It’s one thing to rename a public entity, another to change people’s habits. Ask the locals who continue to use defunct names like National Airport and Arlington Hospital.
On July 17, the county board is slated to approve changing the near-century-old name of Lee Highway to honor 19th century African-American abolitionist and Congressman John M. Langston. Robert E. Lee “no longer represents Arlington’s values,” a staff report declared.
When the change takes effect in six-nine months, signs reading “Langston Blvd.” (shortened to save money) will be mounted at 74 intersections and at eight Virginia Transportation Department overhead signs on I-66.
The county’s cost is $300,000, said staff, who stress that the Postal Service will handle address transitions. The future of the Cherrydale stretch known as “Old Lee Highway” will be decided in September; there is disagreement over proposals to simply extend nearby Route 309 Old Dominion Drive (named for the W&OD railway tract).
The long-expected alteration comes in a cultural context of multiple renamings of schools (Cardinal, Innovation) and as the Washington Football Team prepares for its second season without a nickname.
Among average denizens of Lee Highway, I sense mixed reactions.
Early in the name-selection process, an ARLNow insta-poll in June 2020 showed 58 percent in favor of a new name, 42 percent against (3,500 responses). The nonprofit Lee Highway Alliance, which convened the 25-member working group that reviewed suggestions, stresses its survey that drew 3,400 responses, 500 messages, 186 suggestions. It held community meetings and did a mailout to 16,000 affected parties.
“Everyone I talk with is very positive about the name change and feels it is past due,” I was told by alliance board member Sandra Chesrown. Arlington’s Director of Constituent Services Ben Aiken said, “I haven’t heard anyone outright say they were going to protest. With that said, we’re not forcing anyone to update business cards or other marketing material — that decision would ultimately be left to the business.” Street numbers will not change.
New monikers are coming to the county’s Plan Lee Highway program, the alliance and the Lee Community Center (staff there said they don’t yet know which name).
I called around and learned that the Balmoral Condo will order a new sign and alert its residents. Lee Highway Exxon is in wait-and-see mode. Paul Garst, whose home displays a custom metal plaque listing Lee Highway, said he, coming from Chicago, found it “odd” when he moved here in 1995 to a street named for a Confederate. “It will be a pain to change records and registrations,” Garst said, but he plans to order a new plaque for about $100.
Stronger resistance comes from George Cranwell, a realtor with offices on Old Lee Highway.
“Why should owners of property be forced to go through the expense because of this county-spearheaded effort?” He said thousands of businesses, many run by immigrants “the county is supposed to protect,” will find it a financial burden. And “people not familiar with the corridor, or who have old maps, won’t be able to find Lee Highway.”
Similarly, Alexis Schembri, a title company owner who has had multiple addresses on Lee Highway, will not cooperate.
“When and where will it end?” she asked, bemoaning the “overwhelming undertaking” of altering the mail. “The name ‘Lee’ never bothered anyone in the past,” she said. “Whether Lee was a good guy is irrelevant. It’s history.”
The Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) announced a modernized name to reflect a mission broader than combatting homelessness — PathForward.
From its beginnings in 1992 as a small team doing outreach with bagged meals to street people, the nonprofit, with its own board of directors, has grown to a staff of 36 full-timers, 32 part-timers and 22 seasonal staff working out of the modernized shelter at Courthouse.
To protect, stabilize and transition 1,000 members of a persistently vulnerable population, PathForward chose an umbrella name that — while perhaps vague — better reflects its professionalism and inspirational mission.