Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

When the county board holds hearings on plans to rename Lee Highway, expect an appearance from naysayer Bernie Berne.

“It’s political correctness, and should not be done — it’s blackwashing history,” says the longtime Arlington history activist and tour guide.
“They’re taking away names that have been around for a long time. It’s a culture war that’s been going on since the Civil War.”

A member of the Arlington Historical Society, Berne often shows up at public forums and speeches to correct statements he finds inaccurate (this columnist hears from him!).

But the retired federal agency medical professional with an M.D. and a Ph.D. can boast meaty contributions to the preservation and telling of Arlington’s story. And he always does his homework.

Berne played a major role in planning the recreated ruins of the 18th century Abingdon Plantation home off the parking lot at Reagan National Airport. Back in the early 1990s, “I was first to recognize what was happening,” he recalls of the airport engineers’ plans to tear the ruins down. He teamed up with the Arlington Civic Federation and the Arlington Heritage Alliance, wrote letters to the editor and helped Del. Karen Darner get a preservation bill through the General Assembly.

He initiated the 1996 naming of Andrew Ellicott Park at the West Cornerstone of the 1791 District of Columbia boundary stones (at the Falls Church-Arlington border), for which Ellicott was chief surveyor.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, he worked on the Bluemont Junction railroad display along the W&OD Trail near Wilson Blvd. Visitable on summer weekends, it includes signage, a partially exposed section of an electrical substation, railroad artifacts and an actual caboose housing historical materials Berne donated.

The passionate, detail-rattling Berne pushed for the historic trolley poster display at Marymount University’s Ballston campus erected in 2017. And he helped lead an effort in 2014 to preserve part of the Benjamin Elliott Coal Trestle near I-66 in East Falls Church (currently buried in shrubbery and the construction of a new bicycle bridge over Lee Highway).

Berne has cooperated with the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board and the county historic preservation program, which he believes is understaffed. In the case of the trestle, “they were slow to act,” he says, which would never happen in the more historically-minded Alexandria, he said.

Like all who pursue history, Berne admits he is occasionally proved wrong. “Some of my efforts did not turn out as well as I had hoped, and many failed,” he said. “That’s part of the game.”

The native New Yorker who came to Arlington in 1980 finds time to be president of the Buckingham Community Civic Association. He conducts historical walking and bike tours of Arlington for the Center Hiking Club. (Much cheaper than those run by Smithsonian Associates, he boasts.) He is also an active writer of Wikipedia entries on Arlington.

“Bureaucracies don’t really care much about history,” Berne says. “Most people don’t care about history. Only the Civil War, Vietnam — big things, not local history. It’s too bad, because that’s how people get lost.”

I sat in on the June 24 Zoom call annual meeting of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization and learned some good news for the entire county. The nonprofit’s “Buy a Nurse Lunch” campaign raised more than $42,000 so that a dozen Columbia Pike restaurants could provide free meals to brave staff working under pandemic conditions at Virginia Hospital Center, the Arlington Pediatric Center and Mary Marshall Assisted Living. It’s a multi-party benefit.

My award for most imaginative use of pandemic downtime goes to writer Dan Kois. From March 10 – May 25, he walked every street in my zip code of 22207, a total of 1,114 blocks and 200 miles. His eccentric goal was to study the differing styles of home address numbers. His conclusion, was written up in Slate on June 25; Serif addresses outnumber sans serif addresses, 7,759 to 2,111.