This afternoon I went with my mother to the polls at my old grammar school, Westlawn Elementary in Falls Church.
The school, like the neighborhood, was a very segregated place when I was there.
The only non-white kid in the school was Indian. I remember rumors, still unconfirmed, that a girl a grade below me was Jewish. I also remember hearing that the Jefferson Theater, the local moviehouse where I saw my first movie (“Mary Poppins”) wouldn’t admit blacks, and seeing my next door neighbors, very nice folks, running around in styrofoam “George Wallace for President” hats.
All the black kids in the zip code lived several blocks away, next to the Jefferson Theater in a section of Falls Church called James Lee. They had their own elementary school.
But that was the ’60s and ’70s. Things have changed at Westlawn. The U.N.’s got nothing on the student body there or the neighborhood these days. (All the McCain/Palin volunteers working outside the school when I went by today were Asians with very heavy accents, for example.)
But it’s still got its past. So, being caught up in the idea that this could be a historic day for my country, I drove through James Lee this morning. For the first time in my whole life.
I felt like a character in a bad Springsteen song.
The community looks just like the neighborhood I grew up in. Except that the streets in James Lee don’t have sidewalks, and some of the roads aren’t paved. For example: Scipio Lane, just off Annandale Road, is a gravel road that looked like it had never seen asphalt.
Turns out the James Lee community grew out of a law passed by the Falls Church city council early in the 20th century that forced all black residents to live there. Apparently, in what sounds like the set up the government gave American Indians, ownership of the land, and responsibility for things such as road maintenance, were turned over to some of the tenants.
As recently as 2006, with the release of a proposed Neighborhood Improvement Program for James Lee, Fairfax County planners said no modernization had taken place on Scipio Lane and other streets in the community in decades because of “insufficient land rights.”
And it’s inside the beltway. And it’s the year 2008. And its streets aren’t paved.
And it’s my hometown.