This article has been updated since it first appeared in print.
The project is a photographic documentation of the flowering of immigrants from across the world now residing along the historic road that links Washington, D.C., and Arlington.
The group’s work is up free for viewing through Jan. 8 at the Library of Virginia, in “Columbia Pike: Through the Lens of Community.”
Project participants include photographers connected to this historic stretch of road. The library houses some 11,000 photographs of participants, including the 70 featured in the display. “This is the first time we’ve seen these photographs exhibited in such a big way,” Wolf says.
Wolf, whose credits include National Geographic Explorer and The Washington Post magazine, came to the region in 1975. While observing the 2012 iteration of “Prio Bangla,” a Bangladeshi folk festival along the pike in Arlington, a realization came to him. “This needed to be witnessed,” he recalls. “We didn’t know then as fully, which through hindsight we see, that we were experiencing a rich and unique high point of diversity and culture.”
He, with longtime collaborator Paula Endo and her husband, Todd, Wolf assisted in organizing the documentation for the project. He recalls how the group’s potluck dinner planning meetings served up international dishes.
The story of the pike begins in 1810 when Congress embarked upon a national infrastructure spree for roads, canals and bridges. From 1812-15, Columbia Pike, with toll gates at either end, was laid out by artist and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. A former Richmonder, Latrobe designed the first Virginia Penitentiary and later oversaw the construction of the U.S. Capitol and its rebuilding after British destruction.
Amid the Civil War, in 1863, Freedman’s Village for formerly enslaved Blacks was established at Arlington. The 1890s brought electric railways and the first Northern Virginia suburbia. The construction of the Pentagon altered the eastern end of the pike and destroyed some parts of Black communities. A century later, with the influx of refugees from the Vietnam War, conflicts in Central America and apartheid in South Africa, the composition of Columbia Pike’s population increased in its complexity.
Project participants included Dewey Tron, Xang Mimi Ho, Lara Ajami, Moises Gomez and Aleksandra Lagkueva, along with writer and community art activist Sushmita Mazumdar.
“For several years we walked the Pike,” a quote from Wolf in the exhibit reads, “made contacts, ate every conceivable cuisine, poked into nooks and crannies, and kept our eyes and ears open to what needed to be covered, to the scenes and faces that best represent life here.” The images, he concludes, are “the distillation of what we have seen, felt and learned through our life experience in this diverse place, our home.”
One can sense the vitality of variety in the photo mosaics along the exhibit walls. This is a place where some 130 languages are spoken, and with that comes variations of culture not often seen elsewhere in the country. “The world in a ZIP code” is one way the Columbia Pike corridor is described.
Two books by the group, available at the library shop, are “Living Diversity” (2015) and “Transitions” (2020). The latter addresses how this microcosm of the wider world also reflects the greater tensions of maintaining community while contending with economic sustainability.
Many of the exhibited photographs depict vivid glimpses of life and celebration. Accompanying texts also express universal concerns about rising living expenses. Immigrant parents worry about whether their children, if they wanted to stay in the neighborhood, can afford to.
Amazon is soon to establish its HQ2 headquarters in adjacent Crystal City, joined by a massive Virginia Tech research facility. “Remains to be seen how this will affect the pike,” Wolf says as he contemplates the exhibition. “But we know that it will; and so, our work now seems even more worthwhile for the maintenance of the communal memory.”
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