Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Larry Yungk

Larry Yungk was flipping through the pages of the Living Diversity book. “This wall reminds me of a wall that was in our neighborhood. I think it was 1998, when I was still relatively new in the neighborhood and got roped in to join the Alcova Heights Civic Association (AHCA). My neighbor Walter Green and I were taking pictures for our revised AHCA Neighborhood Conservation Plan. The Plan is kind of a blueprint for neighborhoods to use with the County to address community concerns and make improvements. One problem was that there was only one block left on Columbia Pike with no sidewalk, and it was in our neighborhood. It was a dangerous spot where pedestrians had to step into a busy street. On the day we took pictures, a kid came down the sidewalk bouncing a basketball and stepped into the street and Walter got the shot—with a bus looming in the background.

“A year later I was the President of the AHCA. We presented our plan at a County meeting and we included the photo with a proposal for the sidewalk and wall for this block. (We did this as a PowerPoint back when few people still knew what that was!) And we got the funds to build the sidewalk.”

The Alcova name comes from the Alcova House, a historic property in the neighborhood.  Alcova stands for (Al)exandria (Co)unty, (V)irgini(a), Larry explains. “The Alcova Heights Association back then worked with the Country to get the funding that built a playground, pavilions, bridges and made other upgrades in Alcova Heights Park. All those upgrades in the park benefited us and others in South Arlington. There was one last unpaved street in Alcova Heights and we got that fixed too. It’s a lot of work to put the plan together and create your wish-list, but it was worth it.”

“Arlington is one of the very few places in the country that has this system—money raised by a county tax that neighborhood associations can apply for to use to fund ideas to improve their communities. I think the fund has ten to twelve million dollars in it. The bottom line is that except for the final County approval, it is all in the hands of the neighborhoods. Someone asked me if it actually works. You let citizens plan what happens next in your neighborhoods? Yes, I said. You do and it works.”

“My first Arlington apartment was at Fillmore Gardens near the Career Center in 1988,” Larry said. “I had lived in a lot of places—Maryland, Northeast DC, Southeast, Northwest DC, Takoma, Beltsville and even Annapolis. But it was here that I met my partner, Dang in 1991. It turned out Dang lived in a condo right on the other side of the Pike on Walter Reed. We both took the bus a lot and Dang knew everyone on his commute as he went into DC for work for years. It was so convenient and easy biking (even though I had to carry my bike up 3 floors to my apartment). We went out for a couple of years and eventually decided we should buy a place together. DC was expensive and we both liked South Arlington, so that is where we wanted to be.

We looked around and eventually put a bid on a house in Alcova Heights but didn’t get it. The day after, Dang drove around to look at the house one last time. On the next street, he saw people going into a house, one of whom he knew was a realtor. He stopped and asked the realtor, and learned the house was about to be put up for sale. It was owned by the original owners, who had been there since 1941—it still had the original stove (which we kept for a long time). Later that day, we came back to look at the inside of the house. Then we went into the backyard and it stretched on forever. We asked the realtor, ‘Is this all part of the house?’ The yard was 250 feet deep, which as it turns out is not that unusual for Alcova where some yards are twice as deep!

The Middletons, who we bought it from, were vegetable gardeners and they had fruit trees. And our neighbors knew so much [about gardening]. When things started growing around our garage after we moved in---it looked like a bush---we asked the neighbor Doug, ‘what is this?’ He said it was fig! When we moved in, I knew a little about gardening, and Dang, almost nothing. Over the next 25 years, Dang became an expert gardener, and now the yard has gardens everywhere, and we have even been on several garden tours.” 

Our neighbor at the time was Doug True. He was in his 80’s and was the first to welcome us. That was a big relief to us as a same-sex couple. And we learned so much about the history of the area from Doug. In his backyard he had a great red oak, 60 feet high planted by his grandfather. The land our house was on was once owned by Doug, and he sold it to the Middletons. He told us that in the 1930’s Arlington streets were renamed to the alphabetical and number system we have now (which is why streets like 6th street have so many separate parts!) The National Foreign Affairs Training Center is located behind our house in an area called Arlington Hall. During WWII, Arlington Hall used to be an army base and there they did the code breaking during WWII—the Japanese code was broken there. Doug said, when they put roads in—like Quincy and 6th (my street) they made them extra wide so Army vehicles could go on them. There were once guards who patrolled the perimeter, which was just outside our backyard.

“In the 1990s, there were still so many of the original owners. Now most of those original neighbors are gone. Mrs. Middleton was 84 when she sold to us. When we moved here in the 1990s there were very few families with young kids. Then when they had kids they moved out. We do have houses now where the owners’ kids have moved in with their families. Now in the last two years dozens of houses have sold and it seems everyone has kids!

“Maybe it was a Southern thing, not walking through front yards—but we pushed for 15 years to have sidewalks put in on many of our streets. On many of our streets they only got put in over the last 10 years or so. Now so many people are out walking, and kids riding their bikes. I think the sidewalks made us a more family friendly place. Also, people got fed up commuting from far suburbs and I think younger people are happy with the smaller houses here. Some were cottages, some hunting shacks converted into houses. For a few years, many folks were tearing them down and building big but now people are just adding additions to the old houses. The neighborhood is younger, youthful, noisier. Someone told me your neighborhood is halfway between Manhattan and Mayberry.

So the battle continues—trying to keep both people’s visions happy. In the Arlington “Urban Village” idea the County promotes, I think the needle is more toward Manhattan.  Our neighborhood has changed from blue to white collars. I remember when we were buying, our realtor tried to reassure us by saying, “The area between Route 50 and Columbia Pike is really Central Arlington and not South Arlington.”  But it is South Arlington. And what we have liked here is the diversity that we found on the Pike and in the neighborhoods, which is different than you find in most of North Arlington.”

When I came to DC in 1980 it was a different. I originally came to go to law school, but dropped out of and began to work with refugees. In 1987 I started with the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and retired as senior resettlement officer in Nov 2017. I have known The Pike since the early 80’s when I did resettlement work and you could find affordable housing for refugees here, in places like Culmore, PG County, and even in neighborhoods in DC that were then cheap, like Adams Morgan. Most refugees liked living near bus lines, ethnic stores, and restaurants. There were many Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian refugees in Arlington but many later moved farther out as they wanted to be in houses, more suburban. Others, like the Ethiopians, seemed to like the urban feel of The Pike. Many came here from cities in Ethiopia and Eritrea. We still see Ethiopians and other Africans now but it’s not as many as in the 80’s. The immigrants here now are more Latino. But there are also others like Mongolians — most people don’t know, but Arlington has the largest concentration of Mongolians in the US.  Some refugees are still here in Alcova, I know a Cambodian family who have been here since the 80’s.

“There is another kind of diversity here with three couples on our street and more in the neighborhood from the LGBT community. It has always been a very welcoming neighborhood.   Not just me, but other LGBT folks have been officers in our Association.  Anytime you move, you take a chance on being accepted, but being in Arlington, you know it would work. Dang is Thai and had a friend who lived in the neighborhood who was a Lao refugee so that was also a plus for us.

““Overall, Alcova is a mostly white neighborhood but there is still diversity. There are several African American families here and Indian American families too.  We also have many Latinos living here. Sometimes you see plants in front yards and wonder what’s that? Later you learn they are things like Asian pears, curry plants, or Japanese persimmons.

Not everyone in Alcova Heights owns their home.  There are a lot of rental houses where you see Latinos and others living in groups trying to make it in the US. Later you see many of these folks moving from rentals into owning their own houses.  

Then there is a diversity of the kinds of jobs people have. There are many military people here, which is not at all like where I grew up in Ohio. We have people working in the private sector, government, for museums, in the Foreign Service, musicians, and stay at home parents - all living side-by-side.  We’ve had an award-winning AP journalist, a cartoonist, and a cellist who plays at the Kennedy Center Opera. There is diversity in ages as well, although the neighborhood is definitely getting younger.

“One thing that’s my favorite is nature and how much of it we still have here. So you see deer walking down the alleys—yeah we still have alleys. We see herons, owls, and this year the most Monarch butterflies ever! We have foxes and ducks live in the park in the spring. (It’s one of the reasons we do a neighborhood park clean up each year.) The only thing we haven’t seen yet is a bear. I’d love to see one but not in my backyard! Dang and I love nature. We just sit in our backyard and listen to the birds. We have more nature than you’d ever expect being this close to the city.

“One of the things I loved most while Il lived here was learning photography, the old-fashioned film kind, at the Career Center. I was part of the Adult Learning group who met there for 15 years. It was not just the photography, but I made a lot of friends there – and it was a great break from the usual work. Unfortunately, this year the photo class had to be disbanded as the Career Center had to use the space for other things. Also, we lost the oldest and most beloved classmate this year. I still feel those losses.”

“Now we are retired, and are planning to move to Cincinnati. My parents live there and now need more help. Also, this is an expensive area for retirees. We will miss a lot of the benefits of living in Arlington. Dang loves the convenience of Columbia Pike and public transit so when we decided to move to Ohio it has been hard to find the right place as it is so different from here. When I showed him Route 4 there he thought it was like the Pike. And then I took him to see the huge Jungle Jim’s grocery—you know Dang is a chef. Once, he saw all that international food he finally felt he could survive even in Cincinnati.”

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar of Studio Pause. Photography by Lloyd Wolf.

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