From Arlandria to Chirilagua: The Shifting Demographics of a Northern Virginia Neighborhood

Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in Northern Virginia (NOVA or NoVa)  this October/November from October 31 – November 3. The deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15. With this in mind, we continue our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month.  Submit your panels everyone! 

By Krystyn Moon

In the summer of 1980, Edith Zambrano arrived in northern Virginia like many men and women whose lives El Salvador’s civil war had disrupted. After a student massacre her grandfather had refused to allow her to attend school, and with war raging in the countryside she decided that it was time to leave for the United States. Traveling to the United States had always been a possibility for Zambrano, whose parents had immigrated a decade earlier. In fact, the first Salvadorans, working for American diplomats who had previously lived in Central America, had arrived in the Washington metropolitan area in the 1960s. This first cohort of Salvadoran immigrants soon invited friends and family to make the journey and assisted them in finding work in construction, restaurants, and domestic labor.[1] It took Zambrano twenty-one days to travel from El Salvador to the United States, including a trip across the Rio Grande on a raft. She eventually made it to Los Angeles, and then flew into Dulles International Airport where her family was waiting.

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Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia, Detroit Publishing Inc., 1902, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Her mother had found an apartment in Arlandria, one of the few privately-owned low-income neighborhoods in the region. Located in the northernmost portion of Alexandria, Virginia, the neighborhood was “where the apartment buildings were known for cockroaches inside and drug dealers outside.”[2] Like many recent arrivals, the Zambranos squeezed nine people into a one-bedroom apartment, trying to save as much money as possible to send to family members back home. They were among the first Latino residents of Arlandria, but they soon saw numerous familiar faces from El Salvador. “One by one, that summer and the next, [Zambrano’s] classmates showed up and moved into her neighborhood…. Her cousins followed…. Every Sunday, the crowds at the neighborhood soccer games grew, and every Sunday, she bumped into someone else from back home.”[3] By the late 1980s, the neighborhood was home to a sizable number of Salvadoran immigrants who nicknamed the neighborhood “Chirilagua,” after a town in southeastern El Salvador from which many residents had fled.

Arlandria/Chirilagua, like the rest of northern Virginia, had only seen small numbers of immigrants prior to the 1980s. Constructed in the late 1930s, the neighborhood’s garden apartments and rowhouses catered to white federal workers, of which an overwhelming majority was native born. With the passage of local and federal fair housing policies in the 1960s, Alexandria slowly began to desegregate its housing stock, and for the first time large numbers of African Americans moved into the neighborhood. Racial tensions ran high in Arlandria, with two incidents of white-on-black violence that provoked widespread anger and destruction throughout the city.[4] Simultaneously, rapid suburbanization along Four Mile Run, a large stream that emptied into the Potomac River near Arlandria, had created what Adam Rome asserts was “an environmental catastrophe.”[5] Northern Virginia’s sprawling tract housing and shopping plazas ensured that water had few places to go, especially after a drenching storm. One of the most memorable was Hurricane Agnes (1972), during which one Arlandria resident drowned.[6]

sampson121_arlandria_fourmilerun_flood_21jun1972_300
Damage in Arlandria from 1972’s Hurricane Agnes courtesy of the Alexandria Public Library
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Damage in Arlandria from 1972’s Hurricane Agnes courtesy of the Alexandria Public Library

Arlandria’s environmental and social turmoil made the neighborhood an affordable, although potentially dangerous, place to live for newly arrived immigrants. Refugees from Southeast Asia who needed a place to live once their sponsorship period had ended made up the first sizable number of new arrivals.[7] Immigrants from all over the world, however, also moved to the neighborhood. By 1975, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Iran, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, and Turkey lived in Arlandria.[8]

In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration’s cuts to social services combined with Cold War policies created a crisis for those near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder who lived in the region. In response to Reagan’s nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, both American citizens and immigrants moved to Washington to take advantage of the growing economy, with government contractors making billions of dollars selling products and services to the Defense Department and other federal agencies. Meanwhile, service industries flourished along with construction jobs, domestic work, and clerical positions, all of which saw an increasing number of foreign-born employees. Although job opportunities expanded, so did living expenses, with rich and poor competing for places to live within commuting distance of their employers. Thus local developers began to buy undervalued apartments and convert them into high-end rentals or condominiums that appealed to a new class of white professionals, known as “yuppies.” In Virginia, low-income residents had little recourse. State and local governments had enacted few regulations protecting renters from predatory landlords and developers.[9]

The proximity of Arlandria to Washington, D.C. along with its undervalued real estate market, was perfect for mid-to-high-end redevelopment, which local governments believed would lead to more tax monies. In response to changes in the housing market, Artery Organization, Inc. purchased over 1,000 apartment units in Arlandria in 1986. It created a firestorm among city officials and local residents. At the same time, two other developers, Potomack Development, Inc. and Freeman/Cafritz, had purchased other apartment complexes in the neighborhood with the intent to renovate and raise rents.[10] These sales constituted 74% of the neighborhood’s apartments, all of which were slated for conversion and potential displacement of the existing residents. Magda Gotts, an Arlandria resident and member of the newly formed Alexandria United Tenant Organization (which hoped to protect local residents from displacement and eviction), told reporters, “it’s going to be an exodus of people. There is no place for these people to go. I’m speechless.” [11] Alexandria’s mayor, Jim Moran, noted this would be “the largest displacement in the city’s history.” Despite their concerns, local officials believed little could be done.

Tenants Flyer
Tenant Flyer from Tenants and Workers United circa mid-1980s, photograph by Krystyn Moon

Tensions over housing soon pitted African American and Latino residents living in Arlandria against each other, eventually leading to violence. The arrival of immigrants in the neighborhood had angered some African American residents, who only in the past twenty years had the opportunity to live in Arlandria and had struggled to find housing in the region. Latinos, many of whom were unrecognized as refugees by the federal government, could not apply for housing assistance programs, and were limited to privately-owned units. In July 1986, a fight broke out in the streets of Arlandria between African American and Latino residents, leading to forty arrests. In response, the local chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews organized a series of community meetings to develop a list of issues that affected Arlandria residents and facilitate interracial and intercultural conversations to mitigate tension. Everyone recognized that pending displacement triggered the violence.[12]

In the meantime, tenants and their supporters organized protests to raise public awareness and demanded city officials and developers be held accountable. Two groups, Alexandria United Tenants Organization and the Arlandria Community Campaign to Save our Homes, organized Latino, African American, and white tenants to protest and speak out against displacement.[13] Within weeks of the first sale, 200 residents walked through the streets singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” invoking the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”[14] A year later, tenants and activists organized a large-scale, interracial and interethnic march from Arlandria to City Hall, including Edith Zambrano. While giving speeches on the City Hall’s steps, Mitch Snyder, a Washingtonian homeless activist from the Community for Creative Non Violence, suggested protesters take over City Council chambers, symbolically displacing local government. It was the only time in which protesters had successfully shut down City Council. Frustrated by the presence of protesters in their chambers, Mayor Moran threatened to send agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to arrest residents, and almost came to blows with Snyder.[15]

Meanwhile, city government scrambled to put together a plan to help as many tenants as possible. By the end of the summer, it had worked out a compromise with developers to put aside one-fourth of their apartments for the next five years for low-income tenants who received Section 8 subsidies. The Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority (ARHA) also began renovations of 152 units to be put aside for public housing.[16] That same year, a group of local Episcopal churches established Carpenter’s Lodgings (now Community Lodgings), a non-profit to address homelessness in the neighborhood. In addition to housing, they offered job training, childcare, and other social services to local residents.[17] Many residents still wanted cooperative housing, in which they owned units with support from public and private funds. The Tenants Support Committee, established in 1989, used the bankruptcy of one of the developers to acquire 300 units. It took an additional ten years to create the Arlandria-Chirilagua Housing Cooperative.[18]

In the end, Arlandria’s housing problems in the 1980s established lasting changes between residents and city officials. Local government needed to be more responsive to the needs of low-income residents, who now included not only African Americans and whites, but also a diverse immigrant population. Creative public and private partnerships, in the wake of cuts to federal funding under the Reagan administration, could also offset massive displacements. More participatory forms of local governance, which African Americans had demanded since the 1960s, fostered a sense of belonging and community. By the late 1980s, Arlandria had not become yuppified as many feared, but maintained its diversity.

Edith Zambrano eventually legalized her status and moved out of Chirilagua, like many Salvadorans who came in response to the civil war. Newer immigrants, however, have moved into the neighborhood, which is still known for its sizable Latino, especially Central American, community today.[19]

2018 Headshot AKrystyn Moon is a professor of history and director of American Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Her teaching and research include US immigration history, popular culture, race and ethnic studies, foodways, gender and sexuality, and consumerism. She is the author of Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (2005), and several articles, essays, reviews, and blogs on American immigration history and ethnic identity. Additionally, she has worked as a public historian, collaborating with the Office of Historic Alexandria for several years. As part of this partnership, she has written “Finding the Fort: A History of an African American Neighborhood in Northern Virginia, 1860s-1960s” to assist in the inclusion of African American history in Alexandria’s public programming. She was also the lead historical researcher and interviewer on “Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future,” an oral history project funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Her current research looks at ways in complicating the public’s understanding of the past, especially through her research on race relations and immigration in the Washington metropolitan region. She serves as the president of the Alexandria Historical Society, and is the recent past president of the Southeastern Regional Chapter of the American Studies Association.

Featured image (at top): Mural depicting the community’s image located on the Tenants and Workers United Headquarters, photograph by Krystyn Moon

 

[1] Terry A. Repak, Waiting on Washington: Central American Workers in the Nation’s Capital (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995).

[2] Philip P. Pan, “At Home in Chirilagua, Va.; Salvadoran Leaves Old Village, Finds New One in U.S.,” Washington Post 6 December 1999, A1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Arlandria Negroes Protest Police Action,” Washington Post October 6, 1969, C4; E. J. Bachinski and Michael Hodge, “Youth Slain, Disorder Hits Alexandria,” Washington Post, May 30, 1970, 17.

[5] Adam Rome, Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 3.

[6] “Fairfax Flood Death Raises Toll to 15,” Washington Post June 27, 1972.

[7] Christine R. Finnan, Rhonda Ann Cooperstein, and Anne R. Wright, Southeast Asian Refugee Resettlement at the Local Level: The Role of the Ethnic Community and the Nature of Refugee Impact (Menlo Park, CA: SRI International, November 1983), 119-133.

[8] Data collected by author on 1975 VA Marriage Certificates, Department of Health–Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics; State of Virginia; www.ancestry.com (accessed on September 18, 2016).

[9] Michael Schaller, Reckoning with Reagan: America and Its President in the 1980s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Haynes Johnson, Sleepwalking through History: America in the Reagan Years (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2003); Simon Head, “Reagan, Nuclear Weapons, and the End of the Cold War,” Ronald Reagan and the 1980s: Perceptions, Policies, Legacies, ed. Cheryl Hudson and Gareth Davies, (New York: Palgrave, 2008), 81-100; Matthew Evangelista, Innovation and Arms Race: How the United States and the Soviet Union Develop New Military Technologies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988); Terry A. Repak, Waiting on Washington: Central American Workers in the Nation’s Capital (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995); Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[10] Memo: Receipt of Arlandria Report; From: Lionel R. Hope and Carlyle C. Ring Jr.; To Mayor and City Council; City Clerk, Docket Minutes–City Council, October 28-November 15, 1986; Alexandria Archives and Record Center, Alexandria, VA.

[11] Mary Jordan, “Tenant Group Gets $16,000 in Alexandria; Organization’s Flier Angers Mayor Moran,” Washington Post March 12, 1986, C4; Mary Jordan, “Apartment Purchase Plan Stirs Controversy; Displacement of 3,000 Low-Income Persons Feared in Alexandria,” Washington Post June 11, 1986, C4.

[12] Around the Region,” Washington Post June 4, 1986, C6; Kim McGuire, “Keeping Sunnyside Up is Goal of Residents,” Washington Post June 26, 1986, VAB11; “Around the Region,” Washington Post August 22, 1986, B5; “Arlandria Inner Group 1986 File,” Citizen Assistance—Subject Files, January 1986; Alexandria Archives and Record Center, Alexandria, VA.

[13] Special Meeting–September 13, 1986; City Clerk—Docket Minutes—City Council—July 17-September 13, 1986; Alexandria Archives and Record Center, Alexandria, VA.

[14] Caryle Murphy, “Housing Protests Angers Alexandria Officials,” Washington Post February 24, 1986, B3.

[15] Interview with Jon Liss conducted by John Reibling; April 14, 2015; Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future Project; Office of Historic Alexandria; Alexandria, VA; https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/LissJon.pdf (accessed June 6, 2017); Sandra Evans, “Alexandria Tenants Protest; City Council Forced to Adjourn by Group,” Washington Post, February 22, 1987, B3; Caryle Murphy, “Housing Protests Angers Alexandria Officials,” Washington Post February 24, 1987, B3 .

[16] “City of Alexandria Annual Report: 1987,” Alexandria Archives and Record Center, Alexandria, VA.

[17] Community Lodgings: About Us; http://www.communitylodgings.org/about-us/ (accessed September 6, 2016).

[18] Interview with Jon Liss conducted by John Reibling; April 14, 2015; Immigrant Alexandria: Past, Present, and Future Project; Office of Historic Alexandria; Alexandria, VA; https://www.alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/Immigration/LissJon.pdf (accessed June 7, 2017).

[19] Philip P. Pan, “At Home in Chirilagua, Va.; Salvadoran Leaves Old Village, Finds New One in U.S.,” Washington Post 6 December 1999, A1.

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