Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Crystal City is not a city.

I’ve had to stress this point repeatedly to journalistic colleagues raised elsewhere who were planning to dateline stories from the exotic-sounding “Crystal City, Va.”

Such misconceptions about this transforming section of Arlington will persist given last month’s huge Amazon announcement, which has brought no end of speculation over Crystal City’s future. It also prompted new interest in its colorful past as residents strive to maintain a human space below the glass tower skyline.

Last week, WAMU radio personality Kojo Nnamdi brought his “Roadshow” town hall to the neighborhood’s Synetic Theater to explore the pros and cons of Arlington’s successful luring of the online giant’s second HQ.

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County Board Chair Katie Kristol touted long-term benefits for a restrained county investment, while Roshan Abraham of the nonprofit Our Revolution Arlington questioned the “massive state gift to a company headed by the world’s richest person.”

Warning against rising traffic and reduced parking for residents was Carol Fuller, president of the Crystal City Civic Association (founded in 2014 as the county’s “only civic association with no single-family homes.”)

In September, in the run-up to Amazon’s advent, Fuller recruited Arlington historian Kathryn Holt Springston for a talk titled “Crystal City: From Swamps, Forts and brickyards to Skyscrapers?” Springston said vestiges of the 19th-century racetrack were visible in the neighborhood until the 1940s. She described the area’s two early 20th-century amusement parks, Arlington Beach and Luna Park.

Fuller scored an interview with her neighbor, magazine publisher David Bruce Smith, the son of Crystal City developer Robert H. Smith whose widow, philanthropist Clarice lives nearby.

The younger Smith shot down the common misconception that the enclave name came from “Crystal House,” the first of 40 buildings begun in 1964 by Robert Smith and partner Robert Kogod. In fact, that first apartment tower on South Eads was named for the chandelier the two installed after being impressed by a similar one in Dallas, Texas.

Before development flourished (the entrepreneurs offered bargain rates to federal agencies), the area “was a conglomeration of places that sold junk, used tires, a drive-in movie theater, a run-down ice skating rink, second-hand materials — it was very unattractive,” said the older Smith in his 2009 Washington Post obituary.

“Clay pits and kilns,” was how Arlington historian Cornelia B. Rose described the area dominated in the early the 20th century by the brickworks of the Washington Brick and Terra Cotta Co. The industrial area leading to the Potomac Yard railway tracks for decades was bordered by sketchy bar-rooms of the 19th-century Jackson City and National Airport’s precursor, Hoover Field.

To its south was a section affectionately called “the Dump” by local girl Zula Dietrich in her memoir of childhood in the 1920s. “It “smoldered along—24/7—for more years than anyone wants to remember,” she wrote before the incinerator, sewage treatment and hazardous waste complex emerged on South Glebe Rd.

Today’s Crystal City retains status as host of Arlington’s only strip club. The Crystal City Restaurant Gentleman’s Club on South 23rd St. was established in 1963 by William Bayne Sr. “with the intention of providing quality hot meals to the Arlington area,” says its website. He then “decided to add adult live entertainment to the menu to spice things up a bit.”

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We’ll see whether Amazon’s arrival spices things up even more.

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A disputatious Arlington schools committee floated a new name for Washington-Lee High School.

On Dec. 20 it will formally present the board with a proposal to drop Robert E. Lee and honor Richard and Mildred Loving, the pioneering interracial married couple from Caroline County, Va., who won their landmark Supreme Court case in 1967.

So the beloved school’s 93-year-old initials are preserved. The nickname for the “Washington-Loving” sports teams has not been determined, I’m told by APS spokeswoman Linda Erdos. But participants suggested the existing “Generals” might still work.

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