At a vacant lot in this rattled Alexandria neighborhood, six blocks from the park where a man opened fire Wednesday on members of Congress, Nancy Belmont stages interactive art projects aimed at bringing people together.
Two years ago, she created the Courage Wall, inviting passersby to scribble on a giant chalkboard the things they would do, if only they were brave enough. Last year, there was an initiative dubbed the Unity project, involving 37 miles of interwoven red yarn, which encouraged people to connect with one another.
And this month, in the days before a disgruntled man from Illinois brought bloodshed to the ballfield, Belmont launched “Soar,” asking participants to write on smooth gray stones about the burdens they’re ready to drop, and then hang a brightly colored paper bird to symbolize lightness and freedom.
“Unfortunately, the timing is good,” Belmont said 12 hours after the shooting in the Del Ray neighborhood shocked the community and the nation. “It does give people an opportunity to open up and be together.”
About 100 people — and nearly as many pets — were walking from the site of her project to St. Andrew and St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Catholic Church for one of at least five local prayer services that took place Wednesday evening.
“Del Ray is very close-knit,” said resident Jill Ray. “When something like this disrupts our nirvana, our equilibrium is upset.”
It’s the type of neighborhood where the impending loss of a well-loved custard shop, the Dairy Godmother, prompted much angst, until another local business owner agreed to take it over and keep it in operation.
And where U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D), who represents the area, can tick off multiple favorite hangouts, including the Holy Cow eatery, “a great hamburger place where there’s no tipping because they pay their employees a living wage, and they donate a quarter for each burger to a charity you choose.”
The Rev. David McWilliams, the recently arrived pastor of the Del Ray United Methodist Church, said that “the overwhelming majority of people here look for their spirituality in nontraditional places,” such as doing yoga or walking a labyrinth.
“People’s guards definitely go up when they learn I’m a pastor,” he said. But 80 people turned up at the prayer service his church sponsored at George Washington Middle School on Wednesday night, he said, and 400 people came to the church’s spring fair.
With about 23,000 residents living in 1.8 square miles, Del Ray is affluent, educated and increasingly densely populated, like the rest of the city of Alexandria. What sets it apart, residents say, is that it feels like a small town in the midst of the metropolitan Washington megalopolis — one mile from Old Town’s tourists, and five miles from the 14th Street Bridge.
“We have spontaneous social gatherings,” said Rod Kuckro, president of the Del Ray Citizens Association. “Older residents take new neighbors under their wing.”
The neighborhood is ethnically diverse, according to U.S. Census Bureau data: Mostly white, but about 1 in 5 residents is either black or Hispanic. It hasn’t always been that way.
Established in 1894, Del Ray was initially a segregated community for white railroad workers and federal government employees. An ad from a 1924 city directory makes the dubious-sounding claim that Del Ray was the only U.S. municipality with no residents “of African descent.”
The 1968 riots in Washington helped trigger a sort of social awakening that opened the doors to integration, Kuckro said.
Del Ray residents mobilized last month against racist posters that appeared on neighborhood streets one night, replacing them with messages of unity.
In a Facebook post, Justin Wilson, Alexandria’s biracial vice mayor and former president of the Del Ray Citizens Association, called the enclave “the best neighborhood on the planet.”
Belmont, the leadership consultant who dreams up the interactive art projects, notes that the most recent ones have been paid for by the community itself, from the landowner who donates the use of the lot to the people who volunteer to fold paper cranes to those who contributed to a crowdfunding effort.
“Really, through this whole time, I’ve been shocked by the engagement,” she said.
Her supply of 3,000 unpainted rocks had dwindled to a couple of dozen by Thursday morning, as people painted words describing their burdens — “shame” and “aging” and “anger” — and hung paper cranes nearby.
A week from Saturday, Belmont will invite the public to the lot to paint over the brief messages of anguish and “make something beautiful” instead.