Columbia Pike Documentary Project: The Road Ahead

Columbia Pike Documentary Project artists at George Mason University for a panel discussion. Oct 14, 2022. From left: Lloyd Wolf, Dewey Tron, Lara Ajami, Sushmita Mazumdar. We missed you, Mimi Xang Ho.

An Introduction by Lloyd Wolf, Director, Columbia Pike Documentary Project

“Columbia Pike is one of the most culturally diverse and transitional neighborhoods in the Washington, DC metro area, and indeed in the nation. This rich melting is well worth recording, particularly as this section of Arlington County continues to gentrify and rapidly re-develop. As the Columbia Pike Documentary Project have been documenting The Pike since 2007, we believe the new project, “Columbia Pike: The Road Ahead,” will continue the long-term work we have been undertaking documenting the vital historical and cultural significance of The Pike, fully deserving of investigation and depiction.

Major changes are in process, most significantly the coming of Amazon Inc.’s headquarters to the area, which is already having a significant impact of demographics, economics, and the landscape, and the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how the community responds and moves ahead after the experience, is worthy of study and documentation. By focusing on the views and hopes of our younger citizens, we will endeavor to most effectively observe and transmit what is happening now, and what is in store.”

Looking Back & The Road Ahead:

This phase of the project both extends previous work and looks ahead, by interviewing & photographing young citizens. Apart from our writing, interviewing, photographing skills it will also let the team use their experience as educators who have worked extensively with Arlington’s youth. Lloyd Wolf’s work with school children and teachers in the previous two phases of the project include his own public school teaching experience, his teen project work for the Washington Post Magazine, covering teens in the Jewish March of the Living to Holocaust sites in Poland, mentoring youth in the  Streets to Skills/Shooting Back programs, years of work for DC’s Children’s Hospital, Grandma’s House, and mentoring with the Columbia Heights West Teen Photo Project (with Paula Endo’s VH-funded Portraits of the Pike book). Xang Mimi Ho has extensive teaching experience working with young adults at George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. Adding to this we have Sushmita Mazumdar’s twenty years’ experience as a museum docent educator, thirteen years as a teaching artist, plus her projects with the participants of BU-GATA’s Buckingham Youth Brigade, and with AHC Inc’s resident services teen after-care team in Arlington. All this expertise will be brought to bear in working in-depth with our target subject demographic.

This project has four parts: 

  1. Documenting via in depth interviews and photo-essays a range of younger citizens, youth and young adults of the Pike, in order to gauge their experiences and to see what their expectations and hopes for the future of the community. Part of their experience is unique to their generation – as Gen C-Covid. We will focus on what did they do before the pandemic and what their futures look and feel like. The questions we will ask of our respondents will be aspirational in nature, focused on their hopes and expectations for their futures.
  2. To document the physical changes to the Pike as it begins massive development and redevelopment, much of it spurred by the coming of Amazon’s headquarters to nearby National Landing (formerly known as Crystal City). 
  3. To create a catalog with the interviews, portraits, and streetscape photos. To create videos presentations from the photos and interviews, and to create banners to use at public events.
  4. To share the work of CPDP with the public in a substantial grassroots community effort. This will occur by taking the created materials and displaying them at local civic and ethnic festivals, farmer’s markets, and ongoing outdoor Movie Nights, as well as citizen’s association meetings.

NOTES from the Field: Sushmita Mazumdar, 2022

Starting: During the first couple years of the COVID-19 pandemic I found it was particularly difficult to interview people. I had two projects going which were all about interviews, “The Road Ahead” was one, and the Columbia Pike Recipes for Recovery was the second. People did not easily respond to emails, social media, or texts. People did not want to. Period. 

I understood. People had slowed down a lot. People were picking carefully what they spent their energy on. The world was a disturbing and difficult place. So much had happened! People were choosing to be different.

So what does one do? Patience. Try again. Wait. Understand. Teach yourself to be okay with things taking longer. Be kind to others and yourself. It’s only a story. Yet, when the stories came, they were each eye-openers. All well worth the wait.

Finding People to Interview: The plan was for me to do the majority of interviews – at least seven. I had reached out to AHC Inc’s Teen Career Council to virtually meet and pitch the project to their teens who live on The Pike. I had been working with AHC’s resident services program youth and teens since 2014 helping them explore identity through book arts and storytelling. I had also worked with them since the 2020 pandemic teaching online sessions on art techniques which help calm us during anxious times. I described the project to their coordinator who has said there is interest from the students. The plan is to meet each interviewee a couple of times and do in depth interviews to get an idea of their hopes and dreams for the future of The Pike, and how it connects to their lives as they see it. Photographers from the team will work with the teens during those interviews or after. 

I had the help and assurance of project director Lloyd Wolf, who agreed it was unusually difficult as he tried to reach people to speak to, young people who lived or worked on Columbia Pike. 

Then finally one day on a Zoom call, I noticed my friend’s daughter walk by behind him. “Is Franci in town?” I asked Michael Swisher, who used to be my neighbor many years ago. Her car had broken down and so she would return to college a week late, he explained. Would she have time for a quick interview, I begged. “Yes!” he said, and she came by a couple hours later.

Franci and I met after over a decade and it was so wonderful to get to know what a wonderful young woman she was. She came over to the studio and I gave her a copy of our previous book, Transitions, so she could read more about the Pike.

Doing interviews: The way I work on my CPDP interviews is that I often invite the interviewees to my studio, Studio PAUSE, and make them comfortable with a tea or coffee. During the pandemic, we sit at 6-foot-long art tables, socially distanced, masks on, windows open, and we talk. It was only this time that I started recording the interviews, and only more than mid-way through I experimented with letting my phone dictate to Microsoft Word. It was cool— I would clean the studio as the computer worked. But between all the interviews I did there were many accents and ways of speaking which tripped up Word and so I had to go back and edit with a fine-tooth comb, correcting what Word thought they said.

Nabela’s interview started with talking about how we had the same mother tongue, Bangla, and how I was re-learning how to write it after decades. She told me she didn’t know how to write Bangla. Later, Nabela said she wanted to learn how to write her name in Bangla and so I invited her to the Studio. We figured out how to write her first and last name and we also found out what the words meant. In the photo, left, she wrote her last name Rehman in the Bangla script, and wrote its meaning in English, using the Roman script. She used red and green, colors of the Bangladesh flag, to work with as well. I told her how the arts can help us connect to our heritage as I was finding out.

After: Once I finish an interview one of the photographers in the CPDP team does the photo shoot. For the Jada and Mayah interview Lloyd came to the Studio to shoot some photos of them there. Later he met them at home and took shots there as well. This time, I also had a second meeting with a couple interviewees—Nabela and Luis—because new things came up at the photo shoots Lloyd did of them. Another time Dewey Tron didn’t get enough good shots of Tofik the first time so he had to do a re-shoot. But once I transcribe the interview I sent it to the interviewee to go over and make any changes/edits they like. Then I send it to Lloyd so he can create the story with the photos and post to the blog.

My Interviews:

It was cool to see that after all the difficulties I did end up with 7 interviews, exactly as we had written in the grant application. I’ll let you read the stories here. For all the other interviews, done by Lloyd Wolf, check out the blog here:

  1. Franci Swisher, Feb 24, 2022: I first met Franci when she was 4-5 years old and then again, yesterday, when she came on a video call I was having with her father, Michael Swisher. I had reconnected with Michael a couple years ago and worked on a project with him. Franci was returning to college on Monday, Jan 24, 2022, and agreed to come over to the Studio for an interview. I kept a copy of the CPDP book Transitions ready for her to learn more about the Project. But she already knew. – Sushmita Mazumdar
    Read it here.
  2. Nabela Rahman, April 2022: I met Nabela through AHC Inc’s Teen College and Career Readiness program. She is the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, so we had a language in common as I am Bengali from India. At the end of the interview, she asked me if I spoke Bangla and I said I did. She said she spoke Bangla too, but it was bad. I told her, in Bangla, she could speak with me as mine was bad too after living in the U.S. for 23 years. She laughed and said, “Aamar shada manusher accent ache,” meaning I speak with a white person’s accent. We laughed, because she did! – Sushmita Mazumdar
    Read it here.
  3. Jada and Mayah Millhouse, Aug 2022: Anika Tené, chair of the Arlington Arts Commission, had wanted her daughters Jada and Mayah Millhouse to meet our interviewer Sushmita Mazumdar, as they were interested in the arts and in writing. So when Sushmita asked her if she could interview the girls for our project, “The Road Ahead,” they were excited. Anika asked Sushmita to tell Jada and Mayah a bit about her own story and why Sushmita was so personally interested in documenting the diversity of stories in Arlington. After she did so, Jada, the older of the two sisters, started to giggle. “Other people’s accents rub off on me,” she said to Sushmita. “Your accent reminds me of my South African accent. Like, if I watch a British show I start to think in that accent.”
    Read it here.
  4. Tofik Beshir, Aug 2022: One day I walked into Phoenix Bikes at the Arl Mill Community center. My son had done their bike repair program many years ago so I wondered if there would be young people at their new location as well. If so, I could interview them. They told me about Tofik and that was perfect! Tofik Beshir is a middle school student who is active in the Phoenix Bike program, headquartered at the Arlington Mill Community Center on Columbia Pike.
    Read it here.
  5. Karen Vallejos, Aug 22: Lloyd and I were both invited to a Virginia Humanities event in McLean honoring David Bearinger. There, Emma Violand-Sanchez introduced us to Karen and Lloyd soon asked if I would interview her. Karen Vallejos is the new executive director of the Dream Project. She lives along Columbia Pike.
    Read it here.
  6. Ahmad Latifi, Oct 22: Lloyd contacted Ahmad’s father after he read a story about the young man. Ahmad Latifi is an Afghan immigrant, student, and avid soccer player. He and his family live along Columbia Pike at Gilliam Place.
    Read it here.
  7. Luis Rocha, Nov 22: When we recently became members of the Arl Comm Fed Credit Union I noticed a lot of young people working there. One day I went in and asked the assistant manager if I could interview one of his staff. He knew right away who it would be. Luis Rocha, originally from Bolivia, works for the Arlington Community Federal Credit Union branch on Columbia Pike. A student at George Mason University, he also dances in a traditional Bolivian folklore group.
    Read it here.
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