Two Arlingtons? An Ethnographic Reflection

Two years ago I wrapped up a two-year ethnographic project along Northern Virginia’s Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA. The project provided a great site for the Field School for Cultural Documentation, but tensions in the community were running high. Long-term residents reported being ignored by their county board members. Small business owners said they were uniformed and shut out of discussions about the planned redevelopment project. Students were exited about the data they were collecting, but many reported feeling conflicted: residents, especially small ethnic business owners, were asking for help getting information. That was not the role the students were supposed to take.

Columbia Pike, Arlington VA


It was time to move to another project.

That field school ended, just as all of them have, with a public presentation of our findings. We had a huge crowd that day, nearly sixty community members and activists. We were very pleased to see Chris Zimmerman, then a member of the county board, join us.

The world emerging along Columbia Pike was divided. There were residents who supported redevelopment and the increased property values they believed would accompany the facelift. These residents uniformly supported the streetcar project.  The second large group were residents who were suspicious of redevelopment and did not want a streetcar.  But both groups spoke of the larger Arlington community, particularly those who live north of Route 50 in North Arlington. Many Columbia Pike residents believed that the interests of North Arlington were being enacted through the redevelopment project, that the board was unresponsive and interested only in raising tax revenues. It was common for Pike residents to say that redevelopment was threatening the unique qualities and culture of their community.

After my students completed their presentations, I had a minute to talk to Chris Zimmerman. I told him about the divide the ethnographic team found in the community, and I encouraged him to read the project fieldnotes and listen to the oral histories we collected. “I think it would be useful for you to hear what your citizens are saying about leadership in the county,” I told him.

Columbia Pike

Mr. Zimmerman declined my offer, noting that there are always discontented community members who disagree with major civic projects.

Today’s Washington Post published this article about two Arlingtons, north and south. The article ends on a positive note, quoting a north Arlington resident who sees the poorer residents south of his community as part of his Arlington. It’s a nice sentiment, and a great ending for the piece. But that statement doesn’t sum up what’s going on in Arlington along Columbia Pike. The streetcar defeat is no surprise to me or anyone who has spent time listening to residents who live there. The county board would be wise to spend some time listening those constituents as well.


One thought on “Two Arlingtons? An Ethnographic Reflection

  1. John Bartelloni

    Your comments do not surprise me.

    Many years ago I was a member of the Fairfax Young Democrats. In statewide conventions, the Arlington YDs always tried to speak for Northern Virginia while ignoring the voices of their neighbors from nearby Fairfax.

    Arlington leaders have long spoken of “the Arlington Way,” which of course is THEIR way, i.e., the manner how they want their county run. Such folks give intolerant liberals a bad name.

    South Arlington has long been silenced by the folks north of Route 50. Today, however, a new era dawns. Ethnic businesses are thriving along Columbia Pike and affluent yuppies are snapping up housing in areas where their parents never would have lived. At last there is some green in Green Valley.

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