Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnp“When you turn on your taps and flush your toilets, you have the Arlington Civic Federation to thank.”

So read the earthy history compiled in tribute to that sometimes-cacophonous collection of 80 neighborhood entities celebrating its 100th anniversary this month.

Last Friday’s Civic Federation gala banquet at the Rosslyn Holiday Inn reconvened 260 longtime activists, local leaders, county and school board members past and present, lawmakers and top county officers.

County Manager Mark Schwartz praised Arlington’s “oldest countywide organization” for its “positive role in every major issue we face.” He called Arlington “the best county in the country.” (Anyone beg to differ?)

The bill o’ fare included awards and lots of thankings, though some diners murmured rather than provide undivided attention (that’s volunteer life).

Federation President Stefanie Pryor toasted “100 more years of the Arlington Way” and said the crowd deserved a “pat on the back for knowing your neighbors, not just their email addresses.”

Arlington was technically still Alexandria when the federation hatched in 1916, four years before Richmond voted for separation. The population of 16,000 lacked the sewers we take for granted today. Within a decade, six neighborhood associations—Bon Air, Cherrydale, Clarendon, Hume, Lyon Park and Lyon Village–joined forces with the Organization of Women Voters. They persuaded 1,500 households to pledge $27 so that Arlington could become, as the Evening Star reported in 1926, the America’s first county with its own water supply.

The federation worked with the General Assembly, Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers to access the District of Columbia Reservoir. It held a public forum at the courthouse and a committee meeting at the then-new Washington-Lee High School, eventually winning over skeptics from Lyon Village (who’ve long marched to their own drummer).

Activists collected 2,072 signatures and won passage of water bonds by a 10-1 ratio. The water flowed on Nov. 3, 1927. There followed decades of expanding connective plumbing until 1962, when Arlington’s last privies were covered over.

Reviewing historical highlights, State Sen. Barbara Favola heralded the 1930 conversion to the county manager form of government (“Planning is what we do best” she said). Building the Pentagon in the early 1940s “had a huge impact culturally, socially, economically.” In the early 1950s, the nonpartisan Arlingtonians for a Better County allowed federal workers to get around the Hatch Act to resist Virginia’s “Byrd Machine.” Arlington became first in the state to desegregate schools.

The 1970s brought the first tax relief for the elderly, the state’s first group home for people with disabilities (in Ballston) and the Long-Range Planning Commission, Favola said. The ‘80s brought Arlington’s arts incubator and commitment to affordable housing.

The star of the evening may have been “the newly chic Shirlington neighborhood,” as it was labeled by WETA President Sharon Percy Rockefeller, via video. WETA CEO Rick Schneider was there to receive the federation’s Centennial Historic Achievement Award for the late station founder Elizabeth Campbell.

Eric Schaeffer, the globally renowned Signature Theater artistic director, referred to himself as the “self-appointed mayor of Shirlington” in commending the federation.

“Long before you were the powerhouse you are today, I was a delegate,” Favola said of the august body. It has been there to “harness our talents, fears and dreams. Though we haven’t always agreed, it delivered,” she said. “Dream big, and don’t be afraid of change.”

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Among many area high school reunions planned this year is the reassembling of the Wakefield High School Class of ’66.

One of its illustrious organizers, Mark Lamb, had read my nostalgia column of a few years back about the old WEAM top-40 radio station that provided the soundtrack to our formative years in the swinging ‘60s. He got in touch and asked to borrow the digital recording I own so his classmates at their party could re-experience WEAM’s playlists, on-air personalities, and commercial jingles for familiar teen hangouts from back in the day.

“1390, W-EEEE-AAAA-MMMM!” goin’ out to you, Mark, and all the hometown cats from the Warriors class of ‘66.