The Facebook page “I grew up in Arlington, VA” has for some five years been a cool source of old photos, local lore, high school boosterism and shared memories from intimate online strangers.
Recently I’ve been wowed by posted images of the old Putt-Putt mini-golf course that glowed in glorious orange at the Glebe Road-Wilson Boulevard crossroads. They appeared alongside 1960s images taken nearby of the giant message sign of old Parkington shopping center and the diamond motifs from the old Bob Peck Chevrolet (recreated last year on the substituted JBG Properties building).
“I grew up in Arlington, VA” boasts 10,500 members. Its free-for-all exchanges are currently moderated by life-long Arlingonian Eric Dobson (Washington-Lee Class of ‘83).
“I try to set a tone by keeping it clear, and as long people stay within a fairly large margin of discussion, I let it go,” he told me. “But if comments become offensive, I might delete.” A recent linked article on Arlington’s Nazi past provoked some edgy debate that expanded to the Ku Klux Klan’s onetime presence in Ballston. “Surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t know all this was going on,” says Dobson, adding that as a child, his parents shielded him from such material. “But it’s part of our history and we need to talk about it.”
More often, the postings are on “more positive stuff,” he says, citing memories of Tom Sarris Orleans House restaurant in Rosslyn, the old South Pacific restaurant on Wilson Boulevard, Gifford’s Ice Cream and the still-going Mario’s Pizza and the Broiler. “I was floored at how many engaged in those. It’s a hugely emotional topic and people love telling their stories.”
The multi-generational visitors flesh out the Arlington lifestyle, which expands beyond the borders. One lamented the recent closing of Luigi’s Italian restaurant that served D.C. for 70 years. Another recalled how the late Juvenile Court Judge Berton Kramer sentenced him to time in Beaumont, the downstate youth correctional institute.
Many users reconnect with former neighbors or classmates, or their siblings. Some report ultra-local news, like school sports scores and the recent closing of the Westover 7-Eleven.
Dobson, who has two co-moderators, took over the site several years ago after the founder, a younger college student named Kwabena Stefan, moved on. Dobson changed some policies, no longer allowing spammers and scammers to sign on to bombard users “to sell shoes” or post derogatory information.
Asked about balance around the county, Dobson says the “representation is probably proportionate to school history, with W-L graduates having been around the longest,” he said. “There’ s probably a more north Arlington focus, because the north was bigger and more engaged in commerce—Crystal City wasn’t there before the early ‘70s,” he notes.
Dobson, who works for a commercial real estate trade association, is an avid photo collector. (He sent me an impressively ancient aerial shot of my boyhood street in Cherrydale.) He gets asked to identify photos by the Arlington Central Library’s Center for Local History. He requests that users acknowledge sources for photos they post, “but people need to self-regulate. I’ve posted personal pictures, but once they’re up, it’s out of my control.”
Some visitors “look at the Facebook page just for their own entertainment,” Dobson says. “But that’s not how it works. You’re supposed to post.”