Monday, February 18, 2013

The Historic #Errandonnee: In Which I Wander Clarendon

Arlington has a curious and accidental history. [Old Map] As many know, Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia.  But D.C. found Arlington defective and returned it to Alexandria, Virginia.  In time, Alexandria found Arlington defective, and Arlington became its own county. The boundaries of what is now Arlington county are essentially the old boundaries of D.C.

Arlington's history as part of the United States goes back to the founding of the country.  Plantation land in Arlington was owned by the Mason's, the Washington's, the Custis', and the Lee's. During the Civil War, Lee's plantation was confiscated and Arlington was part of the defensive parameter of forts, protecting the capital city.  All the trees were cut down to build forts, for farm land, and as part of the defense.  Eventually Arlington returned to being a rural suburb of chicken farms and dairy farms (the last dairy farm in Arlington was Reevesland, which is now Bluemont Park, WOD and Kenmore Middle School). The last of the back yard chicken farms disappeared not so long ago.

Arlington historically embraced smart growth.  In 1932, addressing the cacophony of street names and inconsistent little neighborhoods, Arlington renamed all of the roads creating the current grid system of names and numbers.  When the subway came along, Arlington embraced it - but fought both plowing the subway down the center of 66 - and letting 66 sprawl out into a multilane highway (like 395).  Arlington elected to create an urban corridor, the only suburb to build subway station corridors where the stations are walking distance one to another.  

Today's Errandonnee picks up in Clarendon. My first stop of the day was at the Arlington Post Office.  Established in 1937, the Arlington Post Office was an attempt to begin to band together the loose confederation of neighborhoods that made up Arlington.  Prior to that time, Arlington mail was handled in Washington D.C. Mural's of Arlington history, painted in 1939, can be seen on the inside walls of the Post Office.

My next stop was a repeat lunch Errandonnee to the Delhi Club in Clarendon for lunch.  In the 1970s, Vietnamese moved into Clarendon and the community came to be known as Little Saigon. But by the late 1970s, the Orange line of subway was under construction, disrupting business.  Many of the Vietnamese businesses elected to move out of Clarendon, and established the Eden Center out at 7 Corners.  When I moved back to Arlington in the late 1980s, Cafe Dalat and Little Viet Garden were some of the few Vietnamese restaurants still in Clarendon. They too have have since closed, giving way to high end, bland hipster joints.  Nam Viet is probably the last remaining Vietnamese restaurant from the 1970s community (although marking a return, a new Vietnamese restaurant has opened in Shirlington).

Next, I stopped to do errands at Whole Foods, Revolution Bikes, and Walgrens.  Whole Foods used to be the Sears Garden center.  Sears closed, and then reopened in 7 Corners, in a building that use to be Woodward and Lothrop.  Walgrens, a new edition, used to be a tire store.

From here I moved a few blocks west, intending on getting coffee. First I stopped by the Arlington War Memorial. Originally located in Arlington Cemetery near the tomb of the unknown soldier, the memorial was moved to Clarendon.  On the West side of the memorial is the names of those who gave their lives during World War I.  On top are the names of the whites who gave their lives; and on the bottom are two names noted as "colored."  I recall at one time there was discussion about redoing the plaque and removing the segregation - but I believe it was concluded it is best to also remember that part of history as well. 

I intended to stop for coffee at Northside Social. Located at a historical intersection of trolly lines from Georgetown and Washington, the coffee house was originally a trolley station.  When I moved to Arlington, the building had deteriorated and was a junk shop.  Clarendon was still struggling after the subway construction, which made access to Clarendon difficult and disrupted the economy.  When the junk shop went out, a local member of the clergy established Common Grounds, as a third place coffee house supported by the church - one of the original wifi coffee houses.  While it occasionally had church functions, its dominant culture was George Mason Law students. It was a great joint where I spent many an evening writing. Common Grounds struggled - and eventually was sold to Murky Coffee from Washington D.C.  Murky Coffee struggled and went out.  The coffee house then took on its new hipster haven, Northside Social.  I've never been. I tried to go to write this blog but the Hipsters crowd had firm control of the situation so I moved on to Ballston for a lame coffee at an uncrowded COSI. 

Ballston Mall was originally Parkington.  Parkington was an ambitious commercial venture.  I recall my mom saying that the construction of the Mall was insane, as no one would venture that far out into the suburbs to go to shopping (the major department stores were all downtown at what is now Metro Center).  Of course she was right; no one goes there - but only because even bigger shopping malls were build in places like Tyson's Corner. There was a Hot Shoppes and a Putt Putt golf right outside of Parkington.  Now the county is deliberating what to do with public land right outside the Ballston Mall parking lot - and is considering building a Putt Putt golf course.  Ah, the cycle of history.



  1. Really enjoyed the Arlington history! Have lived in AC since 1986 and there was a lot I didn't know.
    Re the current Sears location at 7 corners / it used to be Lord & Taylor, not Woodies. And before the junk store where Northside Social is - there used to be a produce stand.

  2. Very interesting history lesson, indeed. I proposed to my wife at the Ballston Putt Putt. I put the box with the ring in it in the hole on the backside of the windmill hole. We lived for a couple of years in Glenayr apartments on Park Drive. The apartments dated back to WWII and had no air conditioning. Only one window unit per apartmemt was allowed. Ugh.