By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008
They are icons of America, from California to New York, streets that evoke the nation's history, politics and style: Pennsylvania Avenue, Wall Street, Beale Street, Hollywood Boulevard.
To that list, add Clarendon and Wilson boulevards.
In the days since officials from the American Planning Association announced a Top 11 list of Great Streets in America -- which included the Arlington pair and nine others from Tempe, Ariz., in the west to Portland, Maine, in the east -- a long-running neighborhood conversation has swirled anew in Clarendon, centered on a couple of basic questions: What makes the area, which could have evolved into a lifeless outpost, cool? And what can be done to keep it that way?
The answers depend on who's talking. But there is some agreement that the smattering of architectural styles, the longtime shop and restaurant owners and the residents who have gravitated there have a lot to do with what makes Clarendon, in the words of Arlington County Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada (D), "neighborly and weird."
For Jonathan Williams, owner of Restaurant 3, it's the contrasts.
He remembers the neighborhood's punk scene in his youth. "There'd be guys hanging out with Mohawks and guys with button-down shirts," Williams said.
"There's a lot of community feeling still left that hasn't been developed over. That's my take on it," said Williams, who wore a T-shirt from Java Shack, another local joint. "See, we actually all support each other," he said.
A decision forged in the 1960s to run Metro's Orange Line under the Arlington commercial area rather than along the route proposed for Interstate 66 has helped transform the neighborhood, adding stroll-friendly offices, condominium towers and stores. Williams used to buy his parochial school uniforms at the neighborhood Sears, which was replaced by offices that feed customers to restaurants such as his and that of his stepfather, Greg Cahill, who runs Whitlow's on Wilson, a bar, grill and music venue.
"I used to buy my school clothes where their cubes were. It's definitely changed a lot and grown up," Williams said.
But, he added, "there's still nooks and crannies left. That's where you find the treasures. That's what gives the neighborhood character."
Nooks such as A&R Engravers, a trophy and plaque store along Wilson Boulevard. Richard J. Preziotti has worked for more than 20 years in Clarendon, keeping the painstaking art of hand engraving going in an era of laser-blasted lettering (which he can knock out as well, he points out). He hand-engraved President Bill Clinton's name on the ceremonial electric box used to light the White House Christmas tree, and police officers would bang on his big front window in amazed approval as he trudged through a long, detailed job for the Navy.
Clarendon is great engraving country, surrounded by government offices, military bases and others into commemorations.
"We used to say it's probably the second best area in the country, maybe tied with L.A.," he said. "It's a terrific place for engraving. . . . We have the government, we have embassies, we have all kinds of different agencies. . . . Then we just have the regular people."
(In Los Angeles, he says, "they give plaques and awards to people just for walking down the street. That's what I've heard.")
All is not commendable, of course. Small shops face pressures, as landlords are enticed by higher-paying chain stores and others, Preziotti said.
As for the honor of being a Great American Street, Preziotti and his colleague Sylvia Griffiths said they think the area is worthy.
"It has such a small-town feel, but it's right in the heart of things," Griffiths said. "Everybody loves to be recognized."
Next door, at the Iota Club & Cafe, Stephen V. Negrey and his sister Jane Negrey Inge were meeting ahead of a planned show by the Russian rockabilly band the Red Elvises.
"We're about 14 1/2 years old. When we moved in, it was a much sleepier place," Inge said. "It's kind of like a teenager. People are coming in and being a part of this emerging place. It's great."