Neighborhood Walks

Let the Wagon Wheel Roll

I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia for more than 47 years. Most of my adult life. I’ve lived at my current address for nearly 37 years. For the last five plus years, I’ve been in the habit of daily constitutionals radiating out from my house like spokes of a wagon wheel. Each spoke is about 2 1/2 to 3 miles round trip.

Since my 2015 retirement, these walks have comprised an important part of overall fitness. Since the beginning of the pandemic, they have been my ONLY significant exercise, with my wife now usually accompanying me. (We avoid our gym – probably won’t return until we’re both vaccinated.)

There are eight spokes on this wagon wheel, typically negotiated in a counterclockwise sequence — symbolizing forward movement of the wagon from my front door.

Taken together, the eight routes encompass a landscape of nature trails, crowded with bikers and runners, residential side streets with dog-walkers, and major thoroughfares with dedicated bike lanes and adjacent commercial development. There are lots of hills.

This is my corner of Arlington and Falls Church. It contains three zip codes and two separate local governments. Metrorail and a stream (Four Mile Run) run through it. Some spokes are dominated by uphill climbs, others by the downslope, and some stretches are relatively flat.

Some of it is new (especially mixed-use development), some of it old (residential stock up to 100 years old). Some of it natural (trails and woods), some of it concrete (sidewalks abound).

Economic diversity is visible on these walks, with corresponding ethnic and racial demographic variety. Lately, the Metro station isn’t the hub of activity it was in the “Before Times,” but outdoor dining at restaurants had begun to regain some vitality – until the weather got too cold!

Each of the eight spokes has its own character:

Spoke One (the longest walk): We head south to the boundaries of our own neighborhood, until forced to turn either right or left – we choose left for this route. A newly built “Classic Cottages” mansion here has remained vacant, with For Sale sign in front, since completion a year ago – just before the pandemic. Our neighborhood’s older portion contains brick colonials and cape cods, now approaching 80 years old. It progresses to ramblers and split levels (~60 years old). Infilling here is more limited than other Arlington neighborhoods, most residents having opted over the years to build on. Relatively few houses sit on their original footprints.

Crossing the street at the neighborhood elementary school (nearly large as a high school – huge expansion recently), we enter another neighborhood — Arlington has strict neighborhood boundaries, with “civic associations” for each — similar styles of houses, but often mixed brick/siding rather than all brick (from early 1950s). We emerge from that neighborhood at a small neighborhood shopping center. The fluctuating tenants are small, local businesses. Recently added: a brewpub! (Pandemic has resulted in a GoFundMe campaign with yard signs in the neighborhood: “Save Meridian Pint”).

Despite alternate shortcut over the W&OD Trail, a former commuter railroad easement, we usually opt for more FitBit steps recorded. This takes us into a third neighborhood, with more creative house styles – some clearly modernist examples, alongside the 70-year-old cape cods. While the neighborhood may be ethnically diverse, it appears to be even more ensconced in the upper-middle-class economic tier than the previous two neighborhoods we have crossed.

The final leg of Spoke One has us crossing the Interstate over a pedestrian bridge, skirting a public park with athletic fields and lower-income garden apartments. This fourth neighborhood has quite a different ambience from the previous three. Way less white. Arlington’s trail system allows multiple exit points, but we generally prefer to stay on the streets – maximizing those steps! If we resist all temptations to cut it short, we return home with 8500 steps.

Spoke Two (the second longest): This route includes a long uphill grade through the same Dominion Hills neighborhood encountered in Spoke One. Before turning left on the major through street, Wilson Boulevard, we pass a historic estate, with deteriorating Victorian great house, all likely to disappear soon for parcel development – indeed, the tree clearing has already begun. Yard signs in the vicinity urge us to save the historic house, but I fear it is too late. The spoke then continues east along Wilson Boulevard following Spoke One’s route.

Spoke Three (in reverse):  Running in the opposite direction as Spokes One and Two, approached either via street or trail, it returns home in reverse. If on the street, the same four neighborhoods are touched as in Spoke One. If the W&OD Trail is utilized, it becomes very level, but has more bike traffic to negotiate.

Spoke Four (yet more Arlington neighborhoods): Retraces Spoke Three but turns left instead of right up the hill, this spoke leads through another Arlington neighborhood to a different through street, Washington Boulevard. This neighborhood is older than the neighborhoods encountered in Spokes One through Three, old enough to include a few Tudor-style houses (from 1930s?). Turning left on Washington Boulevard takes us to a commercial strip, the shops and restaurants of Westover Village, with old-fashioned small town business district charm of angled parking on one side of the street. Again, we may choose to return either via trail along the creek, or streets.

Spoke Five (“John Marshall”): This spoke may be walked in two directions, backwards or forwards, but either way, it starts from our house north to Washington Boulevard, then a decision point: either cross the Boulevard and continue onto the semi-closed residential street John Marshall Drive (dead ends, little traffic), or turn left, crossing further west. Either leads to another major through street, Lee Highway. Lee Highway then returns home via John Marshall or some parallel street. Either forwards or backwards, John Marshall Drive and its parallel siblings are relaxingly flat.

Spoke Six (the shortest one): Generally yielding less than 6000 steps, this one starts the same as Spoke Five, or (even shorter) crosses the Interstate at a nearby pedestrian bridge. The neighborhood on the opposite side of I-66 is more modest than ours, with some notable exceptions. Its quiet streets, terminating at the Interstate, have outlets onto Washington Boulevard. And the topography is not too challenging. My younger son once rented a bungalow here with a fellow Arlington Public Schools teacher. (He has since bought a one-bedroom condo in another part of Arlington). Of course, as with all desirable neighborhoods in Arlington, this modest one seems to be giving way to development – infilling with McMansions. Spoke Six returns home via the same back entrance to our neighborhood encountered from the opposite direction in Spoke One.

Spoke Seven (the Metro station): This one leads behind the East Falls Church Metro station, past a Dominion Power substation and tall board fence sporting a large graffiti proclamation, “Virginia Is for Lovers,” with “No KKK” symbol – once a landmark visible from the Interstate just past the trail, but now faded. The trail emerges into a new mixed-use apartment and commercial development on the border between Arlington and the City of Falls Church. Ground floor retail includes restaurants with sidewalk seating, juice bar/coffee shops, a bookstore. Apartments are overhead. We return, crossing the through street, Sycamore, then retracing our steps.

Spoke Eight (old Falls Church): This is the only spoke that takes us into the City of Falls Church proper. It begins via the familiar W&OD Trail, crossing under Sycamore Street (we used a crosswalk in Spoke Seven), then following it through Benjamin Banneker Park to Falls Church’s Isaac Crossman Park. This portion of the Arlington/Falls Church trail network is one place where masks are in order, as well as sidewalks in front of commercial retail, due to pedestrian traffic. Exiting Isaac Crossman, we turn either right or left; right takes us back past the Metro station, left will take us into the most upscale residential neighborhood found in any of our spokes –along N. Columbia, E. Jefferson, and E. Cherry Streets in Falls Church. Some of these grand old houses recently featured For Sale signs, removed before any “Sold” sign appeared. Perhaps such realtor vanity is unnecessary in this price range. The return to our more mundane Arlington neighborhood retraces Spoke Seven’s return.

That completes the circuit. We are ready to start all over with Spoke One and a new revolution! Our walks track neighborhood trends. They are unmistakable over nearly six years. Modest, lower income, residential stock is gradually disappearing, replaced with infilling, often obscenely large McMansions, or market-rate townhouses, or mixed-use denser development. The “old Falls Church” mainline and, to a lesser extent, some Arlington upper-middle-class neighborhoods in our spokes, tend to remain, upgraded and immaculately tended — as Arlington remains a desirable, if high cost, place to live. Proximity to Metro helps. Proximity to I-66 helps. The extensive network of trails helps. And all the other things that make realtors salivate exist here in spades.  But we upper-middle-class types depend on many domestic services from lower income workers coming into our neighborhoods and homes. Where do they live? Not likely nearby. Is that why new construction “Classic Cottages” mansions feature au-pair suites over the garage?

Finally, if remote work becomes the norm, post-pandemic, will places like Arlington continue to hold their appeal? Traditionally, closeness to DC has been a draw. What of the Amazon tech-driven future? The DMV area, in general, may not continue to grow in the coming decades like it has in the last two or three. At least Arlington, with its hills, sits on relatively high ground … as sea level rises!

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