Are There Two Arlingtons?
Understanding the history behind Arlington's North-South divide and how it's shaping present-day perceptions and realities.
As chair of the Arlington Community Facilities Study Task Force, South Arlington resident John Milliken will recommend future sites for schools, fire stations and other municipal services. Photo by Michael Ventura
In 1973, during the run-up to the county elections, The Washington Post reported that every incumbent member of the Arlington County Board lived in the county’s northern half—specifically in the tony 22207 ZIP code, which includes the neighborhoods of Country Club Hills, Woodmont and historic Maywood. The story, which went so far as to plot board members’ residences on a map, caused such a ruckus that one Virginia state legislator made up a song about it, sung to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”:
Hail fair 22207, Daughter of Elysium…
Hail thy schools, Hail thy sewers, Hail thy membership on boards…
But to some county residents, the issue was no joke.
Two years later, South Arlington residents George Vollin Jr. and Harrison Douglas sued the county board unsuccessfully, charging that its at-large system of governance resulted in a geographic imbalance and de facto discrimination against African-American voters, most of whom lived in the southern part of the county. Shifting to a district system, they argued, would allow for more equitable, county-wide representation on policy matters and funding decisions.
Fast-forward to 2015, and accusations of geographic bias still invariably creep into deliberations over county spending—whether the issue on the table is a proposed streetcar project, an aquatics facility or a potential solution to school crowding.
When did all of this acrimony begin? And is northern favoritism a reality, or merely a lingering perception?
Geographically speaking, Arlington is, indeed, split in two. The division was codified in 1932 when the county adopted a new street-naming system to make street navigation more logical for emergency responders and postal workers. Under the system, Arlington Boulevard (U.S. Route 50) forms a dividing line between the county’s northern and southern halves. Numbered streets then run from east to west, parallel to Route 50, while named streets run from north to south.
But the county’s present-day tensions over latitude didn’t start with the street-naming system. History suggests that certain cultural and economic disparities existed well before street addresses were amended to include the words “North” and “South.” And their legacies may yet be feeding into modern-day perceptions of territorial fairness.
The term “North Arlington” actually predates the county’s given name. In the late 1800s, when Arlington was still a rural part of Alexandria County (it didn’t become Arlington County until 1920), the society pages of The Washington Post made reference to a country estate owned by Robert A. Phillips, a home called “North Arlington” in what is now the Dover-Crystal neighborhood north of Nellie Custis Drive and Military Road. (Most of the property is now Riverwood.) Though the origins of the property’s name are unclear, it may have been a nod to its coordinates in relation to Arlington House, the plantation home of Mary Anna Custis Lee and Robert E. Lee, which later became the centerpiece of Arlington National Cemetery.
Phillips wasn’t the only wealthy property owner drawn to the rolling hills north of Lee Highway. Some, like Rear Admiral Presley Marion Rixey, who served as the personal physician to two U.S. presidents—William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt—built sprawling estates overlooking the Potomac, where they lived year-round. In 1908, Rixey deeded 75 acres of his land for the creation of Washington Golf & Country Club, thus furthering the area’s appeal to affluent buyers and developers. (Today, the original Rixey Mansion anchors the campus of Marymount University.)
Others, such as the butter merchant Robert Cruit, maintained primary residences in Washington, D.C., and built summer retreats in Arlington for fishing, hunting and relaxation. (Cruit’s estate was used as a dairy farm before developer Frank Lyon purchased a good portion of it to build Lyon Village in the 1920s.)
At the same time, racial segregation played into early perceptions of a north-south divide. During the Civil War, the federal government created Freedman’s Village, a settlement for emancipated slaves on a portion of the former Custis-Lee estate, and its population soon swelled to several thousand. When the government disbanded the village in 1900, many of its inhabitants went on to form Arlington’s historically African-American neighborhoods, including Green Valley (now Nauck), Johnson’s Hill (now Arlington View) and Butler Holmes (now Penrose) in the areas around Columbia Pike.
Throughout the early 20th century, most of the county’s black residents continued to live south of what is now Arlington Boulevard, where, according to Census data, many of the men worked in the brickyards of Alexandria, drove coal trucks or did other manual labor, while women worked in laundries or as maids.
The north, meanwhile, was a land of doctors, lawyers, real estate investors, business tycoons and old money. And it was almost exclusively white, with the exception of one black neighborhood—High View Park-Hall’s Hill, which straddles Lee Highway a few blocks west of the intersection with Glebe Road—many of whose residents worked as servants in white homes, or as farmhands on nearby estates.
At the time, racial covenants prohibited African Americans from buying homes in many Arlington neighborhoods. One such covenant, created to preserve “homogeneity” in the northern neighborhood of Bellevue Forest in the 1930s, read: “No lot…shall ever be used, occupied by, sold…leased, rented, or given, to negroes, or any person…of negro blood…or to any person of the semetic [sic] race, blood, or origin…[the exception being] occupancy of the premises by domestic servants of the owner…”
Even after the abolishment of Jim Crow laws and the 1968 adoption of the Fair Housing Act, the economics of race continued to exert a lasting impact on real estate values in Arlington—a phenomenon that was often brought into sharp focus by geography.
While the northern suburbs remained primarily white (the Vietnamese community that thrived for a time in Clarendon was later forced out by gentrification), new waves of Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants flocked to the neighborhoods south of Route 50, where housing prices were relatively affordable when compared with other parts of Arlington. In 2001, a Brookings Institution report found 130 nationalities represented along Columbia Pike (specifically the 22204 ZIP code), making it one of the “most diverse areas in the metropolitan region.”
And though the demographics of that area continue to change—Nauck, the African-American enclave that was once home to medical pioneer Charles Drew, is now one of Arlington’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods—the discrepancies in housing prices have not.
Last year, the average home sale in Nauck, just south of Columbia Pike, was $417,592, according to the real estate listing service MRIS. By comparison, the average home sale in Lyon Village, which sits due north of Clarendon, and where covenants once forbade the sale or lease of homes “to anyone not of the Caucasian race,” was $1.5 million.
There are, of course, exceptions. In 2014, average home prices in South Arlington’s Arlington Ridge neighborhood—a topographical high point that enjoys enviable views and close proximity to Washington, D.C.—topped $1 million, according to MRIS.
But a broader view of the county landscape shows some lingering disparities. The average price of an Arlington home north of Route 50 (including single-family homes, townhomes and condos) in 2014 was $737,000, compared with an average of $453,000 in South Arlington, according to numbers provided by Paul Cachion, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in Arlington. “It’s pretty dramatic,” he says.
The price differences often come down to land costs. “Last year, we sold a new home for just under $1.2 million on South 13th Street,” says Kathy Fong, a real estate agent with Keller Williams. “It was the most expensive home ever built in the 22204 ZIP code. The same builder then built the same house in Falls Church City, where property values are pretty much comparable to North Arlington, and it sold for $1.4 million. The same house might have garnered an even higher price tag had it been built in 22207.”
Economic differences are also evident in South Arlington schools such as Carlin Springs and Randolph Elementary, where 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. By comparison, less than 5 percent of students at Jamestown, Nottingham and Taylor (all located in the north) qualify for this government benefit, according to Arlington Public Schools (APS).
This becomes a cyclical force, insofar as perceptions of schools tend to influence real estate prices. (Several real estate agents, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that there are homebuyers in today’s market who perceive South Arlington schools, which are more economically and ethnically diverse, as academically weaker. As a result, these buyers tend to avoid neighborhoods in those school districts and are willing to pay a premium for “better schools.”)
Another uncomfortable reality feeding into the equation is community engagement, which some observers say is more pervasive in the county’s northern neighborhoods.
There is a perception that municipal problems get taken care of faster on the “north side,” says Alfred Taylor Jr., a lifelong resident of Nauck (his father was a county employee for four decades) who served as president of his neighborhood civic association from 2001 to 2006, and again from 2011 to 2014. But northern residents may also be more likely to call and report issues.
“If there was a pothole in the street [here],” Taylor says, “the pothole would remain. But later you would come to find that no one called. The county doesn’t just drive around looking for potholes.”
Generally speaking, northerners tend to be squeakier wheels, says John Antonelli, who has served on the Arlington County Community Services Board, the County Housing Commission and held other posts. “They are much more politically savvy [in the north] than most South Arlington families,” says the government analyst, who lives in Douglas Park near Columbia Pike.
But time is also an issue. “If you’re working three jobs, you don’t have time to go to PTA meetings” or to petition the county board when you’re unhappy with its plans, Antonelli says. Residents who are non-native speakers also are less likely to write letters to elected officials or speak up in community forums.
Alfred Taylor Jr., recent past president of the Nauck Civic Association, stresses unity over geographic partisanship. Photo by Michael Ventura.
Historically, North Arlington residents have been more likely to mobilize NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) protests against proposals they disagree with. Consequently, South Arlington has been saddled with “the things that nobody wants,” Antontelli contends. As examples, he cites a detox and rehabilitation center on Columbia Pike, and the county’s Department of Human Services, which is in the process of moving all of its operations from Clarendon to the county’s Sequoia Plaza just south of Route 50.
To be fair, North Arlington is also home to a few county facilities that are less than bucolic. Among them: a salt dome, a leaf mulch site and a water tower in the Old Dominion neighborhood.
Nevertheless, the perception of geographic unfairness can be hard for county officials to overcome. Especially when they are operating in the wake of decades-old animosities—like the ones that former county board chairman John Purdy cemented in 1975 in an op-ed letter to The Washington Post, which he penned in response to citizen complaints about an existing incinerator (used to burn sludge) and an expanding sewage plant off of South Glebe Road.
“The current preoccupation of some persons with the idea that South Arlington is somehow a stepchild in terms of services seems to me to have stemmed from a combination of frustrated political ambitions,” Purdy wrote (referencing the failed attempt to overhaul the county board structure to a district-based system), “and the disgust of a small neighborhood affected by the incinerator and the sewage plant.”
That, in turn, prompted responses from a number of South Arlington residents, including John Marr, then president of the Arlington Ridge Civic Association (whose neighborhood overlooks the sewage plant), Emmy Lou Runyan and Sherman Pratt.
Together, they outlined a litany of concerns, from the sewage plant and sludge-burning to the dominance of I-395 and other highways in the South Arlington landscape.
Why was it that in North Arlington, citizen complaints had resulted in Route I-66 being pushed below grade and downscaled to occupy a smaller footprint, whereas public concerns over highway traffic and environmental blight in South Arlington seemed to be falling on deaf ears, they wondered?
Similar questions are still being asked today.
Though Wakefield High School—the only Arlington public high school south of Route 50—was recently renovated to the tune of $118.6 million, the project was third in line after Washington-Lee (renovated in 2009 for $99.4 million) and Yorktown (which reopened in 2013 after a three-phase, $84.1 million remodel).
Some residents viewed the pecking order as evidence of a northern bias, although Arlington County Board Chair Mary Hynes insists that when the buildings were being evaluated, Wakefield appeared to be in the best shape of the three. Only after construction was underway was it discovered that the original Wakefield building had mold issues.
“So you can say the school board or the superintendent or the head of design and construction or facilities should have taken a different approach,” Hynes says. “That would be legitimate, and that approach may have brought Wakefield to the front of the line. But by all the metrics that the board was looking at [during the evaluation phase], Wakefield didn’t need to be done as urgently as Washington-Lee.”
Tensions were again ignited in January when APS announced Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Community Center (TJ) as a potential location for a new elementary school building to alleviate overcrowding. One site solution would have encroached on the park and athletic field next to the school, taking a bite out of neighborhood green space.
The timing of the announcement came just as the county also began looking into an expansion of Benjamin Banneker Park, near North Sycamore Street in North Arlington, Antonelli points out.
Though the proposal for TJ has since been amended (the revised plan does not compromise green space, but instead confines most of the construction to an existing surface parking lot), the county board has asked APS to look at other options.
Hynes acknowledges that the final decision, whatever it may be, is bound to leave some citizens unhappy.
“There is no place where there’s zero impact,” she says, noting that the school system needs to create an additional 700 elementary seats,1,300 middle school seats and 2,200 high school seats to accommodate a countywide capacity problem and a growing student population. (This year alone, APS welcomed 1,200 new students.) “TJ may be one of [the sites],” she says. “It’s a good plan.”
Sometimes the best decision for the county as a whole is not in the best interests of a single neighborhood or a smaller subset of residents, adds John Milliken, who was recently appointed chair of the Arlington Community Facilities Study Task Force, a group formed in January to make recommendations regarding the future placement of schools, fire stations, vehicle storage and other county services.
A resident of Arlington Ridge, Milliken is now charged with creating a 20-year “resource strategic plan” that is geographically agnostic.
“I think the criteria should apply countywide,” says Milliken, who is no stranger to controversy. He served on the Arlington County Board in the 1980s, during a time when political tensions were high over the development of the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro corridor and its effects on adjacent neighborhoods.
There is a certain pride of place in South Arlington today.
A line of T-shirts and hoodies, created by Wakefield High School alum Ryan Fountain, bears images of well-known landmarks, intersections and neighborhoods, from Shirlington to Green Valley, with the words “South Arlington” in bold type. One shirt reads, “It’s not an accident kids from South Arlington are successful!” Fountain worked as a facilities manager in the cultural affairs division of Arlington Economic Development before recently relocating to Austin, Texas.
At L.A. Bar (the acronym stands for Lower Arlington) across from Penrose Square on Columbia Pike, the slogan “Keeping yuppies out of South Arlington” strikes a defiant tone.
But some county residents view such invocations as counterproductive. “I’ve seen great changes in Arlington as a whole,” says Taylor, the former Nauck Civic Association president, who holds a doctorate from Virginia Tech. He understands the origins of some old resentments, but says he prefers to focus on establishing unity as the county evolves to find its 21st-century identity.
“I personally believe in one Arlington,” concurs David Remick, a resident of the Claremont neighborhood in South Arlington. Now the executive director of the Alexandria/Arlington Workforce Investment Board, he originally moved to Arlington from Boston, where, he says, similar tensions exist between areas like South Boston and the city’s more-affluent neighborhoods.
“I understand people’s frustrations,” Remick says, though he sees little evidence of a dichotomy in Arlington today. “The way I see it, my daughter will be attending a brand-new Wakefield High School. When it snows, my neighborhood is one of the first to get plowed. I go to the [county-run] Barcroft sports complex to work out. I have no complaints.”
But some say the “south card” still gets played in certain scenarios.
“It was an easy retort when the streetcar [discussion] was going on, [as in] ‘Oh, it’s South Arlington’s turn’ [to get some serious development money],” says Matt Wavro, a former county board candidate and the current chair of the Arlington GOP. He lives just off Columbia Pike and did not support the streetcar measure. “People would just say, ‘Money…If we don’t get this, it will take us another 20 years to get something.’ ”
A few residents also cried foul when a planned concession stand on Wakefield High School’s athletic fields was missing from the school’s renovation blueprints. The oversight was quickly rectified and the stand was built, but some still saw it as “one more example” of South Arlington getting ignored.
“[The concession stand was] one of those things that—oops—fell through the cracks at first,” says Wakefield PTA President Kate McCauley-Balick.
Wakefield High School PTA President Kate McCauley-Balick. Courtesy photo.
McCauley-Balick lives in North Arlington (Courthouse). Her kids went to Gunston Middle and Wakefield High after completing the Spanish immersion program at Key Elementary. She says her current role as head of the PTA is a testament to her appreciation for the fine education her kids have received at Wakefield. And with a price tag of $118.6 million (one of the most expensive school renovations in state history, according to the Virginia Department of Education), she says one would be hard-pressed to accuse the county of skimping on the school building itself.
Similarly, others say the ongoing characterization of South Arlington as economically stagnant is tough to defend when one considers the massive tide of redevelopment that has swept areas like Shirlington, Pentagon City, Crystal City and Columbia Pike in recent years.
“I think it’s well on the way to becoming upscale,” says John Van Doren, an arts and antiques consultant and fourth-generation Arlingtonian who has lived in the Bluemont neighborhood since childhood. He sees the persistence of North-South stereotypes as misguided and culturally detrimental.
“South Arlington doesn’t mean any one thing to any one person,” he says, noting that the neighborhoods that make up the county’s southern half are as diverse as the people who live there.
Last November, a caller dialing into WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” identified herself as “Christine…a resident of South Arlington, the ugly stepchild of Arlington.”
She introduced herself this way before posing a question about bus rapid transit to Arlington County Board Member John Vihstadt, a guest on the show that day.
Vihstadt, who previously lived on Columbia Pike (his son still does) and now resides in Tara-Leeway Heights in North Arlington, paused and leaned into the microphone. “It really pains me when we get into this argument about a north-south divide in Arlington,” he said. “I really view our county as one Arlington.”
The problem is, not everyone shares that conviction. And on matters of county politics, perceptions have proven to be just as powerful as the hard realities driving budgets, site selections for county facilities and the allocation of resources.
“The county board is not tone-deaf,” Milliken, the facilities planner, says, giving elected officials credit for how they handle the difficult, no-win diplomatic predicaments they so often find themselves in.
On the streetcar issue (which he personally supported), Milliken says, “They listened. It was clear, in two elections, and in a lot of community discussion, that the streetcar—fairly or not—had become something unnecessary, or at least not the right technology. They did what they needed to do in order to say to the community, ‘We heard you.’ ”
And yet, for all of their listening skills, due diligence and efforts to give equal airtime to all constituents, the current board members still have an image problem:
All of them, save one (Libby Garvey), live in North Arlington.
Arlington resident Steve Thurston was the founding editor of ArlingtonMercury.org, which operated for two years. He teaches writing and journalism courses at Montgomery College in Rockville.