Thursday, December 20, 2018
"I'm President of the Douglas Park Civic Association. I'm also Chair of Pike Presidents Group. I've been President five years in February, and for three years I've been Chair at the PPG.
I've lived here for a little over twenty years. We moved back to Arlington in 1998. I really got involved through a combination of things, but primarily my interest in the community in general.
I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania on a farm, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles north of the West Virginia line. When I got out of the college in the mid '80's there just wasn't a lot of economic opportunity in western Pennsylvania. I liked this area. I had visited it a couple of times as a teenager, and why not? It was busy, it was growing.
When I moved to Virginia in 1985, I originally worked in the wholesale end of the nursery industry, for a company out in Manassas. I worked there for about five years. We relocated to Connecticut because I got promoted and I was a VP at that company for a number of years. We moved back here in 1998 because of my husband’s father’s failing health, to help take care of him. I've run my own consulting business since then; two nursery companies doing customer relations, marketing, advertising, and employee development.
I met my husband here in the DC area, thirty years ago this December. We've been together thirty years. We officially got married seven or eight years ago on our anniversary, just because I wasn't going to remember another date. It's nice to have it official but it doesn't really change thirty years.
When I first moved here, I really liked Arlington, especially for the convenience. At that point I was in my early to mid twenties. It was great. The night life in DC was convenient and everything. When we moved back here in 1998, we knew we did not want to live outside the Beltway. My husband’s the director of membership for a non-profit downtown. The first thought was Arlington, and we went exploring houses. We looked at 17 or 18 houses at least. We saw this one, it wasn't even on the market yet. The realtor said, "Well, they're going to put this on the market in about two days. It's not ready yet." But we saw it and it's like, "Yep. That's the house."
We’ve seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood. It's really quite amazing that when we moved here in 1998. We were in our mid thirties at that time and were by far the youngest homeowners on the block. When my husband and I moved in there weren’t any issues for us as a couple. I've been out since I was fourteen. To be very honest, I really don't give a damn what somebody thinks of me in that regard. It's like that's their problem, not my problem.
At the time we moved in the residents were almost exclusively older, if not elderly. There were a lot of people who owned homes who lived here who were in their 70's, 80's, and older. Almost exclusively white. And here twenty years later, even this block is much more multi-ethnic. The home ownership, it's much, much younger. Now we're amongst the oldest people in this section.
And it’s been an interesting transformation to watch because it’s bringing in younger people. The diversity has kind of helped spruce up the neighborhood, for lack of a better term. We have gotten younger people in here who have new ideas, want their house to look good, want it to look nice if they're having friends and family over, things like that. So, it’s made a difference in the appearance of the neighborhood. I would also say the congeniality of the neighborhood has increased. People are much more likely to say “hi” to the neighbors than they were say twenty years ago, in my observation. I think just because it's a younger crowd, and especially with so many kids here now, there's more threads interweaving through the community to allow people to know each other a little bit better.
The neighborhood is a big mix. We have a lot of people who originated in Central America, but we also have a fairly small but a growing number of Asians in the neighborhood. We have African Americans in the neighborhood. We have actually quite a few people of East African immigrants, Ethiopia, et cetera, who have bought homes in the neighborhood and live here now. I can't say that there's any group that particularly dominates. Caucasians are probably still the largest group, but it's certainly not anything like it was twenty years ago. It's much more of a melting pot.
Elementary school redistricting is the hot topic right now with the Civic Association. There's a lot of people up in arms, concerned, questioning. That process is kind of fumbling through to an end at this point. It’s been through a number of iterations. We are all in communication with the school board on this, though. Reid Goldstein, who is the School Board Chair, is a former president of our civic association. He's well aware of it as a neighborhood resident, but the School Board is kind of between a rock and a hard place with the ever-growing population in general and the school age population in Arlington.
We have other issues, of course. There's always the concern with parking issues and with utility projects. Virginia Power wants to underground a bunch of cable lines. Over on Pollard Street there's concerns with traffic, and commuting, and what's going on with the reconstruction of the Pike. It seems to be dragging on forever. The streetcar project went away and all of the promised rapid bus service hasn’t arrived yet. The Pike has still really not been reconstructed yet… it's an ongoing effort.
There's a lot of things that people talk about all of the time, but it’s generally a pretty quiet place, especially compared to a few years ago when all of the fuss was going on with the streetcar versus the bus service. That became a very polarizing debate and people were getting quite adamant about it on either side of the issue.
The whole discussion over elementary school redistricting is a perfect example of how complicated things are. I've had numerous parents reach out to me saying that, " We don't like proposal X and we want you as a Civic Association to take a stand on this particular thing." But the problem is that some other group of parents may be affected in a different way, and may actually like the changes. So, I can have my personal opinions, but those have to be different from what the opinion of the official Civic Association is, because this neighborhood is huge. It's the largest neighborhood geographically in the county. Right now it's divided up amongst five elementary schools. The latest proposal has it being divided up amongst three, but it would be impossible no matter what they did to fit all of the children who live in this neighborhood in one elementary school. I haven't seen any recent updated population figures from the county, but in the early to mid teens it was around 11,000 people. That's a lot of folks in a single neighborhood.
My guess is that the coming of Amazon to south Arlington will probably affect the neighborhood. I don't think it will occur nearly as quickly as people expect. One of the initial effects is likely that with a lot of office space getting booked in the next couple of years, is that it will help revitalize the tax base in Arlington, so that we won't be so fiscally constrained as we have been the last few years. As far as housing prices, who knows? Obviously if you have more people coming into an area and there aren't changes in the housing policy to allow more multi-family structures, or higher density, it's probably going to end up escalating prices. Just gauging by my own experience as a home owner, house prices have quadrupled, almost quintupled in twenty years. It's already to the point where I find it difficult to figure out how knowing where I was when I bought my first home, how I would afford to buy something in the current market.
The Pike Presidents Group originated about twenty or twenty-five years ago. It was then called the Pike President's Breakfast. It was kind of an informal thing that started as an offshoot of CPRO (Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization) to get various civic association presidents together. I'm a pretty outspoken person, I'm not a wallflower by any stretch of the imagination. We reorganized the group and made it more separate from CPRO, more of our own entity. We in the PPG look at CPRO as representing the Pike overarching regarding its redevelopment, especially focused on business. We try to keep focused on neighborhood concerns, the actual people who live here, the infrastructure of the area, and how that all interrelates.
Three things have occupied a lot of our time over the last couple of years. One is how we can move forward more quickly on getting the Pike infrastructure upgraded to its ultimate state. We hope to spread the economic opportunity that has spread through the eastern and central Pike, and bring more of it to the west end of the Pike, because the west end of the Pike has still really not participated in a lot of the benefits of the economic redevelopment that has been occuring. Part of that effort was getting the Arlington Farmers Market back up and running after two or three years. It was initially opened and then went on hiatus for a couple of years. Now it’s going again.
The other big thing we've been involved with a lot the last couple of years is what happens to the large Career Center site off Walter Reed and the Pike. That's kind of downtown Columbia Pike. Much of it is owned by the school system, but the opportunities are there to unify it into the actual façade of the Pike and make it more connected to the Pike. The decisions that are made over the next ten years about that huge parcel will have enormous ramifications for what the Pike is for the next half century. The PPG is very much of the opinion that we need to take our time and get it right. It has to work for the schools and also work for the community at large, whether it's community resources, or moving the library down onto the Pike so it's more of a focal point. We want to help energize the whole Pike.
The biggest challenge honestly, and it's something I'm glad that we have the PPG to work through it, is understanding and working together, rather than working at cross purposes. That's something I've tried to foster by working interactively, not just between various Civic Associations, but between other community groups and communities in general on the Pike. We all need to pull together. I think the general gist of wanting this to remain a hugely diverse community, and also bringing it upwards economically are two broad goals that I think most communities along the Pike and most of the Civic Association Presidents are for. A lot of our efforts are in working with County staff, and working with County officials to help better understand what makes the whole Pike community special. There are always challenges, but I think we've made a lot of progress in that over the years.
The way I describe the Pike to people who don't know it beyond the diversity and the multicultural aspect, the “world in a zip code,” is that it's a place that is on the cusp of becoming great. It's just how do we get that little push to do it. There's always just a little bit more of a hill ahead of us to kind of get us over the top to where it's going to be self-sustaining, growing, keeping all of the things like diversity and affordability that we value, but also bringing those economic benefits that hopefully can lift us all up.
I certainly don't get emails or phone calls talking about, "We want to keep diversity on the Pike." I think that is because people who live here just take it as a given, that diversity is something they value. I'll give you a couple of examples. We've run a holiday fund drive here in Douglas Park for our 35th year. We work with Randolph Elementary, and they identify students who aren't going to get a lot for Christmas. We raise money, we have people who volunteer to shop to get things for the kids and their families. It’s been a very successful effort we've done for decades. Another event we hold is a community Fourth of July parade and picnic, up in Douglas Park proper. All you need to do is walk around that picnic after the parade. Everybody from around the planet is there. I'm usually grilling hotdogs, I'm sweating my ass off. The typical attendance is three, four, five hundred people. Everyone from seniors, to kids in diapers, and everywhere in between, a really fantastic cross-section of the neighborhood economically and culturally, in any way you can imagine. When I send out reminders in June for volunteers, many people talk about "we look forward to this so much every year, because its what makes living in Douglas Park and the Pike area great." The only thing we provide is the hotdogs and the water, then everybody else brings something. I love it because there's food from all over the world there every year. Pupusas, curry, spices… Everybody from everywhere is here, and everybody generally just gets along and enjoys what Arlington and the neighborhood has to offer.
I've been very proud for the last five years to work with a bunch of people who really are interested in the future of their community, I think there's not a lot of places anymore where you can really say that. The people who make up the Pike, whether it's Douglas Park or the community at large, are concerned about this place. People want to see things improve, to preserve the great things that we have. This area seems to attract people who actually want to be hands on and want to be involved with shaping their community. There's a lot of smart people in the Pike Corridor who have a lot of great ideas, and we're working together. Together I don't think there's anything we can't achieve for the future."
Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.
Thursday, December 6, 2018
Our sponsor, the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO), included an article on our recent work in their December 2018 mailing.
Thanks to the good folks at CPRO for the recognition, and to Xang Mimi Ho for the beautiful photograph of Arlington County Board Chair, Katie Cristol.
Thanks to the good folks at CPRO for the recognition, and to Xang Mimi Ho for the beautiful photograph of Arlington County Board Chair, Katie Cristol.
Wednesday, December 5, 2018
Elda LaRue came to the Pike when she was expecting baby #2. “We moved in on Christmas Eve, Dec 2005. My in-laws were there and we ate Christmas dinner on the moving boxes—it was a mess! My second daughter was born January 22, 2006.
“But this house was where my husband, Mario, grew up. He came here when he was two. Our first house together was in Burke because Arlington was expensive. We lived there for two years and then Mario pressured me to move here because the schooling was way better here and because our oldest child has special needs. It's the best place for our family, he said.
And in the beginning I didn't like it. Burke was beautiful. Not like the other suburbs with cookie-cutter houses. The houses there were unique and we had a lake. But it was cold---no diversity or community. But then I came here and realized diversity scared me. The Pike looked run down I said. It has character and culture, Mario said. And I did get it, eventually, so I have to give him that. But I guess it came from my growing up everywhere. He said, What are you scared of? These are our people.
And its changing now, many people are moving---they are gentrifying or whatever you call it. I live next to the Food Star. I’m going to miss it. It used to be a real international market and now it will be a “supposedly” international market, a Harris Teeter. Many people are moving to Fairfax.
“Now that you ask me this I wonder why I didn’t like it at first. Maybe I didn't want to be with others like me? I don’t know. I was born in LA and grew up there ---lived there for 12 years. I was raised Mexican in a very Mexican-American environment with many Asians. My mother was Mexican but she didn’t come here for a need, she came here as a diplomat. Spanglish wasn’t my thing and I didn’t identify with the 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation people. And they told me I didn’t look Mexican.
Then we moved to Algeria. My mom and Ahmed separated as he was Iranian and refused to go with us. His dad had been a general in the Shah’s army in Iran. After the US trouble he had to flee Iran. His dad was in prison for years and tortured. He was let out later. But I remember Ahmed saying ‘Never again will I go back to a crazy Muslim country like that.’ So they separated and never connected again.
In Algeria I lost my language because I had to learn French in the French School. We spoke Spanish at home and I lost my English but loved the 43 nationalities in my school. When I came back to LA people asked You Went Where? Where is Algeria? But when we came back my mom was not posted there so she couldn’t work as she was illegal. But we owned our house and I went to school and she did that all for me! She made jewelry and sold it and I had two jobs in High School and we survived. She had savings but it was hard. We were on welfare too. I lived a total of 16 years in LA.
Then we moved to Belize. On the way there we stopped in Mexico. Now I got to be Mexican! I was in my element and fully immersed in culture and language. That was my identity. There I found out about my birth dad and learned that Ahmed was my step dad. I had always thought I was half Iranian and that’s why I looked different. But I had no idea he was my step dad. I called him Ahmed but it never struck me. My mom got all excited meeting him again but realized soon that Ahmed and her independence had been her real life.
I went back and did 4 years college there after living 2 years in Belize. But there were no jobs in Mexico. Meanwhile my mom was living in DC but I was not interested in being here. I came for vacation and met mom and thought OMG DC was amazing! I found a job in the Air and Space museum. That’s where I met Mario, just out of college. All the time I had wondered who is the right guy for me? If I am so multicultural and in Mexico everyone said I was American, then where did I fit?
Mario was from Guatemala but was totally American. So he got my “those jokes” and my “these jokes” as well. It was perfect. Our parents’ lives were similar too.
Mario was pulled away in the middle of the night from Guatemala and was brought to DC. He was two years old. His dad is American, the son of German Jewish and Belgian parents from El Salvador where they had lived for many generations. His father was from Kansas. The LaRues fled France as Protestants in the 1500s. My father in-law grew up in El Salvador but lived in Guatemala as his father worked there. He hated his conservative family and was more involved in Che and Castro. So he became a human rights defender. He fought for the rights of the indigenous people of Guatemala and was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Then the Americans got involved in Guatemala and things went downhill and he had to flee.
They came here directly and have lived on The Pike since Mario was 8 years old. And his dad helped his country, Guatemala, from here. It’s ironic how he hated his American side of the family but it’s thanks to them he could stay here and do his work.
And because I do the genealogy thing, I see things repeat…
My husband told me that when he was growing up Arlington was a mix of cultures. When you went to parties in homes and schools it was a very small community and we still bump into each other even today. It’s a big world in a small community. But not all of Arlington is like that now. There are parts of Arlington where it is 99.9% white and then Carlin Springs Elementary I hear is 98% non white. Claremont is a mix because people choose to be there. So what’s good about The Pike? Its diversity and not just 1st and 2nd generation—not like LA—but people authentically here from another culture.
But now people are leaving as they gentrify. It’s becoming a different socio economic level as well. The new buildings are expensive. What kind of families will come there? It will change everything, including the schools. In LA I felt the others were my enemies, they didn't know the struggle of the grandparents who came here back then. And they push the newcomers down. There is a resentment—I don’t know what it is. It’s worse in Texas where the Republicans and conservative people of Mexican descent live. You don't see that here. Here they are looking to survive."
A view of the ongoing construction of the Centro project, seen from the immediately adjoining neighborhood.
Photography by Lloyd Wolf.
Photography by Lloyd Wolf.