Bethesda’s lively arts district is bolstered by a program of events that draws traffic from outside the community.

“When you have a city like Bethesda with a community organization like the [Bethesda] Urban Partnership, you begin to see this really incredible creative community,” Williams says. “It’s a combination of institutions and these temporary experiences to flesh out your whole year and pull the community together in a wonderful way.”

The Round House Theatre focuses on producing literary plays and new works that cater to a well-educated audience, says Robison, the artistic director. County residents make up about 75 percent of the audience at its 400-seat Bethesda theater and 180-seat venue in downtown Silver Spring. “What that says is, we are a highly successful local venue for local theater,” Robison says. “You don’t have to go to [Washington’s] Arena Stage. You can see a high level of acting in your own backyard.”

Imagination Stage began as an organization offering theater classes for children. In recent years, it has blossomed into a nationally Known professional theater for children, with educational programs and outreach that extend far beyond the county.

“I remember having a dream in my heart that we’d be like the Washington School of Ballet,” founder and Executive Director Bonnie Fogel says of the theater, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “We’d be the place that people took their children for theater education, and it has become that place.”

The access to live performances at so many venues for adults and families makes the Bethesda area unique. In addition to Imagination Stage, families can enjoy Adventure Theatre and the Puppet Co. Playhouse in Glen Echo Park.

“Round House and what they are doing at Imagination Stage is really tremendous— and you don’t find it everywhere, and you don’t find it in a community of this size,” says Sandra Gibson, a Bethesda resident who is president and chief executive officer of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters in Washington. The association is a national service and advocacy group dedicated to bringing artists and audiences together.

Perhaps the institution that has most transformed the local arts scene is The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, which opened its doors in 2005 on the grounds of Rockville Pike’s historic Mansion at Strathmore. The center houses a 1,976-seat concert hall that serves as a second home for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and hosts a wide range of performances throughout the year.

In addition to the BSO, the center is home to the National Philharmonic orchestra, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras, the Levine School of Music, City Dance Center and interPLAY, an award-winning nonprofit music group that includes people with cognitive and physical disabilities.

Even Eliot Pfanstiehl, Strathmore’s president and chief executive officer, is a bit surprised at how the center has evolved into a home for such a variety of artistic organizations. It is a development that wasn’t part of the original vision, but when it became clear that the BSO wasn’t going to hold enough performances annually to keep the concert hall lit regularly, Pfanstiehl and his staff went looking for other performers to fill the gaps.

Partners such as Levine and City Dance help complete Strathmore’s role as an education center. “Kids who take classes can see at the other end of the building what they can be when they grow up,” Pfanstiehl says.

Another surprise is the growing interest among audiences of different ethnic groups generated by specific performances. As a result, one-third of the programming for the concert hall is now multicultural, Pfanstiehl says.

“Bethesda is incredibly international,” he says. “When we opened the concert hall, we didn’t expect to find what we found.” For example, Pfanstiehl says, “When we book Chinese musicians, we have a heavily Chinese audience.”

The importance of the arts is evident throughout Bethesda and its surrounding communities. Accomplished and aspiring writers find a home at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, which offers writing classes, readings and other events. And Glen Echo Park hosts a variety of arts, history and environmental programs, including arts classes and weekly dances in its historic Spanish Ballroom.

So many restaurants, so little time

It’s been said for years that Bethesda has more restaurants per capita than any urban area other than San Francisco. Nobody seems to know where that “fact” comes from, but one thing is indisputable: Bethesda and the surrounding communities have a full menu of eating establishments.

Bethesda alone boasts more than 250 restaurants featuring more than 21 cuisines, ranging from Afghan to Latin American. Its restaurant scene continues to evolve and improve as new establishments move in and others revamp their styles. In the two-block stretch of Cordell Avenue between Old Georgetown Road and Woodmont Avenue, 21 restaurants offer 13 different cuisines.