Tuesday, October 30, 2018
"I grew up right on Taylor Street, at the intersection of George Mason and Columbia Pike. I grew up on the Pike, my whole life is the Pike basically.
My mom came here from Peru in the 1990’s because of her cousins that moved here. They lived in Fairfax, so she was rooming with them when she first moved here. Then she started working at Reagan Airport, doing the parking, you know how people would do your parking tickets? She met my dad there. He is an immigrant also. He's from Italy.
They met at the airport and they hit it off. She didn't really speak English very well, but she went to college in Peru and had learned enough English there to be basically conversational. Then they got an apartment in Barcroft. They stayed there, had me, and then my parents got divorced when I was really young. But my mom has stayed in the Barcroft Apartments the whole time. I grew up there until recently I moved because I went to college.
My mom went to college but that didn't really transfer over coming here. You hear that a lot. Her degree didn't count here. She got an accounting degree in Peru. She worked for the government there, she worked for the department of economy and there was a government uprising and a corruption scandal and all this stuff. People were rioting and my mom has never really liked conflict, so she didn't participate. Her coworkers were all rioting and she wasn’t into that. Everyone was like “Oh, why don't you want to? Why aren't you doing something?” They started attacking her for not doing something, telling her it was because she was afraid. So she ended up quitting her job and my grandmother pushed and pushed her to come here.
My mom had cousins who had come here, so my grandma was like “go to America, it will be good for you.” So she came here, and she had to work a whole bunch of jobs that were nothing close to what she was doing for the government in Peru. She was a nanny, then she worked doing parking, then she was a security guard, then she worked in a hospital, and now she's a nurse aid. And she's been doing all these different jobs, but nothing she studied for, you know? Nothing up to her education.
She wanted me to succeed. It was just always a subconscious thing, it was always like, what's the point of her coming all the way over here if I don't make something of myself, to help give back?
When I was really little I was in a traditional dance troupe, but it wasn't here, it was in Peru. Every year they did national military parade and I was in a little parade. It was cute. I would get all dressed up. It’s similar to the Bolivian style, basically the same outfit.
My mom and I don’t know so much of the language, but my grandma spoke fluent Quechua. She taught me a little bit when I was younger. I remember she told me Incan proverb “ Ama suwa, ama llulla, ama qhella – it means don't lie, don't steal, don't cheat.” It was an Incan proverb that they all go by. She would tell me that a lot when I was little.
I'm at George Mason University. I study government and international politics. I went to Randolph Elementary School, so that's an IB (International Baccalaureate) school, so I was IB all the way to high school and then I ended up going to Wakefield High School. I also went to Randolph Elementary, to Drew and to Claremont for a little bit. I was born here, so I’m an American citizen. I have a really crazy story, because I didn't live here when I was really small. Not long after I was born, my mom sent me to live with my grandparents in Peru. I lived there until I was four and then I came back.
When I came back I didn't speak English so they put me in Claremont which is a language immersion school, so I had to learn English. Then I went to Randolph Elementary and from there I went to Jefferson Intermediate, and from there I went to Wakefield.
When I was growing up, there was always a very strong immigrant influence here, in Barcroft at least. Every one of my neighbors, they were Ethiopian, they were Nigerian, they were Salvadorian, they were Mexican. All of them were immigrants. Nobody that I knew in my neighborhood was a white American, born here. Even North Arlington to me was a different world. I didn't know certain parts of Arlington existed until I got older. Like Cherrydale, the Yorktown area… I'd never been there. I knew Courthouse, because I'd been to Courthouse ever since I was little. Then when I got older and I made friends and I went to summer school, I realized that this was also a part of Arlington. When I was little, I just knew this area and Ballston.
The kids I knew from the neighborhood all tended to migrate to the same places. The deciding factor happened in middle school where you're either going to the North Arlington Schools or you're staying at Wakefield. And there were some parents who were very against their kids going to Wakefield, even when I was in middle school. This was in 2011, and Wakefield has changed over time, but there were parents that were really against it. I think that was because of the bias that they had against old Wakefield. It was based on a racial bias. You know there were gangs back in the day, there was racial tension. Even when I went there, there were a lot of fights, and it was different from Washington and Lee, or Yorktown. I would talk to kids from there, and they'd be like “wow, you guys have people fighting at your school? How many security guards do you have?” We had like five or six and they would have one, and one resource officer, and we'd have maybe four, but parents were just not trying to send their children to Wakefield. They would purposely try to avoid it, act like they had a different address or put them in the IB program so that they wouldn't go to Wakefield, which I thought was kind of messed up. You're kind of stifling them from the culture there, because it wasn't a bad school to go to. I feel like I did get a good education but that's because I wanted to. Some people didn't take it as seriously as I did. Some people took different paths, but Arlington has a really good school system.
I learned to eat all different kids of foods, especially at Randolph School. They have that International Baccalaureate programs, and they would have this day where after school, all the kids would come and bring different foods from different countries, and it would be like a big banquet and people would perform dances, or show things from their culture for everyone. We had a lot of fun. There were kids from Bangladesh, doing traditional Bangladeshi dance in their outfits, people from India, people who were from Thailand, people who were Bolivian, obviously, who were doing Caporales. The principal was really accepting of everyone. She set up these days for all of us to bring out cultures together and it was like, that's what that school was. Diversity everywhere. I'll always remember, when I first went to that school, they had a little globe and a picture, everyone was holding hands, and people from different cultures all holding hands. If you go in there you'll see it, it's really really cute.
Being in an IB study team or something you'd have kids of all different cultures, playing, talking about different things. I was exposed to so many different types of foods at those events. I remember us eating food from Mali. We learned about Mali and we got to barter with each other, and we ate with our hands and we got traditional garments, and people came in and they showed us instruments and they did performances for us. We learned a lot, it was a lot of fun
In high school, the kids would often hang out by ethnic group. It was very disproportionately cut into different ethnic groups, especially children who didn't speak English as a first language. Like HILT (High Intensity Language Training) students, they all hung out by themselves. In a way, other kids would kind of isolate them on purpose. Even in a place like Wakefield, people that spoke English would kind of put them on the outside and treat them like they were outsiders. There was even a bias there. It wasn't really right, and a lot of it came from people who did speak Spanish but were American-born, to people that weren't born there. It was just like “oh, look at them they can't even speak English properly, and I was born here and I speak English and Spanish.” And I thought ”why are you doing that? Why would you treat someone like that, if your parents at one point were this person who also couldn’t speak English.”
When I was a kid in Barcroft, I played with people from all different backgrounds. But there are a lot of parents, ethnic parents Hispanic parents, who don't really like letting their children freely roam, so nobody could go to the park. Nobody was allowed at the park even though the park was across the street. Like Doctor’s Run Park right there, I mean, nobody could go there. My mom was okay with it if it was me and nobody else. Instead, almost everyone played at this little courtyard in the Barcroft complex. We called it the Arches. We played there every single day from twelve o'clock to nine p.m. in the summers. Every day, kids from all different backgrounds. We played soccer, hide and seek, running through the buildings. I know so many different cuts in all those buildings, just from running through there when I was a kid playing games. It would be Ethiopian kids, Indian kids, Pakistani kids, Hispanic kids
White kids started moving into our neighborhood around 2009. There were never any white kids in the neighborhood before. It was really weird, just strange for us, because there were literally no white kids before. So there was this one girl, she was blonde, and her little sister and she come out, right in the middle of the Arches, and all of us were staring. We were like “what?” like “who is this person, like what are you doing here?” First it was just her, then another white family came, then another white family came, and all these white families starting popping up and all these immigrant families started moving away. My friends started moving away.
They moved to Annandale, Woodbridge, places that were more affordable for them. Rent started going up. When I was a kid I remember it being, like $600 a month or something. We would always get letters every year, the rent's going up $100, the rent's going up $100, the rent's going up $200. Every year the rent would be going up, going up, going up, and now for a one bedroom it's something like $1,200, but because my mom was there for thirty years and they knew her, as a courtesy she was paying $945, because she was there so long and had established a relationship with them.
I see changes happening. Yes, now more drastically, very much more from 2016 until now, everything has changed so quickly. Food Star and that oriental market that used to be here are gone. Those are two things that I very vividly remember when I first came here from Peru, I would go there and they would have Spanish products or things that you couldn't get at traditional stores like beef stomach, or things like that that are traditional dishes from Peru, lengua, things like that at the Chinese place. Then you couldn't go there anymore because they closed it down. And when I was in high school I was very vocal about how angry I was about Food Star closing, because, I'd go to the food trucks, I'd go buy stuff when I'd be cold. I'd get horchatas in the summer, I'd get snow cones from the street vendors with my friends.
Even the taco truck that was near here ended up moving further up Columbia Pike, across from that new Brewhouse, I would have never thought there would be a brew pub on Columbia Pike, where all these frat bros hang out. I would have never thought that. Seriously. For me it was just a big shock, walking up the Pike and seeing all these different people being there. It was just like “wow.” Ten years ago it wasn't like this.
It was shocking and felt somehow threatening because in a way the area is losing its culture. Like with Food Star closing, a lot of my friends felt the same way, but nobody was as vocal or as angry as I was. I was joking, but I was like “I'll tie myself up and I'll wait there with signs.” It meant a lot to me. Pushback. At least for me, I wonder “why?” There's a fancy Harris Teeter grocery store in Ballston, there's a Harris Teeter in Shirlington, there's a Harris Teeter in Pentagon City, there's a Harris Teeter up in North Arlington in the Lee-Harrison Center. There's Harris Teeters everywhere. Why take away something that meant so much to the community, you know? For me it meant a lot.
Originally they were calling that new place being built something like Columbia Pike Village Center, or Village Center, the Village Place, or something like that. But now, choosing to name it something like “El Centro?” It’s like there's a wound there, and you're pouring salt in the wound. The wound is them tearing it away, and then calling it by a Spanish name. It just didn't feel right. It feels kind of like a slap in the face.
It is because the immigrant community won't be able to live there you know? Nobody. They're calling it El Centro, but how many Hispanic people are really going to live there? Everybody who lives there is probably going to be a graduate, post-graduate student, frat guy… that's who's moving into these places, that’s who is kind of taking over the area. The community that I know is being pushed out.
I didn't have trouble with gang stuff growing up, but it was around some. Sadly, I have two friends who ended up in trouble. One of my friends went to jail,; he killed his dad by Thomas Jefferson in 2016. And my other friend went to jail because he was robbing cars in Fairfax, which was also in 2016. They weren’t South American or Central American kids. One of them was one of the white kids that moved into my neighborhood. He was a really nice kid, but he went down the wrong path, and the other kid was also one of the white kids that moved into my neighborhood. Both of them happen to be two of the families that moved into that neighborhood.
My college, George Mason University, has a lot of diversity. I'm involved in a lot of clubs, like First generation students. Also the HSA, which is the Hispanic Student Association, Mason Democrats, and I'm a student ambassador for the Schar school which is the School of Policy and Government. I represent the school, go to school events, about the school. We talk about our experiences as Mason students, and what we've learned throughout the classes we’ve gone through. I've been to Mason Dreamers, there's a club at Mason. I believe in the Dream Act. I have friends who are Dreamers, so I obviously care about them as well. I have a friend who's been closely affected by it to a point where she had to drop out of school and now she's just working to catch up to pay back all these loans and all these things she owes to the school. And it's been really impactful for her, and it makes me sad to see what she was going through.
I think as much as I would like to return to this community when I’m done with school, I don't know if I'll be able to afford living here. If I stay in the apartment, yeah. but I don't know if I want to live in an apartment forever. I want to get out ,and I know none of the houses here are affordable for, honestly, anybody without taking out a huge mortgage or something crazy.
I recently got a job. I work a lot of mobile sales. I was working at Sprint then I stopped and I was working at AT&T and I stopped and now I'm working at T-Mobile.
I’d like to get into politics. My teacher really inspired me when I was in high school. She pointed out injustice and misrepresentation of people in the government. I think my point of view is the way a lot of people feel, but they don’t want to vocalize it. I feel I could be that means to the way to get the word out and represent people who feel their culture is going away. A lot of Hispanic people here, in this area, don’t get to talk about how they feel misrepresented in things like the Arlington County Board. How is it that, just the differences between the areas, within the streets, here there’s a lot of potholes, but if you go into north Arlington, everything’s nice and even and smooth. It’s like nobody listens to what we have to say here. Everybody listens to what they have to say in north Arlington. If there was somebody here that was willing to take the issues and put them before the Board and let them know we won’t be silenced. I’d be willing to do so. That’s what I want to do. I feel empowered to do that.
I see a lot of the people I grew up with on the Pike are moving away. We tried to stay in touch, but you know, distance is hard. I've had a lot of people who grew up here move to different states just because this entire areas is becoming increasingly more difficult to live in. The cost of living is going up and you can't expect people who are in the middle class, and aren’t making a lot to keep up with these costs.
When you put things like a brew house in, the cost of living goes up all together for the entire area. There are other signs of change. All of these buildings coming up along the Pike. It's really strange for me because there's high rises everywhere now. It feels like every few months there's a new high rise development on Columbia Pike. I don't really understand why, because all the other ones that were here previously all had vacancies for rent, so it's like nobody's moving into them, so why are you guys building more if nobody's moving into them? I don't understand. A lot of them they tried to make them condos and they couldn't sell them. Especially like the ones you know by the new fancy Giant Food down there, that used to in a small shopping center with a bunch of different stores before they tore that all down and put in those condos. They still haven't sold those places for like six, seven, years! And still you guys are putting more up.
At one point we didn't have a car, so I just took public transportation everywhere. Now they have these new scooters here, the Lime, Bird. I was like, wow, never would I have thought that they would have these on Columbia Pike. All I used to see, including myself when I didn't have transportation, were people taking the METRO. People taking the ART bus, people riding their bikes, people walking up and down Columbia Pike, or driving. And now it's gotten more congested with traffic on Columbia Pike, it's so hard to get from one place to another.
I’m seeing less diversity in the community now. A lot of the people, a lot of my neighbors who I've lived with, and I've lived in the same building for a long time, all I can say is that everybody but us has moved. Everybody has left. We've been the only ones to stay. When my grandma she was still alive and she'd come visit us in this country, she had friends, other grandmas who lived in the neighborhood. Their families have moved out of the neighborhood now. People I played with moved out of the neighborhood. When you ask them why, it was like “oh I couldn't afford it anymore.” Or the apartment management told us they were going to renovate it, and then they didn't renovate it. That's something Barcroft likes to do, tell people we're going to renovate your apartment, go find temporary housing, and then they don't renovate their apartment.
The people who are moving in are post graduate students, people who work in DC, people who have finance, accounting jobs. People with really nice cars are living there. It's all white people moving in now. I still see a lot of diverse people walking around because there's still areas on the Pike that still have condensed groups of immigrants, like over there in Columbia Heights West and Buchanan Gardens, those brick apartments. There's a lot of Hispanic people who still live there. But at least in Barcroft, it's changed.
I'd like to see the community integrating things that have already been here along the Pike. Not taking away so much culture that has taken years to formulate. Back before all of this, these people came here and by themselves built these businesses, they built the economy and the infrastructure, this part of Columbia Pike. Now that they're leaving and replacing them, it kind of feels like an empty shell. I don't really know how this is giving back to the community. I'd like to keep things like that little store right there, the African store, places like Café Sazon, and that little Bolivian store over there, the Asian little store over there that sells tamales, like the Dama Ethiopian restaurant down there. If they took those away I'd be really hurt, just like I was hurt about Food Star being torn down. I don't want those places to go away, I want them to stay here. Special places should be kept intact, just for the sanctity of the culture."
Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.
Views of this developing area of Columbia Pike.
Photography by Lara Ajami.
Photography by Lara Ajami.
David Peete is president of BM Smith, a real estate investment and management company established along Columbia Pike in 1908 by his grandfather. It is Arlington County’s oldest continually-operating business, and has built and managed many residences and office buildings along the Pike, including most recently the multi-use Penrose Square complex. He has been recognized by the National Associate of Home Builders with its “ICON of the Industry Award.” Mr. Peete is Vice Chair of the Washington Forrest Foundation, part of a long-standing commitment by the Smith family of engaging in significant local community service. He also serves on the Board of Directors for CPRO, the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization. Earning his undergraduate degree from Tufts University and holding a Masters in Public Health degree from Yale University, Mr. Peete is married with three children.
"I think there are three things that will have a significant impact on the future of Columbia Pike. They are transportation, destination, and what I call anchors.
I believe in creating a form of transportation that has a nod to speed along the Pike, because people want to be able to get places faster. But at the same time, I think it's important that we don't forget transportation also is a means to neighborhood development. We also need transportation that doesn't just speed by all the neighborhoods, because you need people from those neighborhoods to be able to get on at one place on the transportation system and easily go to another part of the Pike. The Pike is several miles long, so we should have transportation that acknowledges that there's several neighborhoods along the Pike and facilitates relationship and community between those neighborhoods. I think this is important.
By destination, I really mean activities. There should be enough activities on a consistent basis that create draws not only for people on the Pike, but for those outside the Pike, too. I think you need a certain number of people that continue to bring energy to Columbia Pike. I'll give you a couple of successful examples. The annual Blues Festival is definitely a destination event. I believe that during the summer, weekly movie nights on both the west end of the Pike and the east end of the Pike are terrific. I believe that working on the farmer’s markets, both on the west end of the Pike and the east end of the Pike, is helpful. These are great examples of initiatives that have emerged over the last number of years. We should expand upon these and create more of them. And it takes a little bit of trial and error to see what connects and can bring people.
Thirdly, from a retail standpoint or a commercial standpoint, I believe creating anywhere from three to five anchors along the Pike, which might be retail centers that are a little bigger than on the rest of the Pike. They might include in those retail centers at least one regional or national brand that sends a message not only to those living on the Pike but to future small business owners that this is a place that you can come and really do business. I believe that you can create those anchors without sacrificing the overall community of the startup, without sacrificing the mom and pop stores. I believe that controlled, if deliberately and well-managed, three or four anchors will actually enhance and bring others to have confidence in creating other mom and pop stores along the Pike.
A good example would be the one that I'm most familiar with, the property that we manage at Penrose Square. With Starbucks coming on, we were able to rapidly recruit three mom and pop stores to come in. One is a Pilates studio, one is a family Italian restaurant that's designated to be affordable for families along the Pike, and the third is a person who's going to run his first business ever, a personal trainer who does gymnastics-type work. All of them will be here, right at Penrose Square, and one of the reasons is they want to be near the Starbucks. A Starbucks here sends a message to them that, "Wow, Starbucks thinks this is a good place to do business. Maybe this is a place I can successfully start my own small business."
BM Smith manages a number of properties along the Pike of various ages. Basically, the average life of a building in real estate is about fifty years. After that it generally goes into decay and you either need to put millions into renovating it or you tear it down and start over. Now, after you put millions into stabilizing it, the downside is, potentially you have to increase rents to pay for the millions you put in. I believe along the Pike, we will have some of both things occur. The other piece that I think would be important in helping support the Pike's overall growth and viability is the reemergence of Crystal City, filling the office buildings down there. That would result in an overflow of people who go to offices there and want to live or work on the Pike. Once those offices are full, there would be an overflow of small office businesses that will be looking for space on the Pike. While Crystal City is so open, there is not an overflow. Our office building is about 60% occupied now, and I believe another office building I know of on the Pike is only about 60% occupied as well. The ideal is about 90%. We had been about 90% over the last twenty years until the sequester hit.
Getting back to transit. There could be a “both/and” solution to transportation. There's one form of transportation, especially in mornings and later in the day that's built on some form of speed along the Pike. My concern is I don't want that to be the only form of transportation, because in my opinion, it turns Columbia Pike into basically a turnpike, which ignores the neighborhoods and doesn't build community. There could be, just an idea, the potential for maybe a smaller form of transportation that stops at the different neighborhoods, especially during the daylight hours and on weekends, that helps to build community, so that maybe someone's who's shopping at a grocery store in one of the neighborhoods, they can come and go easily from their neighborhood.
We are the oldest continuously-running business in Arlington. We were founded in 1908 and we've been running ever since. We owned 300 acres in the Ballston area during post Revolutionary War era. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Shreve came, based on a tip from George Washington. The properties that we own today are not from that area. We first moved to the Pike in about 1896. We had a family farm with thirty acres. Today, that is an apartment building. Another one of our old family homes is the Rite Aid up there at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed. But most of our properties were purchased in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a rural area back then. In fact, it was considered country. My uncle, who was born in 1930, remembers being around eight or nine years old and hearing his father talk about people who had a place in Washington DC having a little summer house along Columbia Pike to cool off from being in the city.
My grandfather, who founded the company in 1908, primarily built hundreds of houses. He built a lot of houses along the Pike. He also built a lot of the houses in Nauck, and he also built a lot of the houses around Arlington Hospital. And he gave a lot of personal loans to people. To my knowledge, he never foreclosed on one of his houses. If someone had trouble paying, he would give them a break for a few months ‘til they paid. It was truly a small time personal business back then. And he felt a real strong sense of compassion for everyone.
That is something that got passed on in the family, that sense of giving back. He was one of the first board members of both the Arlington County Board and an early school supervisor. But in the 60s, he had some land just outside of Arlington, where Walter Reed crosses over Route Seven. One of those pieces of land that he sold to the state became Northern Virginia Community College. The money from that sale was used to fund the Washington Forest Foundation, which today is about a $20 million foundation that our family runs exclusively. We give about $800,000 a year to 60 different Arlington and primarily South Arlington nonprofits. We have four or five priorities for the foundation. They range from education to services for the homeless, to housing, to arts, to affordable healthcare, and to food assistance. APAH, AFAC, A-SPAN, the Arlington Free Clinic, and many others. You know, basically survival services, we give a lot in that arena. Another aspect is community. So that would be CPRO. Another is housing, affordable workforce housing. And then education, especially for children and to promote multicultural elements of the community.
I spent the first basically 20 years of my career in senior housing, and then came to this firm in my early 50’s, after my mother's passing. It has been a transition, but one that I've been passionate about and cared about, working with my family members in the last couple decades of my work life. One thing that is important to me, that's important to others in our family, is that all the apartments we manage are along the Pike. We have four apartment buildings that house altogether probably about 1,500 people. We have an office building, and then we have lots of retail throughout Columbia Pike and also down Four Mile Run, as well as in Crystal City. We have basically four or five owners that show up almost every day of the week, who are engaged in those apartments. So if you live in one of our apartments, or you rent from us as a business in Arlington, you are able to interact with us directly. That's one reason we've helped different businesses succeed as well, that the typical landlord might not. We're sort of the management equivalent of a “home grown, organic, authentic, locally-sourced landlord.”
We've been in what eventually became Arlington since 1789. We moved to the Pike in about 1895 when my great grandfather immigrated from Canada to be with his bride, who was from the Shreve family that'd been here since 1789. And, like an immigrant, he built a little business right on the Pike that would pick people up on Columbia Pike and then take them to Washington DC to tour the city. I think a lot of immigrants today, still think, "Well, if we're near the Capital, there'll be little businesses we can create." And he certainly did that with his horse and buggy. His first purchase was about six dollars for six horses.
Regarding the Pike thriving, I think thriving means to thread that needle and find the best approach that really addresses transportation, destination, and some anchors so that you can truly have a diverse community. To an extent, diverse means something different to someone else. But if we can have both some regional/national anchors, homegrown businesses, have a culturally diverse street with immigrants and people starting their careers, as well as a place for those that are more established, together, they can build something that's thriving. Unfortunately, those groups don't always connect with each other or they are fearful of each other that one of the other will drive the other out. But finding a way to make that happen, I think as a modern community and one that can thrive in the long run, is possible.
There is a zoning overlay here. There are a lot of wonderful things about the Pike’s form-based code, but there are some things that in the future probably will be advantageous to tweak. I think with form based code, the potential to have greater diversity of buildings along the Pike exists. Right now, it has a lot of mixed use development specified, which is wonderful. And at the same time, you need to make sure there's enough population density to support that mixed use, because mixed use implies there's retail throughout the ground floor, which needs a large enough customer base to succeed.
For instance, right now, there's an apartment that we have. With form based code, I think the maximum height is six stories. But you have to generate enough money to build off just six stories. If you're building, about twelve stories, the pricing is more advantageous; it's the same piece of land, the cost is the same, so the pricing can be more moderate for everybody if you have a greater number of units on that same piece of land.
So we're trying to find that balance, because you want to protect the integrity of the neighborhoods. No one living in a residential neighborhood wants to feel overrun, but yet you want to maintain a certain affordability with new property. You can always create affordability with older property that's not up to date or maintained completely, but eventually that property fails and you have to invest. It's just a matter of time. Obviously groups like APAH (the Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing) are trying to address that, but if you want a larger number of developers involved in that, then you need to create maybe a little more opportunity to increase the density on some of those units. Which, by the way, would also help the retail and commercial businesses beneath.
One piece of diversity that I still appreciate is Penrose Square, the park that the county built next to our development. It really is a stunning place in the summer because you have a lot of ways to define diversity. You have age diversity, cultural diversity, gender diversity, and I would say economic diversity, all within that space. And part of it is the water fountain that draws people to it.
I would love to see other places like that along the Pike, and I'm hoping that other developers also work with Arlington County to build new places. That's generally how those things are funded and that the opportunity exists to create other unique centers along the Pike for the community to gather, feel safe, and joyful at the same time."
Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.
Interview and photography by Lloyd Wolf.
Friday, October 26, 2018
Natalia O’Neill and Matthew O’Neill both grew up in Arlington, VA. Matthew was born at the Virginia Hospital Center and grew up in Cherrydale. Natalia came to Arlington from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, when she was four. They met when they attended Washington-Lee High School. They got married shortly after her 21st birthday and decided to live along the Pike and raise their son Carmelo there.
“I like Arlington a lot,” Matthew says. “There is so much to do in such a small place. I grew up in Cherrydale but Natalia and I decided to live near The Pike because you don't really need a car. The Pike is like an old trading route. Everything you need is here. And Cherrydale has changed a lot since I was younger. Now its all massive houses nobody buys.”
“I compare everything to Bridgewater, VA,” Natalia says. “It’s where I went to school and so I love the diversity here on The Pike. There I was easily identifiable---there were no immigrants there, leave alone undocumented ones. Here I feel comfortable. Here we have a support group for Dream Scholars who have graduated. And it’s not just for Dreamers but for all immigrants who want to share their stories. I really missed that in Bridgewater.”
“Our son Carmelo is growing up around diversity,” Matthew says. “Before Natalia got pregnant we planned to move to Annandale---cheap houses, ethnic food, but higher crime. Cherrydale is quaint and very wealthy---but I remember from my high-school days someone did get stabbed. My mom was scared for a long time. Hasn’t been any incidents of violence here but today a neighbor’s car got broken into.”
“When I was pregnant and we went looking for a place everything was super expensive so we settled on this location. The DHS [ Department of Human Services] was nearby for prenatal care. I was avoiding getting help for a lot of stuff, but this was very good. Matthew is learning to drive and I don’t so this is like a super highway. I can walk to Giant and Penrose Park and the library is right here. And the farmer’s market. And the Penrose Square fountains—Carmelo loves that!”
Natalia adds, “A funny thing I noticed there are a lot of fruit trees here -cherry trees, peaches, pears, apples and fig. People have beautiful gardens, especially people from Bangladesh, like my friend. Crazy amazing gardens!”
“When I go up to New York I miss the trees,” Matthew says.
“And there are so many kids here!” Natalia smiles. “I’ve lived on the Pike all my life. “
“I’m not sure of pre-schools, but I hope Carmelo can go to the one I went to in Clarendon,” Matthew says. “My work doesn’t pay very well right now but I’m really hoping this one I applied for works out.”
“I’m going back to school,” Natalia says. “I work part-time at the Target and that preschool has scholarships for low-income families.”
“One annoying thing about Arlington is job availability. We make just enough but are hoping to make more.”
“We met in high-school, freshman year. But we didn’t talk…”
“Despite me trying,” Matthew smiles.
“I thought he hated me. I hadn’t figured out how to shave my legs,” Natalia laughs. “I was super conscious. We met at a swim thing.”
“Our friends group met at a cafeteria. We were friends but dating others. Eventually we started talking more,” Matthew remembers.
“But Matthew had cats so that was a plus. We started dating in the last month of senior year.” Natalia explains.
Matthew remembers college. “I dropped out of MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore), and I want to finish, but not right now. I’m getting my certification for being a personal trainer. Another big thing - I want to start doing my martial art again, but we have no money now. It will have to wait till when I have a better job. I love martial arts from Asia. It’s great when you can trace the lineage of your teacher.”
“I was very out there as a kid and there were many mean kids,” Natalia remembers. “My sister had just started treatment for mental health issues—she wore dark clothes and isolated herself—and they would bully her. Maybe they knew we were poor. But I know I want to put Carmelo in a Tae Kwan Do school ASAP.”
“I was bullied in elementary school a lot,” Matthew adds. “I was weird; funny looking and with buck teeth. But then I stood up for myself and that stopped.”
“But there is a problem if you do that too,” Natalia says.
“Yeah - its zero tolerance.” Matthew adds.
“But if Carmelo does that I won’t mind. And I’m not worried about school shootings.” Natalia says.
“We were friendly with our school resource officer at W and L,” Matthew says. “He is armed with a gun and taser. He is very nice. I was very friendly with them all. He was part of Arlington Police. My mom felt I was safe at Science Focus then.”
Natalia says, “I want Carmelo to go to W-L as they have IB. But Wakefield has more AP.”
“And they are changing the name of W-L,” Matthew points out.
“Yeah, I’m excited for that,” Natalia says. “We both are.”
“Lee was a great general and historians say he didn't want to fight for the Confederacy but had loyalty. And Washington wasn’t such a great person…” Matthew says.
“And I was confused because they weren’t at the same time periods but we have both names and colors.”
“The school has a strong ROTC and it’s two of our greatest generals in history…”
“I don't think we should have war themes in school at all,” Natalia says. “When I was in Falls Church our mascot was a mustang - so wild and free! And in W and L it's a white guy - The General. But then I’m undocumented so I can’t fight in a war anyway.”
“Washington fought adopting Native American warfare and that changed how the English fought. I’m fascinated by strategies. Guerilla style worked with our terrain. And Washington learned this fighting the French and Indian War.”
“Speaking of war,” Natalia says, feeding Carmelo the delicious cake she had baked that morning, “I have met a lot of military kids and a trend I have noticed is they are extremely patriotic. They cling to their parents sacrifice and I get that, but school should not be like that - like when I told them I was undocumented. Anything named after war sets you up for not being able to see that.”
“My dad was on the wrestling team,” Matthew remembers, “and so he was drafted for Vietnam. But he was a pacifist. And he was in the Marines. We all know it was heavily protested and not a very popular war, as war should be. My grandfather on my mom’s side was in the Navy as were all his brothers. All five were in WWII. One was at Iwo Jima. But I deliberately stayed out of that. I support and honor those who join the military, but we can disagree on things too.”
Natalia navigates Carmelo’s toys and playpen and puts the bowl with cake crumbs on the table. “When I first came here from Bolivia the apartment we stayed in had bugs. We took out our toys and roaches came out! We moved from place to place – we came to a church in Falls Church and I started pre-school at Carlin Springs in Arlington. I was five and didn’t speak any English and it was very stressful. We had one translator. But I learned quick and was translating for new kids. We lived on The Pike; bounced around from apartments to duplexes in the Pike area.”
“When I was in elementary school I remember it was Mongolia that many people were coming from. Half the kids in my school were from Mongolia,” Matthew says.
“We hope to move out of this apartment when we have better jobs, but we plan to stay on the Pike.”
“I love this area,” Natalia says. “There is so much to do here.”
“I love big houses,” Matthew says.
“My parents clean houses so I don't like big houses,” Natalia laughs.
“My cousins all have boats,” Matthew laughs. “It’s my measure of success.”
“I don't like boats,” Natalia laughs too. “They are really expensive and cost as much as a house!”
After this interview was conducted, Natalia received her green card, and now has legal status. As Natalia says, “There are so many undocumented immigrants I have met in South Arlington, I think this will give us the visibility we need and people will know that we are part of this community for years.”