For decades, Lou Aronica’s job was protecting D.C.’s rights. Now it’s protecting the city’s plants.
Lou Aronica has spent a lot of time being pissed off. As a veteran of the home rule movement, a founder of the D.C. Statehood Party, and a onetime congressional candidate whose platform demanded equal rights for the District, Aronica poured a career’s worth of energy into the city’s struggle. Friends of the 66-year-old will tell you that he works hard for his causes because he’s a sweet guy who tries to inspire fellow activists. But Aronica will tell you that underneath the white mane and the face full of white whiskers, he’s propelled by a kind of quiet rage.
Right now, for example, Aronica’s a little peeved about the holly bush he planted in Anna Sofaer’s Palisades yard a few years ago. The plant’s a hybrid—a mix of a native holly and something else not from around here. In other words, it’s not what Aronica usually uses as part of his mission to create gardens featuring plants indigenous to the D.C. area. He had qualms about the hybrid when he bought it a few years ago but says he figured it would blend in with the rest of the plants.
Instead, the holly hybrid wound up bearing bright-red berries, the kind you see on Christmas wrapping paper and greeting cards. A couple of weeks ago, Aronica finally dug up the plant and banished it to a harder-to-see spot at the side of the house. But he still can’t help but glare at it while he works in the garden on a Thursday morning. “Every [time] I look at it, I think it’s a little gaudy,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s just sitting here for now. I’ll probably give it to my friend.”
Aronica makes his living as a landscaper. But he doesn’t plant just anything. He specializes in native landscapes, meaning he prefers—and usually insists on—indigenous flora. Creating at-home gardens using only native plants is one way to preserve the roughly 1,500 species of plants and trees that are indigenous to the area. As it is, hometown species are threatened both by construction and by those people who insist on imported plants and the brighter, bigger fruits and flowers they usually feature.
Aronica says that protecting local plants isn’t so different from protecting local rights. “Much of my life centers on what you get mad about,” he says. “Things can happen that you don’t get mad about, or you may be totally oblivious to it. But then you finally see something and you say, ‘Wait a minute, this really isn’t right.’”
Like the hybrid holly. It’s glaringly inconsistent with the rest of the garden. About eight years ago, Sofaer and her husband asked Aronica to build a native landscape at their house on Potomac Avenue NW. Aronica brought in eight loads of new soil, creating a mound in the front yard and a ditch to run through the middle. Aronica calls this area the “wetlands.”
“As you can see, this is nice and mucky,” he says, stomping his boots in the mud. Around the muddy area, he planted sweet bay magnolia and inkberry holly. A higher mound of soil near the house is considered the drier “woodland” area, says Aronica, where he planted dogwood and Virginia fringe trees. All in all, he planted more than 100 native species in the yard.
Early in the spring, much of the garden is still bare. But even in its half-blooming state, the yard is clearly a wild mass of bushes and trees. The unkempt look only adds to the authenticity, says Aronica. “That’s where I get into trouble with folks,” he says. “I’m willing to make some sacrifices, but these are not terribly tidy gardens.”
So far, Sofaer’s been tolerant. Aronica says that she was a little angry when he moved the hybrid holly but that she accepts his whims because she believes in his concept. “Just because we like the glitzy sort of plants doesn’t mean that’s what the birds or others like,” says Aronica, still a little annoyed as he eyes some of the berries on the muddy ground. “I like to ask, ‘Are we using these for ourselves or for the birds and others that would use them?’”
Unlike his plants, Aronica is not native to D.C. The adopted son of a coal-mining family, Aronica grew up in Tower City, Pa., a hamlet of about 2,000 people. He came to the Washington area in 1955 to attend graduate school at the University of Maryland. He planned to get a doctorate in physics.
But Aronica wasn’t as passionate about physics as he had hoped. In 1961, he left school for good and started working for the liberal advocacy group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Within two months, he was executive director of the D.C. chapter, earning $50 a week. “And you had to raise your own salary,” says Aronica.
Aronica worked on ADA’s range of national and international issues, but eventually focused most of his time on fighting for change in D.C. Back then, as is still the case today, nearly every fight in D.C.—for better school buildings, better public transportation, or fewer highways—was tied to a struggle for the District’s right to rule itself. Aronica threw himself into the fray, gathering signatures, meeting federal and local leaders, and campaigning for anyone who could make a change.
When Julius Hobson ran for election as the city’s nonvoting congressional delegate in 1971, Aronica helped manage his campaign. The two had met in the mid-’60s, when Hobson, then head of the local chapter for the Congress of Racial Equality, joined ADA’s board of directors. Hobson’s platform called for the District to become a state. Although Hobson lost the election, his campaign created the D.C. Statehood Party. Aronica was one of two dozen or so founding members.
Aronica’s own trips to the soapbox made few headlines for himself. Friends and fellow activists recall him as humble, hard-working, and extremely well-organized—and always impeccably dressed in shirt and tie. “Lou has been one of the—not just guiding spirits—but the sort of down-to-earth mechanics of social change in this city,” says longtime statehood activist Sam Smith. “He not only had ideas, but he had the knowledge of how you put ideas into effect.”
He also had the power to rally others, says former girlfriend and fellow activist Judy Fisher. “Lou Aronica would tell you to walk on water, and you would. You could do it because he would tell you you could do it,” says Fisher. “I thought he had one of the most brilliant minds I’d ever seen.”
In 1976, Aronica ran for delegate himself. He’s nonchalant about the campaign, saying he ran more to keep the party active than to actually take office. “I sort of pretended I was campaigning, but really had a helluva lot of time on my hands.”
Even if Aronica never thought he’d win, though, the campaign set the stage for an unexpected change in his life. In order to run, Aronica had to leave his job as a D.C. Council staffer. To pay the bills and to kill time, he started doing landscape work with a friend. After Election Day, Aronica decided that he liked the independence of garden work. He decided to stick with it.
In the mid-’80s, friend and landscape architect Mary Pat Rowan turned Aronica on to native plants. His first love was azaleas. “Lou, when he gets interested in something—he wanted to know all about azaleas,” says Rowan. “Like a convert, he has gone all the way—not that he didn’t take to it very easily.”
Gardening has minimized the amount of time Aronica can dedicate to traditional politics. But nowadays preserving the local environment remains his main fight even when he puts down his hoe. In the early ’90s, Aronica helped revive the Maryland Native Plant Society, a group dedicated to studying and preserving the state’s indigenous plants. He’s currently vice president. He’s also on the front lines when it comes to rescuing plants threatened by development—or protesting construction altogether.
But most of Aronica’s grass-roots activism takes place in individual gardens. Aronica says the statehood movement failed because too many people are pleased with the city’s powerless condition. “It’s a case of people using the city and its people for their advantage. There’s no honest concern for the welfare here,” says Aronica.
Same goes for local plants. People think of gardens as a way to decorate their homes, not to preserve the natural surroundings, says Aronica. “It’s about nature, not the human uses of these things,” he says. “The best you can do with a home landscape is, you can try to evoke a feeling and the feeling would be some little place in nature.”
We’ve driven no more than half a block from Sofaer’s house before Aronica abruptly stops his pickup truck and begins a rant against the injustice of manicured lawns. “These people pay other people to come in here and mow this,” he says, pointing to a plot of neat, green grass a few houses away from Sofaer’s. “We don’t need these manicured areas.”
Aronica parks and calls me to the edge of a ravine. Below us, a couple of roads slice through the grass and trees that lead to the bank of the Potomac River. “It’s difficult to get any integrity because it’s all hacked up,” he says.
We head back to his beat-up red pickup. The truck itself looks like an indigenous garden—that is, it’s a mess. When Aronica picked me up earlier, he opened the passenger-side door and an avalanche of papers and newsletters and cigarette packs came tumbling out. “The problem is, I have junk mixed in with good stuff,” he said, scooping it all into trash bags to be sorted later. Because the back of the truck was already crowded with stuff, Aronica opened the tailgate to create more space and set the bags on top of the door, using some rope to tie them down. “One of these days, the cops are going to ask me what the hell I’m doing,” he said.
We get to Kevin Doyle’s house in Glen Echo Heights, Md., a little before 1 o’clock. Doyle is president of Adcon Associates, a small construction company that’s built a few houses in the D.C. area. Rowan and Aronica have teamed up to do the landscape work for some of the houses. Rowan does the designs, and Aronica does the planting.
About three years ago, Rowan and Aronica started the landscaping on Doyle’s own yard. Aronica gives me a tour, excitedly pointing out everything he’s planted. The garden is still pretty sparse, and most of the trees and bushes are little more than seedlings. Aronica’s always been a visionary, though, and he looks at the yard and sees what will one day be a forest of native plants. The black gum trees will sprout to form what’s called the “canopy”; the dogwoods will grow in right below. The “shrub level” will be made up of azalea, blueberry, huckleberry, and spice bushes. And the ground will be covered with leafy sedges and asters.
But there’s always the stuff that even the most skilled gardener just can’t plan for. “We’re only making approximations to these interrelations that happen out there,” says Aronica. “We aren’t forcing things. Nature doesn’t always come back and give you exactly what you think you’re doing.” CP