Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol’s Jan. 2, 2018 Organizational Meeting Address
“Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.”
This lovely phrase is from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” as interpreted this past year by the first woman to publish a translation in the epic poem’s long history. The narrator’s command to the Muse has traditionally been translated more like, “relate some part of this to me,” or “tell me about these things.” In Emily Wilson’s hands in 2017, it becomes no less spare, but considerably more meaningful: “Tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.”
In addition to breathing new life and accessibility into an ancient story, Wilson invites reflection on the purpose of translation itself.
Translating, examining our mythologies and histories through a contemporary dialect, makes us more critical thinkers. It makes us less accepting of tradition-for-tradition’s-sake and less reliant on “the way it’s always been.” It also leaves us less vulnerable to the fallacy that our thoughts and innovations are entirely original, that we have nothing to learn from tradition. To translate, as Wilson describes, is to “think through and to tease out” the values of text, “to allow the reader to see the cracks and the fissures.” She explains that “this process [is] not a denial or abandonment of the original, but… a way to pay deep attention to the original, most especially in the moments when it may contradict itself.”
In 2018, what does it mean to translate Arlington’s history, our community’s values, and even our foundational texts – planning documents, rather than literary – for our modern times?
For example, “to tell the old story” of Arlington is to tell of the fight for inclusion: Defiance of Massive Resistance and integration of the schools; waves of immigrants and refugees shaping the County’s culture and economy. In our current national political moment, Arlingtonians have risen to affirm that history, and those values, again and again. This is why housing affordability – an issue given structure and a policy agenda in the 2015 Affordable Housing Master Plan – continues to be such a bedrock issue for us all. What this community looks like, and who calls it home, is in part a function of the cost of its housing.
And the middle class of government workers and civil rights activists and immigrants that built Arlington, and that Arlington built, is endangered as home prices continue to climb. A middle-class couple in their twenties in Arlington in 2018 struggles to find a little starter home, the way their grandparents in the 1960s could. Seniors find few options when they seek new homes – in the very neighborhoods that they shaped – that are less expensive and less demanding than the ones in which they raised their families. When we talk about “neighborhood character,” we talk about the very important attributes of convenience, human scale, breathing room, trees and green space. “Neighborhood character” also means the characteristics of our neighbors.
Last year, at this time, I described my hope that our 2017 Zoning Ordinance amendments regarding accessory dwellings (which will now continue into 2018), could be a springboard to a broader community discussion about these themes. Thanks to the leadership of community groups like the Lee Highway Alliance and Affordable Housing Solutions, such a conversation has now begun.
One concrete approach for exploration lies in another principle woven into Arlington’s “old story:” The “taper” of development that transitions from denser, transit-rich areas to single family neighborhoods. These transitional edges in the County could be home to mixes of forms and ownership options to support a diversity of neighbors. To meaningfully inform this community conversation, and to help us all understand the economics and relationships between what our policies allow and the price and size of homes, we’ll need further technical analysis. We’ll need examples from other communities like ours. And, examples from the community that is ours: A recent “Where We Live” column in the Washington Post about one Lee Highway neighborhood’s 1930s townhouses and 1960s duplexes offered a mission statement for this effort: “Glebewood has a mix of housing and people at different ages and stages of life as well as different backgrounds, neighbors say, and they like it that way.”
My goal – building on and with the ideas advanced by our new colleague, Erik Gutshall, and other community leaders – is to more substantively and specifically engage this “Missing Middle” conversation in 2018, producing a few examples of what it might mean in Arlington. The Lee Highway Planning effort and the development Housing Conservation District tools in the year ahead both represent opportunities to explore these forms, and to translate our values of inclusion into housing policy.
Childcare accessibility similarly speaks to the foundational values of Arlington County. The idea that this place is a place for young families is part of our “old story”, at least since an influx of veteran families in the postwar years made Arlington a ground zero for the Baby Boom. And the value of investing in children, of breaking the cycles of intergenerational disadvantage through focusing on our smallest learners and on out of school time, has been championed by leaders like Ellen Bozman and Evelyn Syphax. What does it mean to translate these values – along with more contemporary values of economic competitiveness – into action on childcare access in the year 2018?
It means fully launching to the public the 2017 work of a multi-agency partnership on January 25th at 5 pm at Central Library. It means analyzing, with parents, providers and neighbors, the research-based action plan that this group has developed: Determining the projects and policy changes that are likeliest to achieve our identified goals of Accessibility, Affordability and Quality. As the action plan proceeds, I anticipate that some long-awaited steps will be before the Board soon, such as a potential re-examination of our local codes for alignment with the Commonwealth’s; potential zoning changes to increase the availability of affordable places for, and decrease barriers to entry of, childcare centers; and new partnerships to increase the supply of trained childcare workers.
To tell the story of “Arlington as we know it” is also to tell the story of Metro, which is to tell the story of how a community refused to settle for a fate as a highway pass through between Fairfax County and Washington, and instead bound its future together with that of its neighbors to aspire towards a rapid transit system and a higher quality of life and economic development for us all. This value was regionalism, and its legacies — the founding of the Council of Governments, the creation of a Northern Virginia Transportation Commission — provide us the tools we will require to take on the difficult but essential work of restoring and supporting the Metro system in 2018.
Doing so is among our most critical priorities, as Metro provides the backbone for our economy, our property values, and our quality of life (whether you ride the rail system or just benefit from the absence of car traffic from those who do). And 2018 is our most critical year yet for achieving a sustainable source of funding for Metro and for engaging constructively with the many reform proposals for its governance and operations. The regionalism of the 1950s and 1960s is our map here: Arlington will be most effective in partnership with our fellow Northern Virginia jurisdictions and with Maryland and the District. Christian Dorsey’s leadership on the Metro board and the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board will be essential to representing Arlington’s interests in any reforms adopted this year, and to establishing a more effective system.
In collaboration with colleagues from Northern Virginia’s Metro jurisdictions, and from the outer jurisdictions, like Prince William, Fredericksburg, and Stafford, I will be leading legislative efforts on behalf of NVTC and the Virginia Railway Express. We will need to present a common vision from the region to the General Assembly as they deliberate on dedicated transit funding in the outgoing Governor’s biennial budget. Every Board member will play a role in advocating for the system’s future in the region and in Richmond.
Returning Metro to sound footing is a necessary but not sufficient step to turning around our commercial vacancy rate, which will continue to be a priority for 2018. The County Manager and the County Board, and our counterparts on the School Board, are wrestling with anticipated budget gaps: Significant ones in FY19, growing even greater in the out years. The only way we get out of the box of painful choices that pit our priorities – a moderate tax rate, quality schools, transportation, parks – against one another is growth in the commercial sector. This year, we must continue aggressive pursuit of expanded and new commercial tenants in ways that are consistent with our long-held values: Innovation, sound planning, being an attractive community to the best and brightest. Yet we must resist the temptation to chase the “big fish” that promise jobs and headlines at the cost of our long-term tax base.
None of these objectives will be without controversy. When we “tell the old story” of Arlington, we forget, sometimes, to note that we have never been without controversy. Our tensions, about how our neighborhoods are changing, about how to welcome new neighbors, about how to prioritize resources: These have always been with us. The “Arlington Way” was born in the belief that we can do hard things – that we can unite private property interests and the public interest; that we can reject the expedient for the sustainable – if we work through those differences of opinion together.
To translate the Arlington Way for our modern times, it’s time to return to these big conversations, and talk more directly to one another as neighbors. To do that, we need more citizen leadership of the public dialogue. I look forward to working with our Communications and Public Engagement Team in 2018 as they train more citizen facilitators. In particular, as John Vihstadt and I convene our Commission Chairs in the first quarter of this year, we will aim to identify Commissions willing to partner with one another to host a series of “Big Idea Roundtables,” that will provide constructive venues for residents to discuss the big questions about the County’s future with each other.
And while we focus on the big picture of public engagement, we, as the County Board and County Government, have to redouble our efforts to nail the daily stuff. To that end, I’m looking forward to the implementation of both new constituent correspondence practices in the County Board Office, and to the continued roll-out of the “One Stop Arlington” initiative of the County Manager, both of which are designed to improve the customer service experience of those interacting with their local government in 2018.
In her translator’s note to the Odyssey, Emily Wilson describes her aspirations for her endeavor, hoping the original poem “grows inside my translation, like Athena’s olive tree inside the bed made by Odysseus, ‘with delicate long leaves, full grown and green / as sturdy as a pillar.’” I hope this for our own translation work in Arlington, too: That a strong foundation, interpreted for our current era, will strengthen us as we grow and change.
In 2018, we will indeed need to be “sturdy as a pillar” in the face of outside forces. We were concerned about turmoil in this new Trump era, and we got it in 2017: Fear among our undocumented residents and mixed-status-families; the upheaval in the tax credit markets that finance our critically-needed affordable housing projects; a paroxysm of hate just a hundred miles South that left us, like other Virginia cities, grieving and questioning how to better protect our own community. 2018 offers its own concerns originating across the river: Still-unknown implications of the new tax reform law; continued deportation threats to our young people if and as DACA expires; threatened cuts to the funding streams our safety net depends upon.
Through it all, however, Arlington will be made sturdier by our proud history and by our striving to constantly live and evolve our values.
So, let us “tell the old story for our modern times.” To those who helped build the Arlington we have today: Help the next generation translate your values, to keep this community thriving. To that next generation: Join us in the telling now, in the translation for the next half century.
Find the beginning.