Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Karen Vallejos

Karen Vallejos is the new executive director of the Dream Project. She lives along Columbia Pike.
"My family and I immigrated here when I was five, we came here from Bolivia. Our first home was in the Ballston area. For a few months we stayed with my aunt who had an apartment there. But as soon as we were able to save up some money we got our own apartment – the most affordable ones at the time were at Barcroft–and that’s how we came to The Pike. I grew up in Barcroft; I did first grade to middle school. I went to Randolph Elementary School and Kenmore Middle School. And then my parents had enough money to buy a place, a condo, also on The Pike, in Columbia Knoll Condominiums. 
When my parents were thinking about of buying a home, they were thinking of maybe moving to Maryland, or maybe Annandale or some places more affordable where they could have more space. But I had a very strong desire to stay in Arlington and my mother also wanted my brother and me to benefit from Arlington Public Schools where she felt we could get the best opportunities. 
Staying in Arlington
It had been where we grew up. I had always been involved in school-related stuff, so I knew a lot about the schools. From a very young age I said I wanted to go to Washington and Lee and do the IB program. I had already set out my path, even at a young age, so going to a new county seemed strange to me. Here I knew all my teachers and principals from all the years. I was very involved in the community so I just felt like I would lose that if I moved to a completely new place. My mom also, had already immigrated to a new country and settled on the Pike and moving again seemed very scary to her. Also, she had been told Arlington Public Schools were the best in the state so she said I want my kids to go to the best even if she couldn’t afford a house in Arlington, she’d prefer to buy a condo and stay in Arlington. 
Leaving The Pike
After high school I went to school in Texas, I left the whole area. I went to Southwestern Adventist University in a small town outside of the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. After graduating from there I came back, and I got a job in Falls Church at NoVA Salud. It’s a community health non-profit and my goal was eventually to go to law school. so I moved in with my parents to save money. I came back to The Pike and lived there for over a year. It was really easy to get to work from Columbia Pike. Then I went away for law school to Washington & Lee School of Law, three hours away in Virginia. After I graduated law school I got a job in Texas, at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid. 
When the pandemic hit I travelled abroad a lot but also moved back in with my parents as I had been away for 3 years. Eventually I took on the role of Executive Director at the Dream Project, in Arlington. I was living with my parents, and I decided I will buy a place in Arlington, too. I was looking around everywhere. Now I am closing on a place, also on The Pike, so maybe I am destined to stay in the area.
What Changed
The Columbia Pike area has changed a lot even since I first moved when I was five or six. Specifically in the past 1ten years since I graduated high school it has changed more. I remember when I would go to college, I couldn’t afford to come back every break, but I would come back for Christmas break and then summer and every time I came back a new part of Columbia Pike had changed and was under construction. And all the three years of college I was surprised by how much construction happened on Columbia Pike. A lot of smaller buildings had changed to become multipurpose centers with businesses in the bottom and residences on top and so more to match the Ballston-Clarendon area. Arlington Mill had been demolished completely and the new building was up. Again, when I left for law school, and I came back everything kept changing.  So it’s been rapidly changing. Even in my parents building originally there used to be a lot of small four-person families living there, all of them were there for the schools, wanted their kids to go to certain schools and most of them were families of color–Latino, Indian, Ethiopian–it was diverse. Now that’s changed and it’s a lot younger professionals moving into that building and all the other families have left too. The demographics are changing as its younger and less families now.
Even areas like the Barcroft area where there used to be a Food Star gracery, the local place where everyone shopped and now that’s changed too. I think everyone who lived in Barcroft shopped there. I remember when I was little we would walk there because it was the most convenient marketplace. The MegaMart was always super full because it is the closest supermarket that still has affordable prices. And because Columbia Pike is so diverse people need a supermarket to shop for everything.
Buying a Home 
Park Glen is where I am buying my condo. I knew I wanted to stay in Arlington and my preference was to be near a metro because one of the things I know about Columbia Pike is the transportation is horrible there. I wanted to be in a place where I didn’t have to rely on my car so much. But I also decided to buy a place probably at the worst time of buying a home. I looked at Buckingham, this area, I would put in an offer, and they would have three multiple cash offers. I almost closed on a place on [Route] 50 but then there were some issues with the inspection. Then I started to look in Falls Church and Annandale because I assumed I was not going to be able to buy in Arlington at that point, and I needed a place. The places outside the county were bigger and newer but when I saw an open house in Park Glen and I said, That’s right here! Let me go look! Its older and smaller but it’s in Arlington and I think I have always had this strong desire to stay in the county. 
New and Same
I am looking forward to owning a place as a first-time home buyer, and I am happy that I am staying in that area too. Something about Columbia Pike is that as a lot is changing there is a lot that is the same and it’s still a place where people know each other, especially those of us who have grown up there. There are four Bolivian restaurants just on The Pike all walking distance. There’s great pho, Thai food, Indian food. I think all the ethnic restaurants there are good. And a lot of locals go and eat there too so it’s tailored to them. Also I know some people, like there is a cashier in the CVS near Park Glen who has known me since I was in elementary school and consistently asks me, “Did you graduate high school? Did you graduate college? Are you a working?” I don’t have a close relationship with them but they know you because they have interacted with you your whole life. I like that about Columbia Pike. When I almost closed on the place on Route 50 I thought, Oh I will not have that anymore. In general Arlington County is a small county so that’s what makes it special. You can run into people you know anywhere in Arlington but particularly Columbia Pike, for those of us who have lived there our whole lives it is easy to run into people who have known you, they are part of your community.
Living in Park Glen is great as it’s right next to the W&OD trail, where I have jogged my whole life. I love jogging there, all of high school I jogged there, and when I came back for college too. During the pandemic I jogged there every day. It takes you all the way to East Falls Church. I have jogged all the way to the East Falls Church Metro and come back and it’s just great as there’s deer and nature and it’s a nice escape from the city. 
The Road Ahead
I do think a lot of change is coming to Columbia Pike. I think a lot of it will be for the good, but I do see some issues that are going to arise as more people move there. I know there is a focus on making it a more of a walkable community which I am strongly in favor of, but I think the issue with Columbia Pike is you need to leave the area for so many different things because it’s not a walkable community the way Ballston or Clarendon is. I do like the idea of mixed-use buildings with commercial real estate and supermarkets on the bottom and housing on top but with more people I think it is going to cause more traffic and congestion. There is already a huge parking issue on The Pike, especially for residents. I think a lot of the businesses that have opened up have had to make partnerships or get help from the County. If you go for commercial parking you can park for free or first 2 hours is free so getting to businesses is a little bit easier but I think for long-term residents it’s become harder and harder to park their own cars unlike Ballston and Clarendon, Rosslyn. That’s really what affects families. Growing up here I remember in high school kids would brag about being green and say, “Oh my family is only a one car family.” But it’s easy to be Green when you live in North Arlington and your parents can Metro to work. Whereas most families I knew on The Pike were three or four car families because the minute you could get a car you had to so your parents didn’t have to drive you around. It wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity. Buses are great on Columbia Pike, I think they come every two to three minutes. But it’s still a lot longer to get places when there is so much traffic; it's not reliable to get to work. Especially for families who must be at work and are unable to work from home or remotely. If there are snow days or road construction issues it’s not reliable. 
I have heard people in the community are frustrated with the parking situation. Especially around the Park Glen and Barcroft areas. I have also heard that even condos will sometimes give you two parking spots or one parking spot and then its street parking, but a lot of street parking is being lost. In Park Glen I get 1one, which is fine as I live alone. I think that’s why this works better for young professionals but not for families, who are leaving the area. 
My office is hybrid. We have an office in DC but most of my work can be done from home, so my place being a two-bedroom, I’ll have an office there. So, for me it won’t be too difficult which is why I was more ok not living near a Metro and staying in the Columbia Pike area. If I had a job where I needed to be in DC everyday, I would have waited to find a place near a Metro and have that convenience.
Long term I don’t know if I’ll stay in the area, but now owning a place here means my roots will always be here and it’s nice to have a place to always come back to."

Interview by Sushmita Mazumdar, photography by Lloyd Wolf.

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