Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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More proof that Arlingtonians love history.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been handed or discovered a stack of out-of-the-mainstream histories of our fair county, all pleasant surprises even for obsessives such as I.

“Arlington Then and Now” is a coming 28-page 2018 calendar packed with vintage local sepia photos with text. It was produced by graphic designer Bill L’Hommedieu for ArlingtonVaCalendars.com.

Bike enthusiasts Natalie and Manik Roy of Keller Williams’ Bicycling Realty Group produced “Arlington 411: The 2017 Homeowner’s Guide to the Neighborhoods of Arlington, Va.”  It sketches historical fun facts and livability traits of our ‘hoods, with an invitation to enjoy bike paths while house-hunting.

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“A Is for Arlington,” an inviting picture book for children, was published last year by county teachers Jennifer Burgin and Elizabeth Kuleski.

If you liked the movie “Hidden Figures,” check out the 2005 online title from the National Security Agency “The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WWII to 1956.” It rescues a neglected “story of African-Americans employed by NSA, and its forerunners at Arlington Hall Station.”

Back then, “the overwhelming majority of African-Americans were segregated in primarily support elements, consistent with army policies and U.S. mores,” it says. Interviews revealed the “tremendous gulf between America’s promise of equality and the reality,” and gives overdue credit.

Equally hidden is a 60-page booklet I found on amazon titled “A History of the Boundaries of Arlington, Virginia.” Published in 1957 and updated in 1967 by County Manager Bert Johnson, the reprint by HardPress summarizes two centuries of legal boundary changes. It offers maps and discussions of legal disputes between Arlington, the District of Columbia and Alexandria.

“No definite effort was made at the time of the [1846] recession of Alexandria County to Virginia to draw a boundary line between the county and the remaining portion of the District,” it notes. As the federal government built bridges, roads and what became National Airport, locals brought suit. In 1931, the Supreme Court set the boundary “at the high water mark of the Potomac on the Virginia shore as it existed in 1791.”

Finally, the Arlington Historical Society sold me the memoir of early 20th century life in South Arlington titled “Zulu Remembers,” published in 2005 by Zulu Dietrich. The wife of a Crystal City restaurateur, Dietrich recalls her childhood in the 1920s and peppery characters in Aurora Hills/Virginia Highlands.

The short essays capture Arlington’s trolley-days under the old street-naming system. She describes such events as the 1930 arrival of a library (at 23rd and South Eads Sts.) and a post office. Reminiscences conjure the clay pits used for brick-making, the Airport Drive-In theater and the neighborhood newspaper “The Community News.”

Dietrich details the building of the (since closed) Nellie Custis Elementary School on South 23rd , which meant she no longer had to travel to Alexandria’s Del Ray for classes. She reported on the emergency World War II housing project called the Jubal Early homes (named for the avant-garde Confederate general) on South Fern, which was razed in the 1950s.

Scampering back and forth through time, Dietrich recalls a “Pentagon City” erected before today’s shopping/hotel complex and Metro Stop. The 1961 sports complex had twin 40-lane bowling alleys, restaurants, a ballroom, pinball, billiards and a skating rink. Despite the investors’ 99-year lease, they declared bankruptcy and closed it in 1967. Today the site is Crystal Towers.

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A marker celebrating the 92-year history of Washington-Lee High School is set for dedication after Labor Day. It is fruit of a three-year effort by the alumni association working with the school board and Historical Affairs Landmark Review Board.

But after this month’s Charlottesville violence, School Board Chairman Barbara Kanninen released a statement that proposed revisiting school names that honor the Confederacy.

On ABC News “This Week” on Sunday, host Martha Raddatz mentioned that Arlington is mulling name changes for both W-L and Jefferson Davis Highway. The alums expect heated debate.

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