The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Battling yard signs on a quiet corner in Alexandria

A community that has often stayed above the culture wars questions whether a dueling war of words exposes division

Signs are set up in front of neighboring townhouses at an intersection in Alexandria, Va. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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At first, the neighbors walking their dogs hardly noticed when a new yard sign appeared down the block.

In capital rainbow letters, it read: “In this house we believe: Black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, no human Is illegal, science Is real, love Is love, kindness is everything.”

It was a little showy for some of the people around Old Town Alexandria, who preferred to talk about landscaping over politics. But it fit with the way they saw their neighborhood — as accepting, inviting and polite.

Then another sign went up in the front yard of the townhouse next door. In similar rainbow letters, just a few feet away, it said: “In this house we believe that simplistic platitudes, trite tautologies and semantically overloaded aphorisms are poor substitutes for respectful and rational discussions about complex issues.”

The neighbors on their morning walks started paying attention.

They started to wonder what that second sign, available on Etsy for $31.95, was supposed to say. Was it a direct rebuke of the idea that all were welcome in their community? Was it an attack on the messaging of the Democratic Party, which often uses such phrases as rallying cries? Or was it just trying to be funny?

Either way, many neighbors said, the dueling yard signs made public a sort of tension that is rarely articulated in an area proud of its understated brand of liberalism.

“It’s a very Alexandria move,” said Nicholas Sarofolean, a 25-year-old marketing copy writer who lives in the area and had noticed the sign drama on walks with his dog, Gus. “People are indirect here, so they express themselves through signs.”

He considered putting up his own sign that said, “Y’all Petty.”

The oasis on a quiet corner in Alexandria has in many ways stayed above the cultural fray that has dominated other parts of Northern Virginia over the past few years. There have been no fights over promoting drag queens at local festivals like there were a few miles away in McLean, nor have there been explosive rallies over critical race theory in schools like in nearby Loudoun County. Residents pridefully point to their school board’s unanimous vote to rename their local high school from T.C. Williams to Alexandria City High School, ditching the association with a racist former superintendent, as proof that they are united in rejecting racism.

But the yard signs were far from the first indication of division over the social issues that have come to define the times. Residents in and around Old Town have frequently clashed over proposals for new developments that would bring more building density and affordable housing to their neighborhood. Most recently, city lawmakers began considering an ordinance that would extend developers’ ability to surpass building height zoning limitations in exchange for an increase in affordable housing to more areas, including parts of Old Town — a proposal that has already alarmed some homeowners who fear it would permanently alter the historical riverfront neighborhood.

On the block of Oronoco Street where the yard signs appeared, some residents said they almost never discuss their views on housing or politics. They much prefer to learn the names of each other’s dogs and kids, exchanging pleasantries but respecting each other’s privacy.

That dynamic made it all the more unusual when another sign — an apparent response to the response — appeared in the front yard on Oronoco Street.

This one said: “In this house we believe that using snark and sarcasm and pedantic, overly complex language to respond to others’ somewhat meaningless virtue-signaling is just divisive and trollish behavior, but hey, signs are fun.”

The exchange caught the attention of Brittany Shadd, a 33-year-old who lives nearby. A Black woman, Shadd said that the back-and-forth over a sign that started with “Black lives matter” felt ironic given the makeup of her neighborhood. She said she rarely sees another neighbor who looks like her.

“Signs like that don’t go with the community,” she said. “They say ‘Black lives matter,’ but they’re not really friendly when it comes to housing for Black people.”

The number of Black people in the area around Shadd has decreased by more than 10 percent over the past decade — falling from about a third of the population to less than a quarter as the community grew. Over that same period, the number of White residents increased by more than 40 percent, accounting for more than 62 percent of the total population by 2020, according to census data.

The yard with the signs is on the edge of the Parker-Gray Historic District, a historically Black neighborhood named after two principals of segregated schools. In 1980, the area that includes the district was 90 percent Black. By 2020, Black people made up only 23 percent of the population, according to data provided by the Alexandria City government.

Erick Langer, 66, has watched the yard sign dialogue unfold on walks with his dog, Luna. A history professor at Georgetown and a longtime Alexandria resident, Langer is aware of the neighborhood’s complicated past. He knows that he lives on the edge of a historically Black neighborhood and a brisk walk away from the childhood home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who grew up on Oronoco Street.

But the signs to him seemed more confusing than troubling — especially after a fourth sign appeared on the grassy lawn. It was about a movie, saying in those same rainbow letters that the legal thriller “Michael Clayton” was a “vastly underrated cinematic masterpiece” and “exactly one of the five best films of the 21st century.”

“I still haven’t quite figured out what they are trying to say,” Langer said from his front porch where he spends most mornings with his breakfast. “But I think people have a right to express themselves. It shows the diversity of the neighborhood.”

Whether the sign owners wanted their front yard to advance freedom of expression, take part in the culture wars or simply bring color to the neighborhood, one resident wanted to provide some clarity.

The 33-year-old man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his privacy, said he moved into his townhouse on Oronoco Street in January and noticed the “Black Lives Matter” sign in an adjacent front yard. He worried it spoke for his property, too, and wanted to separate himself from the words that he felt oversimplified issues that should be discussed with nuance.

So naturally, he googled “political yard signs” and looked for a placard for his side of the yard. He found one on Etsy that perfectly expressed his beliefs, soon placing the “Simplistic Platitudes” poster on his side of the grass. He said he tried to position it as far away from his neighbor’s as possible — out of respect.

A few weeks later, the third sign appeared countering his reply, and the man realized his sign might have bothered his neighbor. But he said they never talked about it, nor did he ever try to engage them on the cultural issues he thought were better addressed in person.

“We didn’t talk a whole lot before the signs,” he said. “But I admit, I don’t think the signs were a positive step there.”

The owner of the original Black Lives Matter sign declined to comment other than to write in an email that “we are on pleasant terms with our neighbors.”

As for the Michael Clayton sign, the 33-year-old was just as confused as the rest of his neighborhood when it appeared in his yard. He said he does not know who put it there or why.

But he decided to leave it, happy that his Etsy purchase had stimulated a conversation even though his yard now advertises the brilliance of a movie he has never seen.

Teo Armus and John Harden contributed to this report.