Among the merchants in the Lee Heights shopping center in north Arlington, it's sometimes referred to as the Great Hamburger War, and, like most pitched battles, the controversy provides a glimmer into what a clash of visions can involve.
On one side is J. Newman Carter, the landlord of and brains behind a row of recently hatched boutiques and specialty shops that he created out of an aging block of convenience stores.
"I'm like an artist with his canvas," he said the other day over eggs muscovite at the Chalet de la Paix, the centerpiece of his commercial arrangement. "I want stores with pretensions to quality."
And so the Lee Heights Shops includes the kind of stores that cater of daydreams, not shopping lists. A pastry shop and a bath boutique. Dress shops and a high-priced shoe store. Stores that sell wine and cheese, needlepoint, and soon to come, health foods and a farmer's market complete with Muzak.
But there is a blot on J. Newman Carter's palette. There, on the other end of his creation from the Chalet de la Paix is the Pizza Box, Bob Rohr, proprietor.
"That store is personally repugnant to me," said landlord Carter, who would like Rohr to replace that flat metal grill with an open hearth and the frozen disks of hamburger with plump globes of chopped sirloin. "It should be a miniature Clyde's, (a tony Georgetown wateringhole)."
"This store has seen the kids in the neighborhood grow up and bring in their kids," said Bob Rohr as he ladled onions onto a steak and cheese sub as two women in high heels nooded in agreement. "Bankers come in here and garbage men come in here. The way he (Carter) wants it, my customers would be driving up in chauffeured limousines. Heck, I would not even be allowed in my own door, the way he wants it."
Meanwhile, the profits from the Pizza Box keep stores like the needle-point boutique afloat and therein lies the fulcrum of Newman Carter's frustration.
"I want class here," Carter said. "I'm continually trying to upgrade my tenancy. But in Arlington all we have is a large cemetery and a bunch of bu bureaucrats."
And so, he said, he doesn't get the expense account customers that could afford his French delicacies. And, he sighed GS-15's save their money for their children's college educations. Not to mention the fact that the county government, in his eyes, seems to care more about providing social services than about keeping the street outside his boutiques clean.
And so, say the merchants, there is Newman Carter in the morning, broom in hand, sweeping the sidewalk or patching potholes with blacktop he buys from a nearby drugstore. "I'm not moving," he said. "I'm staying right here." Gradually, he said, "we're getting rid of the rednecks."
The shopping center that Carter has spent the last seven years transforming was once the kind of place where anyone in the neighborhood could take the measure of the day-to-day. The local bookie made bets and in the laundromat, machines spinned to the tune of the neighbors' gosspi. A 25-year-old block-long strip of one-story concrete and asphalt at 4500 Lee Highway, it was the place were errands were run, teen-agers ate hamburgers and the corner drugstore monitored the health of the community.
No longer. Japanese yew trees flourish in sections of 25-inch well pipe and brightly striped awnings sprout above nearly every store. The shopowners pay for them as a written requirement of their leases. "I've got the best awning man in town".
And, as Carter himself cheerfully admits, he "really keeps the tenants jumping." A florist shop that was there long before Carter came on the scene, recently had its space cut in half while the rent remained the same to make way for the health foods store. And Rohr has been on a month to month lease for several years now as landlord and tenant play cat and mouse.
"I have a great bunch of tenants," Carter said, although it isn't always easy attracting the kind of tenants he feels the Lee Heights Shops deserve. "There was this one classy dress shop," he recalled. A quality place. A real rich girls' playground. I tried to get them to open up in a place like Arlington."
So, said Newman Carter, the tenants he seeks are "the number two guys, the up the comers. I'll make a lot of concessions to get the right people in here."
Carter's tenants, are for the most part, a fiercely independent breed of merchants, many of whom left the more secure status of employees of larger companies to seek their fortunes among the self-employed. Their descriptions of their mutual landlord are often graphically negative, although most of them agree that he has done much to upgrade the status of the block and its inhabitants.
Joseph Sutler, who, with his wife, Wanda, runs a specially meat store in the center, the plus much of the grambling in perspective. "It's like this," said Suter, who has been in the meat business for 45 years, three of them in Lee Heights. "Landlord and tenants are natural enemies. As a landlord, Newman is about average."
"I sort of like Newman although I don't say that too loudly on the block," said Tom Otis, owner of a shoe shop that was once a discount house and now sells higher priced brands after Carter applied what he cals "alitle gentle pressure."
Basically, Otis said Carter would like a place like the Pizza Bow to "be selling plate sandwiches and have champagne flowing out of the coke machine when a lot people around here feel that what's needed is something like a drug store to bring the street trade in."