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Smartest city: PhDs, planning, and pet bakeries

By Dante ChinniSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 18, 2002


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.

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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.

"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.