Smartest city: PhDs, planning, and pet bakeries

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

At first glance, this community just north of Washington, D.C., looks unremarkable. It has all the hallmarks of a happy upper-middle-class enclave. The streets are lined with restaurants, art galleries, and imported sedans. The people are dressed in $50 golf shirts and casual slacks. And there's always a Starbucks nearby.

But according to the federal government, Bethesda is not just another well-to-do suburb. This small suburban enclave is a mecca of brainpower, a nesting place of erudite semi-urbanites. It is, in sum, the smartest place in the United States – or at least the best-educated city boasting 50,000 or more residents.

According to the 2000 Census, 79 percent of Bethesdans 25 or older have bachelor's degrees, and 49 percent have graduate or professional degrees. Those numbers by far outpace the national averages – 26 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively.

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"And most of them have law degrees, I'm sure," laughs Deborah Snead, a 29-year resident and director of the Bethesda Chevy Chase Services Center. "Welcome to Montgomery County, where there's a lawyer in every house."

Not surprisingly, Bethesda is part of the nation's best-educated Congressional district, too – represented by Connie Morella, a Republican with a master's degree and eight honorary doctorates.

Haven of 'rule by the wise'

Maybe it's the advanced degrees, maybe it's the lawyers, but whatever it is, spending just a little time here makes it clear that Bethesda is not just another suburb. Throughout the history of political philosophy – from Plato to Jefferson – "rule by the wise" has been an ideal. But what really happens when all the smart kids start their own city? You get Bethesda, a slice of meticulously planned America, where the streets are immaculate, dogs get their own bakery, and upscale élan is a way of life.

"Things don't just happen in Bethesda; there is plan," says Dave Dabney, executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership, a group that oversees the downtown area. Zoning laws, for instance, are notorious, and the street sweepers are out all night.

"It's kind of like Disney," says Mr. Dabney. "We go to bed and wake up, and everything is clean."

The Disney comparison is more than a passing comment. As the city has grown over the past five years, it has become a miniaturized (some might say sanitized) copy of the capital it borders – a yuppies' magic kingdom.

An Adam Sandler-free zone

Bethesda's downtown features its own versions of some of DC's most popular restaurants – in a safer, cleaner setting.

Why go to the District for tapas when you can find the same thing closer to home in Bethesda ... and afterwards stop at Three Dog Bakery, the smorgasbord catering to canines?

If you're looking for an art film or a foreign flick, no need to visit cramped, decrepit urban art theaters. Bethesda has its own multiplex for the high-minded – eight screens guaranteed to be an Adam Sandler-free zone – promising the latest art-house fare and stadium seating.

"This is a mini Manhattan," says Ekramul Talukder, a waiter at Delhi Dhaba Indian Café. "There is everything here."

The International Downtown Association (based in DC) seems to agree: In August, it named Bethesda's central business district its Downtown of the Month.

"Everything has happened the way our master plan wanted," says Mr. Dabney, who grew up in Bethesda. But even utopias have their problems, and Bethesda's is traffic. Currently, about 27 percent of the people who come into the city each day – including 44,000 workers – carpool, bike, or use public transportation.

Congestion has sent Bethesda into a "commercial-building moratorium." For "phase two" of development to begin, 32 percent of workers will have to leave their cars at home. But rest assured, there's a plan – and a subway stop in the middle of town.

Buy Picasso from a lobbyist

Organized or organic, there is a certain civilized quality to life in America's most educated city.

On a quiet sun-dappled Friday evening, Bethesda looks different from much of suburban America. The streets are crowded with people strolling by restaurants and cafes, or sitting on street benches talking. In the Margaret Smith Gallery, Marla Katz is preparing food and beverages for the monthly "Art Walk," wherein 11 galleries open their doors, offering small cocktail receptions for passersby.

"Wow, we are the best educated city in the country?" she asks. "I wouldn't be shocked if we were in the top 10, but number one, that's kind of surprising."

Yet Ms. Katz herself boosts the city's figures. She moved to Bethesda after finishing graduate school three years ago, drawn to the area because she had relatives nearby and a master's degree in public policy.

Now, when she isn't working at the gallery, she lobbies for the Alliance for Children and Families – making Bethesda perhaps the only place in the world where you can buy a $30,000 Picasso from a lobbyist.

Sitting on a bench nearby, Paul and Lavinia Pasquina, who have two homes in Bethesda, look over plans for the redesign of their home in Tunisia.

Paul, a doctor, says he came to Bethesda for medical school and fell in love with it. Lavinia, born and raised in Italy, says she's happy here.

Her only complaint: "They should keep things open a little longer at night. It sometimes feels like the suburbs."

Some things, it seems, are beyond the reach of even the best planning committee.

'Smartest' cities, measured by degrees

- Laurent Belsie

ST. LOUIS - Americans believe in schooling. Better than eight out of 10 have finished high school; 1 out of 4 has completed college. But those national numbers hide a lot of local variance.

Consider tiny Huron, Calif., an hour's drive from Fresno. Not one of its 6,306 adult residents has a college degree, and only 1 of 5 made it through high school.

But surely, a seat of state government boasts a well-educated populace.

That's true for Madison, Wis., where just under half have a college degree. Montpelier, Vt., Tallahassee, Fla., and Raleigh, N.C., aren't far behind.

But in Trenton, N.J., the nation's least educated state capital, fewer than 1 in 10 adult residents has completed four years of college. Hartford, Conn. (12 percent), and Harrisburg, Penn. (14 percent), don't look much better.

Sometimes, geography and job opportunity explain high educational attainment. The nation's best-educated county, Los Alamos County in New Mexico, is home to one of America's foremost national laboratories. Small Stanford, Calif., boasts an even higher college-graduation rate than Bethesda – but it's made up almost entirely of Stanford University.

In small places, sampling error almost certainly plays a role. For example, the US boasts 13 communities where every adult apparently has a college degree. But they're mostly out-of-the-way places such as Chicken, Alaska, and Thurmond, W.V.; none of them boasts an adult population bigger than 17. And since the Census Bureau only samples 1 out of 6 households, such numbers are highly suspect.

That's too bad for Sweeney Ranch, Wyo.

With six adults, according to the 2000 census, it could have billed itself as the only community in the country where everyone not only completed college, but got an advanced degree as well.

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