Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Arlington House, the two-century-old Greek Revival home on the Potomac built in tribute to the father of the country, is the source of our county’s name.

Since 1974, its Doric columns have bedecked versions of the local government’s logo and seal. But on Dec. 15, the county board agreed to accelerate a staff and citizen review that could remove it.

The Arlington Branch of the NAACP, which had pressed for the change in July, praised last week’s action when it said, “The symbol of a slave plantation is a reminder of enslavement and dehumanizing treatment.” The urgency was stressed by board member Takis Karantonis, who called the logo “offensive.”

Area National Park Service spokesman Aaron LaRocca declined to address the county’s decision. But he reminded me his colleagues have been working for several years on the “rehabilitation of Arlington House,” due to reopen this winter. “Through new exhibits and educational programs, visitors will learn about Robert E. Lee and his family, the Custis family (who had the house built to honor George Washington) and the nearly 100 enslaved people who lived and labored on the estate.”

County manager Mark Schwartz noted that technically, the board did not rule out keeping the logo, so its fate hinges on “crowdsourcing” suggestions between now and June. Board chair Libby Garvey told me that Arlington House “as a 19th-century federal monument has a history from a long time ago, and we’re firmly planted in the 21st century. It probably doesn’t represent Arlington very well.”

Opposition so far has come from snide comments on the ArlNow news site, with gripes about the “cancel culture” and the “minority rage mob.”
I personally favor more thorough discussion of how a visual of the famous property is offensive if the county’s name is not.

The community’s scramble over the past eight months to respond to the Covid-19 crisis was examined Dec. 9 by the Arlington Committee of 100.
Anita Friedman, director of Arlington’s 700-staffer Human Services Department, reported that the neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus are the zones at Randolph, Carlin Springs, Barcroft and Drew schools.

Some 20,000 residents filed for unemployment since March, and use of food stamps rose 400 percent, she said. Each week 3,000 households get help from the Arlington Food Assistance Center. Friedman warned of a $40 million coming budget gap for agencies. Things “won’t get back to normal until 60 percent of the community is vaccinated.”

Much of the emergency aid for needs such as prevention of evictions is being handled by the nonprofit Arlington Thrive. Executive Director Andrew Schneider said his group had just completed their strategic plan in February when the crisis hit. That required scaling up case workers and fundraising. His exhausted team has helped 4,000 people this year, working with 30 organizations and churches, he said. “The social safety net depends on the generosity of the community. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

Representing the ailing small business community was Lisa Ostroff, owner of the Trade Roots fair-trade crafts café in Westover. She closed shop in March and placed two employees on unemployment. But she applied for a county grant and reopened in July with tables out by the sidewalk. “The county can be difficult” with its rules on signage, Ostroff said of her desire for a European feel. “We’re losing lots of business to Falls Church.” But Arlingtonians for the most part “are supporting employers in a community that wants small businesses.”

A friend sent me a half-century-old program for the gridiron game between the Washington Redskins (remember them?) and the St. Louis Cardinals Dec. 20, 1970, at RFK Stadium.

Along with the nostalgia-inducing team roster came the half-time show description. “The Santa Clause Special” featured Virginia horse jumpers and the Arlington County Schools 250-voice choir. Thanks went to music instructors John Pickeral and Larry Feathers (Wakefield High School); Mary Lou Shaw (Yorktown); and Robert Baxter (Washington-Lee, now Liberty).