Thursday, August 1, 2019

Pijush Barua

Mr. Pijush Barua is the owner of two businesses along Columbia Pike. He is originally from Bangladesh.

When I first came to the U.S. in 1990 from my hometown of Chittagong in Bangladesh, I lived in D.C. on Florida Avenue with my sister and her family. My first job here in this country was at a Dunkin Donuts on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, Virginia. I was taking the Metro to and from work nearly every day. After some time, I decided to move to Arlington as it was closer to work. I first lived on North Monroe Street, and later moved to North Thomas Street. I continued working at the same Dunkin Donuts until 2004. Upon the advice of my boss, Alcova Heights became my new home from 1999 onward; my wife did not want to move anywhere else, as she had also fallen in love with the only city she’s known outside of her own hometown back in Bangladesh. I contribute my success to my boss, Theresa Sareen. I viewed her as not only as my boss, but my mentor and a mother-figure. I have become a man thanks to her guidance, assistance, and care.

I then moved to the Dunkin Donuts in the food court at the Pentagon and continued working there as a manager for the next six years. Due to the sensitive nature of working at the Pentagon, I had to have high security clearance and went through strict security protocols every morning when I arrived at work. I contribute my success at the Pentagon to my boss, Jerome Johnson. He was quite a beautiful character in my life, so much so that he was not only my boss, but a close friend and business partner.

I then decided that after years of working in the food industry and managing multiple stores – something I was doing while at the Pentagon – I wanted to open my own business. At first, I wanted to open my own Dunkin Donuts franchise in Arlington as I lived here and loved my city. But as I looked around, I found out that all the Dunkin Donuts were already franchised in the Arlington area. Due to an SDA (Store Development Agreement), I would need their permission to open one and pay $100,000.00 to $200,000.00

I decided to buy and invest in a gas station instead, and ended up purchasing Sleepy Hollow Exxon in Falls Church. I owned and ran that store for about four years and then sold it. I ended up selling it to my partner who was an auditor by profession. I taught him how to run the business and he became a partner a few years later when I bought Mclean Pizza with him. It was hard working 12-hour shifts and driving to and from Arlington. All the employees spoke Spanish and my one weakness is that I did not know Spanish, which limited me in connecting with my employees. Finally, an opportunity arose. The corporate Exxon station at South Glebe Road and Columbia Pike in Arlington opened for a franchisee opportunity, and I ended up selling my share of the pizza business to my partner in order to purchase the Exxon gas station. This was perfect because it was only a few blocks from house.

Here I am known as a CA, a Commission Agent. That means that I lease the shop but the items that I sell at the store are my own and not dictated by the Exxon corporation. I pay rent for the space and the gas itself is from Exxon. I thought that this neighborhood would also be a perfect opportunity to invest in a new business. I asked friends, my nephew, everyone, to keep an eye out for one. My nephew then told me about a franchise opportunity known as 1000 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. Around that time, he was looking for a new job but was unable to find one, and I thought he could run the pizza shop for me. But not long after signing the lease and contract with the franchise, he ended up getting a new, demanding job. After two years of searching, finding, and building out the new store, we had our grand opening on October 15, 2016. On that morning, I had Theresa and Jerome’s son (since Jerome was unable to make it due to business travels) as my honorary guests. Theresa did the honors of cutting the ceremonial ribbon. That day, we fed over 2,000 people with complimentary pizzas. We had a great turn out and it was a huge success.

Since my nephew had started his new job, I ended up still working 12-hour days, seven days a week. Because the gas station is a 24-hour site, I had to be nearby or on call whenever anything came about that needed my attention. That 24-hour opening is a policy dictated by the corporation. As such, the insurance is more expensive and I must have more employees, but business does not increase because it is hard to have the same customer traffic during the late-night hours. There is also the risk of danger to my employees during the nightshift hours.

One major challenge is paying the employees. Due to the minimum wage in D.C., they want $15 an hour, but the things I sell at the shop are the cheapest around here. How am I able pay the salaries of six full-time and part-time employees? It’s hard. I have not even taken a vacation day in six years due to the consistent demands on a regular basis as a business owner.

The good part of it is that everyone here knows me. But of course, there are good people and bad people. When I moved to Columbia Pike in 1999, it was a very quiet area. There used to be a car dealership where my pizza restaurant is now located. After it was torn down, high-rises with restaurants on the bottom floor were built. We used to hang out at that dealership, meet friends there, and enjoy ourselves as any adults might. The humanistic aspect our lives is just as, if not, more important than just the work we do daily.

This is why the biggest difference now is that people have become robotic; nobody cares about anybody now. Back then, neighbors were so nice. They would see me working late and my wife and baby were alone at home and they would bring flowers or mow the lawn for us. With the old neighbors we would hold barbeques and cookouts together, but not anymore. No one greets one another. One neighbor moved, one is still there, and the sweetest neighbor in the world passed away a bit ago. The new people who moved in are not like the old. Racism was not there then, but I do feel it now. I do not feel as comfortable. My house is my home. We all just want to feel comfortable. But new neighbors complain over everything, and it simply adds to the difficulties my family and I face.

With the new store, business has also become harder now. Because of the lack of parking on The Pike, the intense competition, and being a new business, there are less people who come in. It is hard but I have invested all my money in the business, so I cannot afford to lose it. With the increased population, as rent goes up, employees’ salaries do too; it becomes a problem for business owners, naturally. Today a 20-ounce Coke costs $2.o00 I remember when it was 89 cents. Last year it was $1.49. In short, these changes are an enigma to the capitalist democracy we hold near and dear as Americans.

That said, Columbia Pike is a lot like Clarendon. The sound of traffic, people, movie-goers, young crowd, diverse dynamic – you name it. Before, only northern Arlington was viewed as the “city”, but with Arlington’s expansiveness, our once quiet portion of Arlington is now a major hub for business and a DMV experience. With real estate in demand, housing and living costs increase as well. But this improvement came at a hidden cost.

Sometimes I wonder if my business would have been different if I was a white owner. I do not go to the front of the business, I just stay in the back. I worry what will happen if they learn that a Bangladeshi man owns it. Once, a white man was upset and came in and demanded of the employee, “Call your manager.” I came out and said, “Yes?” He asked, “You are the manager? Call the owner.” I said, “I am the owner.” He said, “I won’t buy your gas!” What should I have told him? That the owners of most of the Exxon stations in Northern Virginia, Washington D.C., and Maryland are owned by other immigrants – from Africa? He left in a huff. I remember when 9/11 happened, I was still working at the Dunkin Donuts and an old regular customer came in. We were all talking about what had happened. He was a journalist for twenty-one years and he published what I had said. The next day the owner came and told me, “Why did you say all that?” I said, “I didn’t know he would publish it.” We were all shocked. Our hands were shaking. All of us. We were all in this together, scared about the future and what situation America was in at the time. This piece of my story is just one of many I have seen throughout my life.

Even so, the life and status I’ve made for myself and my family has been a diamond in the rough. Despite the hardship, Arlington is as beautiful as ever, and with any small business, there are good days and bad ones. My kids are grown up. They both went to schools locally. My oldest just recently graduated from James Madison University, and the other is currently attending American University for her undergraduate degree. So no matter the situation, I will stay here. My kids will go their own ways one day, and I would want them to work hard and smart, not just one or the other. They are still very young, and with the passion and ambition they have, I know they will find success soon no matter what route they take. The help of the people in my life have brought me up. I must attribute to for my success to them, most notably my family and bosses, the latter of whom helped me rise from the ground up.

I can understand people willing to work hard to try and make it in this place we call our own. With the creation of new businesses such as my own, proximity to the most powerful city in the world, and an everlasting expanding lifestyle and the changes it brings, the streets that have brought me up made me who I am today. That is something I can never repay myself for, and something I’m truly grateful to have experienced!

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar. Photographs by Lloyd Wolf.

Sol Schott / Acme Pie

Sol Schott is the owner of Acme Pie Company. He is a long-time Columbia Pike area resident.

I started ACME Pie Company pretty much by accident. I've been a pastry chef for many years. I worked at The Willard Hotel in DC as the assistant pastry chef. I was at The Dahlia before that, always doing American-style pastry. Most recently before ACME Pie I worked at Open City, Tristan, and The Diner, both in the Phillips Collection and at the National Cathedral. So, I knew the logistics for delivering desserts, pies, cookies, muffins, scones, croissants. It was interesting because the things that fit in nice little square boxes got delivered the best. When I went out on my own I was thinking, "What would work best for my own business?" I realize this sounds silly, but it was logistics. It was boxes, same size, stackable. I can make racks for delivery. I love pie, and pie fit in boxes. The problem with muffins and cupcakes and cakes and things like that is they can't get jostled around much. Another consideration was that pastry chefs hate making pies. Most of us are European trained and pie crusts are almost the antithesis of French pastry. With most French pastry you're trying to do something elaborate, but with pie dough you're trying to do it as little as possible. So, I knew it was something that I could sell to restaurants and hotels and shops that nobody else was doing. There was a big market, wide open. I did that wholesale for six years and did well. It was only two months ago that I opened up the retail store her eon Columbia Pike.
I have had the same address since I started the business. There was a wine bar upstairs and they were only open in the evenings, so I would come in in the mornings early, fire up the ovens, make the pies, work till 2:00 or so in the afternoon, and then go out and deliver them. When the wine bar closed, I had to either move or take over the lease for the whole building, and it just made sense to take it over. I did the math and sat down and figured it out thought "...I might as well just throw my hat in the ring in retail." So far we’ve been doing well.
We’ve had three big Democratic fundraisers in here already. We have a Scrabble night on Wednesdays. We've got a group of independent writers coming in on Tuesdays doing readings from their books they've written. It started out as a poetry reading night. We did that two or three times and then this woman, Hanna, who runs the book club called me and said, "How about once a month we do this book reading thing?" The first time they did it I didn't really know what to expect. I was thinking it was going to be a bunch of moms sitting around reading passages from books they've read or something. But, they're reading from their own works and they are really good. It's very, I don't want to say avant garde, but it is kind of. It’s really cool. I love it, and that's really the kind of thing I want to support with the retail shop.
My goal with the retail was to make it a place that I would want to go to myself and to see what was going on. Since IOTA closed in Clarendon there seems to be fewer places that do independent creative stuff. There's still a lot of places in DC where that kind of thing happens, but not much in northern Virginia anymore, it seems to me.
I started the business on the Pike because I was already here. I live in the community, just a quarter of a mile away, in Douglas Park. There’s pretty good foot traffic here, The retail shop of course needs support, but the core business is wholesale.

All the people coming into the store are locals. Lots of different local groups and people, and a lot of people from when I used to race bicycles. There’s been support from a network of friends and then a lot of random strangers. They're not strangers when they leave, though, which is the idea.
 I am partially from this area. After World War II, my grandparents settled here. My grandmother was born in Daytona Beach, Florida. There were two synagogues in Daytona when she was growing up; now there's probably more. One synagogue was dedicated to Sol Schott. That was my great-grandfather. He started it. The same name as me, obviously. He was dead by the time I was born, so by naming me after him it wouldn’t bring bad luck. The other synagogue there is dedicated to Harry Pepper, and Harry Pepper is my grandmother's father. She's still alive, by the way, a hundred years old, living in Daytona. She was born in 1918. They were Southern Jews. There was very little Jewish there.  A typical breakfast she would cook for us would be matzah brei with a side of bacon. She cooked a kind of kosher style, and added a lot of things like pickled okra. That's a little bit of a southern accent. I began cooking as a kid. My grandmother's mother, Bella Pepper, taught me how to stretch strudel when I was ten years old. She also lived really long, to about a hundred. We made different old kuchen and different cakes, very old, weird, and dry stuff. We made rugelach a few times. It's what people had back then.
I grew up in both Florida and the DC area. My mom and dad met here. They were here for a few years then moved to Gainesville, Florida. I guess when I was probably five they got divorced. My parents were hippies, so I stayed with my grandparents a lot, whether it was here or in Daytona. I got raised by my grandparents and also some by parents. I was very, very close with my grandparents. When I was about twenty-two I moved back up here from Gainesville and have never left, and I'm fifty-one now, so I’ve been here a while.

Cooking is the only thing I've ever done. I went to culinary arts school in St. Augustine. I graduated in 1989 or '90 and moved to Daytona for a year and a half. I got a degree in hotel and restaurant management from a community college there and that's it. I've just been working since then. I worked at the Washington Hilton. I've worked at Marriott Wardman Park. With this skill, you could work at a lot of places, pretty much anywhere in the world.
There were a bunch of reasons I decided to go out on my own. I could wax all poetic on this, but the reality was that after I left the Open City restaurant in DC, I went out and I did six or seven interviews at hotels, things I used to be able to just walk into, and forty-one years old is old in this business. There are executive chefs now who are twenty-eight years old and they look at you and if you’ve got a little bit of gray around your ears, they're like, "This guy's not going to be able to hang." Reality is I could work and have worked circles around them for twenty-five years and still do, but in an interview you don't get to show that. The new style of hotel or restaurant interview is not like it was. It used to be you would go in, you'd show that you've got a safe food handler's license and you went to culinary arts school and you came with recommendations from other chefs they knew, and you were in. Now you go in and because of all these cooking shows, everybody wants you to spend a day working for them for free. They give you a list like it's some sort of Iron Chef TV show and they're go, "make this," and they pick out some stupid, obscure, weird thing, little fooey-fooey French jelly things and stuff. I've made those, but I don't have recipes off the top of my head. You end up googling recipes and trying to make them with their equipment in their kitchen. I did about seven or eight of those interviews, and I thought, "Crap. I've got to do this myself. I probably should have done this twenty years ago."  That's where the pie idea came in. I was an experienced pastry chef and I went into pie because of deliverability, and it worked. So, here I am.
I love Columbia Pike. My wife and I have lived here now twelve or fourteen years. What I think I like the most is how real it is. We don't have a lot of chains yet. I think there's now a Starbucks and some McDonald's if you look around, but if you don't want to you don't have to eat at those places. If you go to Clarendon now they've got the Cheesecake Factory, pizza chains, places like that.T here was briefly a real good falafel place there, Amsterdam Falafel, but they couldn't survive, the rents have gotten so high. Along the Pike, people are still not putting on airs. This area's so ethnically diverse. We get lots of different kinds of folks in here You can get a proper taco down the street from my place. You can get amazing ramen at Boru; I love their food! You can find eight kinds of pupusas up and down the Pike, and even the guy next door, the Mongolian guy that opened up a computer repair store. That's awesome, that’s what this country's about.
I used to sell our pies at the farmers’ markets here. But I've already got an employee working in my store, which is directly across the street from our farmers’ market. The problem with the farmer's markets is if it's me working, then it makes sense, but if I have to pay somebody to stand there and sell pies, you've got to sell a whole lot of pies, because I refuse to pay anybody less than twelve dollars an hour. I try to be fair, but actually, it's not enough to live around here. But if you're young or if you're still living at your parents or something like that you can make it work. Twelve dollars is hardly a living wage anymore. You have to pay workers at least minimum wage, which is only $8.70 or something. But you'd starve to death on $8.70.

Change in inevitable. This might sound oddly pessimistic, but there's just not big money over here along the Pike, at least not yet. There's nobody coming down here going to open up a multimillion dollar hotel right now. Why would they? As long as it stays kind of poor it won't change much, which is sort of a sad state of affairs, but it's hard to preserve character when all of a sudden an area becomes really cool. That happened to Adams Morgan in DC and then there's a bunch of money and it just blew up. It happened in here in Arlington in Clarendon, but just wait five years, ten years. It'll fade back out. We'll see what happens when Amazon shows up. I hope Amazon doesn't come in and make this all like Ballston. Ballston used to actually be funky. Now it's just these giant soulless buildings with million dollar condos in them.
I have hopes for the restaurant. I want it to be sort of a community hub. People aren't going to come in and eat pie every day, that's not a realistic thing, but I want to have events here. I'd like to get live music, have local art exhibitions. A place that isn't about alcohol, a place that isn't booze. I got so many people asking me if I was going to have wine or beer. I'm like, "No. Only if I'm in jeopardy of going out of business and I have to," but I don't want to. I'm not saying I don't drink. I'm saying that I don't have to drink. There's things you can do other than just go into a bar. It's awfully small, but I'd love to have my band, Grumbler, play here. I play drums. We play music that’s somewhere between blues and punk rock, which is kind of an odd combination. We do a Woody Guthrie cover, “Pastures of Plenty.” It’s like a love song to the United States. It's beautiful.

I still do some of my deliveries on a special Harley motorcycle. It’s an old police serving car. It was like a meter maid vehicle. They used them throughout World War II. They used them also for small mechanic shops. If somebody's car was broken down back in the '50s, they would ride it over to the person's house to fix their car with all the tools in the trunk and then ride it back to the shop. That was when people would do that sort of thing; when doctors made house calls. That vehicle is very near and dear to me because it represents a time that I really like. I wasn't around then, but I’m drawn to times and ways when people did things honestly and straightforwardly."

Interview and photographs by Lloyd Wolf .

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

People and scenes on the Pike - 2300 and 2400 blocks, July 2019

Some observations along this developing section of Columbia Pike.

Photography by Lloyd Wolf.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Delia Ngugi

"I'm originally from Kenya, in East Africa. I was raised in Mombasa. That's by the ocean, on the coastal side of Kenya, by the Indian Ocean. I was 26 when I came to America. I was grown up, you may say.
I did all my schooling there. In Kenya I did my undergrad in business management and majored in procurement. I also studied human resource management.
I wanted a change in my life. I believe in the American dream and I believe I could better myself and I have more chances to grow and become something good, and make a better person of myself here. Kenya's a third world country We are a very young country. We're still growing. We still have a long way to go compared to America or any other first world country. So there are a bit of challenges. So for me coming here, I can better myself and become a better person, and do something for my country as well. Because I love my country.
Most things here were pretty much what I expected. Right now, information is shared across the globe very fast. Through watching TV, through the internet, too, you already have an idea of how another place is, even though you've not been there. Because of all that, I already had a rough idea. I had not lived here to know how it is day by day though, but my mind was already open. I was ready to adopt anything, I didn't have so much of a culture shock. But it is different, though. The weather is different, the people are different. It's different in a good way.
I have extended family here, but I didn't grow up with them. After coming here, it was a process to start learning who they are, and them learning who I was. Everything felt new. 
I initially arrived in the DC area. I came here because of work and I kind of liked this area. When the opportunity to work in northern Virginia came, I was happy. It was an exciting thing, because I had to move here by myself and just start a life. I've been here a year now.
Before having this building on Columbia Pike as my full time work, I had worked as a concierge in different other properties in DC, in Pentagon City, on Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria, different properties all over. I had a glimpse of each area, and then I ended up settling here as my full time job. 
My job as a concierge is pretty exciting. For people who are trying to move in, I'm the face of the property. First impressions really matter for people who are just looking to live with us. I represent the property. I create a lot of relationships with people who live here. I'm their go-to person when they have an issue. When they have a good day, they  come to me. I see them in the morning when they're going to work. I'm the one who's like, "Hello, hi, have a great day."  It just feels nice, there's somebody there to smile at you and just wish you a great day. When they come back home and they've had a long, hard day, they find me there and we chat a little bit. And they feel better.

I create a lot of relationships with my residents, letting them feel comfortable, to be happy. It's an apartment building. We all are family, so technically if they have any issues they would come to me and I'd find the best way to assist them or to direct them to someone who can assist them with what they need. Because I've had good relationships with most residents here, they trust me, they talk to me. Some of them go through a lot and when they come home I know how to listen to them.
So much is happening. Everybody's just struggling to make it out here. DC is rough. Things are just moving by so fast. Some people are lonely. They don't have anybody to talk to. They just go to work, come back home. So they come to my desk and we talk, and they just open up to me. People really talk a lot about the struggles they go through. It's not what is written down as my job description. But I just like my job. I'm happy to sit down with people and say, "Let's talk about life. What's going on with you, what's new?" If you give somebody attention for two minutes, it means a lot.
The people who live here are very diverse, from all over. You have Americans. You have Africans. You have people from Asia, Hispanic people. I recently met somebody who told me they came from some island I had never heard of. We literally sat down and Googled it. He came from an island right next to Africa. It’s so fascinating to me, meeting people from places and different cultures that you didn't even know existed.
It's pretty exciting when they find that I come from far away as well. It just brings us closer. Our conversation goes, like, "Wow, you come from Kenya? What’s Kenya like?" I tell them how it is. We learn a lot about each other. The whole world is here. You find different types of restaurants, different people. It's beautiful. I love it.

We try and do events here every month. It’s a great way to just hang out and make sure the residents meet each other and the staff in a comfortable scene as opposed to always having to come to the office to deal with a problem you have, or to pay your rent. The events make people relax and the environment is more subtle and warm. You can just talk about cool stuff, normal stuff that doesn't have to do with anything with leasing or anything to do with the office. We are a pet friendly community, so sometimes we hold events for residents’ pets.I never grew up with pets. This is a pet friendly community and many people have pets. When I came here, I was kind of scared of the dogs, but now, oh my gosh, I love them. The dogs just literally run to me. I hug them, and before I would not get near them. I was afraid they're going to bite me. But now, they're so adorable. I literally come with treats from home for the dogs.
 Sometimes we have happy hours. We have snacks, a little bit of drinks, and we have the game on, and just have music and talk. We'll have pool parties. Sometimes we get them food trucks and say, "Hey, you don't have to cook dinner today. Let's all support local businesses and just buy from them and just hang out together." Just beautiful stuff."

Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Badara Papa Dia

Badara Papa Dia
I'm originally from Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. I came to the United States in December 2001. I was 19 years old, a young man. My father helped me get here. What brought me here was a dream, curiosity, and soccer. I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I thought maybe this is the best place to do it. When I came here I didn't know anyone except my father. It took me years before I met anybody else from Mali.
When I came here it wasn't like what I expected it to be. I thought of America as a movie, high rises, perhaps just beauty. When I came in the winter time, there were hardly any leaves on the trees. I was like, “Where is your soccer field?”  I went to look at a soccer field in December; everything was empty and cold and dried up, it was getting dark very quickly. I thought. “Man, what's wrong? Maybe I'm in the wrong place for soccer.” Those were my aha moments.
I was first told by my father that I needed to speak English because I didn't speak any English. He said that should be my goal first, and  that I needed to have a Plan B. Education is to be Plan A, and soccer was supposed to be a plan B, because if I made soccer plan A, and I broke my leg, then what will happen? Then instead of soccer being my priority number one goal, now it became a second. Having that affected my dream. 
My father is a realtor, a professional person. He is married to a woman who has two kids. While I was going to ESL classes, I was dropping those two kids off at Barcroft Elementary School. I met the principal of their school then. The principal said, “I know your two brothers, they're very kind. You must be a nice guy, also. Would you like to volunteer?” I said, “Yeah, why not?” then I spoke to my father. He accepted it as long as it didn’t conflict with my education schedule. I started doing that and then she motivated me to go further. I began going to school to earn my teaching credentials while I was volunteering. Then I became a personal assistant at the school, and was getting paid for that. Then I went from personal assistant to teaching assistant. At first I was not teaching soccer at all. Then my father said in the spring I could volunteer to coach my stepbrothers’ soccer team. That’s what I did. I began coaching their coed team, young kids. Then little by little, people started to get to know me and my ability for coaching and my knowledge of soccer. 
After each session of training I did with my brothers and the other kids, an adult professional team would come to use the field. A professional team from the Bolivian league, Westerman, would use the same soccer field for their practices. I approached them and asked if I could practice with them. They wanted to see me play, and they gave me a chance. They brought me onto the team. I played for them for three years.
I was a striker, they really liked that, because I am really fast. They had me playing full time. They used to pay me to play and everything. We would play in the DMV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia region) area. People came out to see us play for the championship. It was fun. I even learned a little Spanish, un poquito.
I also continued with the teaching, but I was interested in going to the DC United team. I wanted to be a serious professional player, to join a big team. The coach of the Bolivian team was motivating me to go professional in that level. I went to DC United and asked them how could I join the team? I went to speak to a guy in their organization who told me to make a video and send resumes. At the time I did not know how to do that stuff.  After doing that, DC United put me on the second team, I started training with them, but they had a requirement that when I'm with them, I'm not supposed to be training anywhere else. There was another Bolivian League who saw me playing, and they also decided to get me for their team. I was young and not smart I guess. They were also paying me to play for them. I was at DC United training, but I would go out to play for these guys, too, as they were paying me until I got my ligaments injured. Then DC United found out, and they let me go. That was the end of that. So I went back to coaching. I focused on coaching. I said, I'm going to train somebody to make the dream.

I was teaching at Barcroft Elementary and then moved to Kenmore Middle School. Ever since 2004, 2005, I’ve been the boys and the girls’ soccer coach at Kenmore, part of the Arlington school system. I do personal one-on-one training, small group training, and full team training. There was a principal here at Kenmore named Dr. Wort who loved me. All of the time that he had been the principal, the school had never won anything. But in my first year as a coach, we won County championships for both boys and girls, so he liked that. Since then I have been the coach and I keep bringing in more championships. We have a new principal here now, Mr. McBride. I also I brought him championships this year and I brought him a championship last year. For the last five years our teams have been winning all the County championships. Soccer has picked up huge in the US from the time I first came here until now. Now Arlington at least has pretty good soccer players.
When I first came to Kenmore, at first the great diversity of students was a bit shocking, but I quickly understood and grew to like it. I like diversity. I had to adapt, but I like that diversity. It was a change. There are so many different ways of thinking. I wondered how the different kids saw me. Do they see me the same way I see them and what they think of me, do they think of me the same way I think of them? All those were questions in my mind as I went about in my daily routine. This school’s very diverse. Kids get along well, though. It's incredible. That’s why I love this place. I haven't moved yet because of the diversity and how that diversity helps us get along. My daughter, who is eleven, feels the same, she has friends from all walks of life. She was born in France. She’s new here. But now she has friends in this school from all over, every walk of life.
When I first started teaching there were some things to adjust to. My first shock was because you have an accent or because you don’t speak the language properly yet, people thought you were stupid. This was interesting to me. You may know much more than those people probably do, but because a person has either an accent or doesn’t speak their language, they think you don't know anything. It’s simply ignorance. I just rose above this, because that's part of being professional and smart. Before I came to the US, I hadn’t played with girls in soccer or taught girls. It was a change. In Mali girls were meant to stay in the house, cook and do family chores, but not play soccer. My sisters never played. Younger and older cousins, they never played. But now, here, they can be a goalie, be a striker… on a team.
I didn't think there was any difference coaching girls and boys on teams at first because I thought, coaching girls, coaching boys, what would be the difference? Until I got into it and I'm like, “wow.” It was a struggle because I’m very passionate about the sport. I would coach with my passion, but I found out that for most girls who played the sport it was because it's fun. Fun comes above everything else. For boys, generally competition comes before the fun. To them, competition is the fun.. My first year coaching girls actually was in middle school. I had a success. We were very competitive. But ever since then, my girls haven't wanted to participate that way. So now I’ve changed that side of my coaching, turned the competition side of it to make it more fun. For the parents here it’s just all about their daughter and her team. It's a gift she's on the team, just as long as she's on the team, she’s practicing and playing the game
My goal with the kids is to let them see that I'm here to support them, that I want to be part of the change for them, for their future, whatever their vision is because they all come with a vision. I feel I am not here to tell them what to do, but am here to support what they want to be, whatever that is. 
Outside of all this, I have my soccer academy in Mali. (
This is the story. When I was a young kid, twelve years old, I was playing, and I don't know why, but I just had a passion for teaching, Even at home, I was the one teaching and coaching. It didn’t matter if the other kids were older than me or younger. I was the one coaching and teaching people in the house to do stuff. I remember as a boy putting little kids together eight and nine years old, not much different than my age, and I would be their coach. After we lost a game, I decided to play, too, and then that motivated my passion more. The other kids began calling me their president, their coach. 
When I finally went back to Mali for my first trip since I came to the United States, these kids were grown, but they were still calling me, “our president is back! The president's back!” even after I had left them for over 10 years. They're still calling me their president! I started taking soccer and sports equipment with me. I brought soccer shirts and shorts from Kenmore. I donated all that to this group of kids who called me their president, their coach. Now every year after I go back and take equipment with me, little by little. I start hiring coaches that I pay to coach teams in Mali. I turned this effort into an organization. A man in Arlington, Barney Cohen, helped me to do this. Sadly, he just passed away. He helped me make my organization an official nonprofit organization here in the States, to manage the donations properly, so I can transfer them to Mali to give it to the kids there.
It is amazing when I go back to Mali, just unbelievable. I feel that they treat me like a president. My house is always packed with little children. We haven’t had leagues so far, but this year we're playing in a modern champion league for the first time. I have four kids who had trained in my academy who are now playing for our national team in Mali. There’s a lot of talent. I haven’t yet been able to bring any of our kids over to visit here, but it’s something I want to do.
In Mali soccer is the only sport for us. That's true for a whole lot of Africa. I grew up with soccer, just like probably 99% of the kids in Africa. It was just there. You grew up, and the first thing you saw at the front door was a soccer ball. It happened in every street in every corner. 
Before I began to back to Mali, the kids there didn’t have much equipment. It was the first time ever in their lives they ever put on soccer shorts and shirts, shoes with cleats and socks. Even today some kids play barefoot. Or if they have shoes, they have those Malian ones that are open from the front and bottom, like sandals. It makes it hard to play. That's why they have cuts all over their feet. That’s how it was for me, too, growing up. The uniforms and equipment we brought them built some both protection and some big-time pride. It unified them, helped them feel, bond, and work as a team. 
At first I didn’t get a lot of parents support for this in Mali. But then little by little I started having parent meetings. I sat down and had them look at the program and plans of my organization. My coaches follow those programs. It worked slowly. Attendance at first was not very effective, because the children were kept busy doing chores in the house when it was time to do practice or time for a game. Their parents didn't value what we were doing. I had to educate them. Certain things I want to also try to educate the Mali government about. Because in Mali, as in most African countries, if a kid wants to be a soccer player, they'll drop out of school to go play soccer. Why? Because the schools don’t have those activities or curriculum implemented in school. That's why the dropout is so high. That’s part of the way I’ve stuck to my organization and changed it to the way it is today. I told the parents if I want to invest my money, my time and other people's money and their time into this organization, they have to first value what we're doing, and to value what we're doing they have to be part of it. If we hold a meeting, they need to be there, to know what's going on with their kids. All of this will help create value. Because when I first went back in 2004, I asked kids who appeared to be of high school age, in middle school age, “how old are you?” They didn't know their own age. They didn't even know their birthday. Even today this still exists. That saddens me.
I teach differently to the Mali kids than I do here. I'm far away from the culture now, although I still believe I'm part of the culture. I don't know as much as people who live there. I listen and observed more and I'm very sensitive in how I do things. I don't want the people I deal with to say I'm trying to teach them how to live their life. I'm trying to teach, I teach in a certain way to get along with them, so that they can both listen to me and I also listen to them. I try to be respectful. I know culture plays a part in the game. That's why the United States is struggling in soccer. That's also why lots of African national teams are suffering, because they're forgetting their culture plays a part of the game. I'm respecting the culture as I'm doing that.
My goal is bring some of the Malian kids here, some of the Arlington kids there, to exchange teams. That would be huge. It will change lives in so many ways. Although I did have a parent from here who went to Mali to visit my organization. It was mind blowing. My kids still talk about it. It was amazing. This summer I'm going to have one kid coming from Mali for first time. He's a good soccer player, and we’ll see what happens.
Here there is a system in teach soccer. In Bamako I had to build our own system. Everything I do here is what makes my life there easy and do-able. I have learned techniques of teaching an organization from working here. The idea of implementing activities in the school system there, and how that will save the kids, how that will save the country, how this will progress the life of Malian children, how that will bring development to the country.
They used to have sports in the schools, but those are all gone. It’s very sad. If your kids want to do any special activities they'll quit school. Even if they want to do acting and fashion, swimming, anything, they quit school so they can do it. Which is sad because if you quit school, it doesn’t work out well for you. That's why we have so many drop out, literally. I have said that everybody participating in my organization from now on will stay in school. When I’ve met with the parents, I’ve said “to be part of this program, your kid has got to be in school. Because if this doesn't work for you, school does.” Because of that, in my yearly programs for my organization, we do trips to museums, we do trips to the zoo, we do trips to mosques, we do trips to parks. We do trips to a hospital. We go everywhere because this helps motivate and elevate people. When we go to these places we talk. If soccer doesn't work for you, you can become a doctor, a nurse. We go to the zoo and we do the same thing, you could be a manager, a scientist. Everybody has their own motivation and drive. Anything that clicks.
When I am here in Arlington, I also have parents attend team meetings. I let them know their kids are safe. That should be the number one goal, because they come and drop their kids off and leave. The kids are with me three hours a week. I make sure kids are safe. I also let them know it's more than soccer. Discipline is number one for me, even in selecting a player for my team. I look at discipline above everything else, because if you're disciplined, I know I have the skill to teach you. That's my job as a coach. No matter how skillful you are, if you have no discipline, I cannot teach you. If the player doesn't have discipline I let the parents know. My consequences are, if you are not disciplined I can’t work with you. I give you chances. Sit on the bench to reflect, or you don't play game. I help. I don't give up on you, I’ll help you until I can’t. Most of the parents are supportive of this. To me it's more than soccer, because all the discipline is what makes the game.
My daughter is in school here, and we live in the community. There are changes happening here. Population, more housing, more high rises. Less space now. When I first came to Arlington there was much more open space. You could stand in one place end see to the other end of it. Now it’s becoming high rises and all that stuff. House rents have increased tremendously and house prices, too. Food prices increased, gas prices increased, almost everything. I see more people living in apartments and fewer in houses now, including myself.
Right now I’m I'm looking and hoping for a philanthropist. I'm looking for a sponsor, anybody who can help me with this project, because my dream is not just focused on soccer. Education is part of the soccer. I want to implement some ideas and activities in school programs in Mali so kids can stay in school. Then they can achieve big things.
Right now I travel back and forth to Mali once a year. I'm hoping to make it at least two or three times a year. That will be more effective. That'd be life changing but financially it's like everything has to be. That's why I'm so busy on the soccer field trying to make money so I can pay my coaches staff properly. Some of them are married and have children. They have to make a decent living. I have two of them who just do coaching for my program, that's their profession. There is no way to fundraise there, which is sad also. Even the mentality of fundraising, they don't have.
Five years ago I tried to implement the same ideas that I have in Mali here. Because even here we have some kids who are needy. I have received donations from people here, like from Janeth Valenzuela’s people who donated some equipment. There's some kids here who have nothing, so I also need to have stuff donated to them. Most of these are H.I.L.T. (High Intensity Language Training) kids. I was thinking to do something here in the community for those kids. I put them on travel teams, I put them in soccer leagues. I have been thinking how I can make the same opportunities for them as I have created for the poor kids in Mali. Because their parents are refugees and immigrants, there are kids here that have the same needs as the kids in Mali. I give them soccer shoes, soccer balls, soccer shirts. Yeah. Even in this school. I do it quietly.
Our teams have a lot of Ethiopians. You see a lot of Bolivians, and kids from many other places. Soccer brings the kids together. But in soccer, here in America, when you go to higher levels, the more competitive soccer starts to become, you find that there are more white people than any other race. Because it costs more money, most travel teams are mainly white kids. The poorer families cannot afford to travel long distances with their kids for long times, or the players themselves when they get older, cannot take time off from work, pay for gas, hotels, things like that. That's why American soccer is suffering. They have players who can afford to be on travel teams, buy the expensive athletic equipment, but not necessarily players who can play the game the best. The wealthier young players have all these titles “I played travel here, etc.,” so they receive college scholarships. When they start recruiting they start looking for these type of players and then they end up on the national team. Look at the American men’s national soccer team compared to the national team for France. France’s national team is 90% black, from Africa; from North Africa, Central Africa, West Africa. They go for guys who can play, not just those who can afford to play. Their academy system is so different than the academy system here. And people wonder why American soccer is suffering. Imagine. America has fifty states, it should be able to produce one team to win the world cup. It’s just insane. It is because it's about who can afford or not afford to play the game.
My boys have epic talent. I would go against North Arlington teams like Williamsburg and Swanson and beat them, but those schools are all travel kids. They're all white. We go we beat them. My kids don't travel. We go against these teams and we win. I guess these kids from these wealthier schools get on the top travel teams based on how much money they have, that their parents can pay to get them to that level. 
Some of my kids end up playing on the street except sometimes for certain ones that we've been able to get some of the team parents help by paying a little bit to keep them on team. Some of them are very talented. I have sent them to tryouts. They get picked, but when it comes to money they dropped them and then pick the next guy. All because they can't afford the fancy shoes or the travel costs. 
Some of the kids on my teams and their parents come back to work with me. Some of them are working with me now, coaching alongside of me. It feels good, big time. Some of them come and help me with my tryouts. Even though they’re in high school now, they come to help for the tryouts, or come to see me.
One year I put a team together, kids together from around here who cannot afford much. I went to Arlington County and I said, “this is the team I want. These are the very best.” They accepted and they gave us a little money for the team. We won the County championship. The next year, all those kids that were originally rated at the bottom of the league, eight of them ended up on the top out of sixteen players. They got moved up to the higher level. "
Photography and interview by Lloyd Wolf.

CPRO mixer / William Jeffrey's tavern

The Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO) hosted a mixer for its members at William Jeffrey's Tavern in the Siena building along the Pike. A large and lively turnout enjoyed a raffle, food and drinks, networking, and a presentation on the community and CPRO's role in it.

Thanks to CPRO's executive director Kim Klingler, assistant director Amy McWilliams, program director Stephen Gregory Smith, administrative assistant Amanda Lovins, and CPRO board president John Snyder.

Photography by Lloyd Wolf.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Columbia Pike Blues Festival / 24th Annual

The 24th annual Columbia Pike Blues Festival, sponsored by the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization played to record attendance this year.
Performers included the Hardway Connection, "Detroit's Queen of the Blues" Thornetta Davis, and headliner Sugaray Rayford. There were numerous other performers, vendors, civic groups, and activities for children and families.

Photography by Lloyd Wolf.