Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Once every 50 years I revisit my boyhood home. At least that’s the pace I set last month when I imposed on a certain homeowner in Arlington’s charming Cherrydale neighborhood.

Trustingly, this stranger allowed me a Proustian tour of a memory-rich house whose floors I hadn’t traipsed since my age was single digits back in the 1950s.

Sure, I’ve often driven past the two-tone wood structure on North Monroe Street that my parents sold in pursuit of larger dreams over by Chain Bridge. But that was more as a lurker than a denizen of the historic community off Lee Highway named for an orchard in the 19th century.

Cherrydale was my family’s Arlington road not taken. So I boned up on its macro-changes — I-66, gentrification in this National Historic District — before indulging the personal.

“Fifty years ago, Cherrydale was a close-knit community, with a small home-town feeling, a thriving downtown, and our own overcrowded school,” says Kathryn Holt Springston, the all-but-official Cherrydale historian who gives Smithsonian walking tours of its century-old Sears homes. “The houses were mostly small, the yards big, and there was plenty of room for the kids to roam. Today Cherrydale is still close-knit, with neighbors who look out for each other and enjoy community activities — our annual parade, picnic and Christmas with Santa at the fire station,” she says. “We still have adorable smaller older homes, including many kit houses, despite the influx of newer huge monstrosities.”

(Springston, by the way, was my 1st-grade classmate at Cherrydale Elementary, which closed in 1970, giving way to the Cherrydale Health and Rehabilitation Center.)

Bob Witeck, a Cherrydale stalwart of 20 years who bought in part because of fond memories of nearby St. Agnes school, loves the proximity to Washington. There’s a “healthy mix of blue-collar families and younger professionals,” he adds, though “we’re not immune to developer appetites to tear down the old and stack up McMansions.”

The threat of “supersizing” also bugs the owner of my former home, who wonders why quantity of space is valued over quality. Having “loved the place the minute” she saw it, she gasps when I show her my photo of the 1930-vintage house around the time she arrived in the 1980s.

My reminiscences may have bored her, but she cheerfully guided me to the kitchen that, for me is the primordial kitchen, with its cozy pantry where my mother stored mysterious bottles labeled “quinine water.” Still intact was the back porch where I burned my hand on a Fourth of July sparkler. And the stairs down which my father fell and broke his leg, having slipped on a grape dropped by me or my brother (more likely him!).

Recognizable beneath the current decorating scheme is the TV room where I watched “American Bandstand” and mocked my dad for watching something called “Meet the Press” (which I now watch).

The changes have been minor, my hostess assures me-new exterior vinyl, a fancier backyard garden, front-door surroundings recast after the rotting of a bench and lattice.

Back outside, I stroll and recover more memories: The vanished alley once occupied by Mr. Dortzbach’s plumbing truck, our penny-candy store now a Philippine market, the wooden box down the block I believe is Arlington’s smallest house.

It was a lovely walk down the road not taken.

 


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]