Arlington, VA

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Whether it was entering a beauty pageant or a 10-day immersive therapy retreat, Arlingtonian Grace Ashi — AKA Miss Arlington USA 2019 — has marked the last year as one of immense personal growth in overcoming her stutter.

“I was born with a speech disability, I wanted to basically put myself in a position where I could grow and I can inspire people who might suffer from a disability they could do it,” said Grace Ashi.

Grace Ashi, who works at Keller Williams realty by day, grew up in Cameroon and Maryland, where her stuttering led to bullying and scared her away from public speaking.

Ashi had a friend in Maryland who had entered a pageant two years ago, and when it was first suggested that she enter the pageant to work on her public speaking, she was largely unfamiliar with the concept. Though she’s always had a great interest in fashion and has her own fashion blog, she thought pageants sounded superficial (although she’s ashamed to admit that now).

The Miss USA competition (not to be confused with the Miss America pageant of the famous theme song and Atlantic City background) is a part of the Miss Universe pageant, which is an entirely separate circuit.

The Miss America pageant made headlines announcing they would no longer judge contestants on physical appearance or recognize the swimsuit competition.

In contrast, the Miss USA pageant continues to employ a swimsuit competition and has no talent competition. Still, the three portions — an interview segment in front of a panel of judges, evening wear and the swimsuit competition – can require a lot of grueling preparation.

“It’s like getting ready for the Olympics, because you have to have your body right, your mind right and your community service, while preparing to foster relationships,” said Jasmyne Franklin, who represented Falls Church at the pageant.

While she had an amazing experience at the pageant in Norfolk Sheraton, Ashi stops short of calling the experience a vacation.

“We were up and running sunrise to sunset,” said Ashi. “It’s a lot more work than it looks like.”

As for the swimsuit competition, 2016 Ms. Virginia America Marta Bota explained, “it’s really about showing physical fitness, which is about showing a woman is well-rounded.”

Bota was also Ashi’s personal coach and said that Grace’s story inspired her, though that’s par for the course for her contestants.

“A lot of people don’t realize the work that goes into pageantry, as well as how educated they are and what kind of pillars to the community they are,” she said. “It’s really been amazing to mentor these amazing women and I get a lot out of it myself.”

Bota worked with Ashi for six weeks, which is generally late in the process to prepare for the pageant. Typically, contestants train a year or so in advance.

Bota estimates that this might have limited her chances of advancing, but that she did an incredible job under the circumstances, citing her as a quick worker and a great student.

“She’s a really bright young woman, she’s go-getter, she’s ambitious, that’s what I got out of her,” said Bota. “I’m sure if she comes back, she’ll do even better.”

In addition to her traditional pageant training, Ashi also attended the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke. There, she participated in a 10-day immersive therapy program that included 100 hours of therapy for people with stuttering disorders.

“It was my first time meeting other people suffering from the same thing I’m going through,” she said. “I learned how important it is that we need people like me to give me a voice and it was my first time being comfortable with my version of the story.”

Through the course of an orientation and pageant weekend this past fall in Norfolk, Grace found a lot of camaraderie and felt as if it were more of a sisterhood than a competition. Franklin and Ashi keep in touch with the other contestants through a chat group.

In fact, one night during the competition, Ashi came back to her hotel room and found one of her friends gave an inspirational note, along with a gift from Franklin.

But these days, she’s back to her day job as a realtor with Keller Williams, which comes with its own challenges.

“Most people with any kind of speech impediment would avoid working in sales but I do not want the stuttering to control my destiny,” she said. “That’s not to say it’s been easy. Sometimes insecurities of my speech does hold me back from putting myself out there.”

She also runs a fashion blog, “Girl Meets Pearl” in her spare time, and has documented much of her journey with the followers of her blog through her Instagram account.

As Miss Arlington USA 2019, Ashi is a delegate of the community and works to advance her platform — in this case, combating bullying — through volunteering, fundraising and advocacy work. She works at an after school program, Aspire Afterschool Learning, and hopes to host charity events, which would raise funds to expand those facilities.

“Even if I didn’t get win the competition, I can still use the title to get involved in my community,” said Ashi.

Ashi moved here from New York in 2015 and calls “Arlington one of the best cities I’ve ever been in my entire life” because of its cleanliness, diversity, and restaurant scene.

Next up, Ashi is considering competing in Miss United States.

For more of Grace Ashi, follow her on Instagram @Grace_Ashi and for more of Aspire, go to Aspireafterschool.org.

Courtesy photo

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The following feature article was funded by our new Patreon community. Want to see more articles like this, exploring important local topics that don’t make our usual news coverage? Join and help fund additional local journalism in Arlington. 

There’s an ongoing war being fought on the streets of Arlington.

The skirmishes are fought amongst us daily, for turf, for respect, for safety — and, some would say, for outright survival. The combatants are cars and bicycles, jockeying to safely share a common infrastructure.

Arlington has long prided itself as a “bike friendly” locale. Every bicycle on an Arlington street is potentially one less car on the road, thus reducing traffic congestion and pollution.  Cycling also meshes nicely with Arlington’s reputation as one of the fittest communities in the nation.

Consequently, the county has taken numerous steps toward encouraging bike ridership. Recent years have seen the addition of many miles of dedicated bike lanes, including protected lanes, a move supported by a majority of Arlingtonians. Further, Arlington’s enviable network of interconnected bike paths provides a safe and efficient venue for pedal-powered transportation.

But it’s not always possible to physically separate bikes and automobiles. The problem arises from the fact that two modes of transportation, consisting of vehicles of differing size and weight, traveling at different speeds, with different degrees of visibility, often must share the same physical space.

Far too often, the two sides view each other as adversaries. One Arlington cyclist cited his top complaints against motorists as “parking/standing totally or partially in the bike lanes, and not allowing the Virginia state three-foot minimum of clearance when passing a cyclist.”

Drivers find their share of faults in cyclists, as well. “They act as if traffic laws don’t apply to them,” said one motorist. “So many times I’ve waited to safely pass a bicyclist on the road, only to have them zoom by me when I stop at a red light. They then blow through the light, and I have to wait to pass them all over again.”

Undoubtedly, there is bad behavior on both sides. And while these actors may represent only a small portion of each group, they are the ones that tend to stick out, not the majority of thoughtful, law abiding Arlingtonians.

Arlington County law enforcement officials monitor all modes of transportation for potential safety infractions, not merely automobiles.

“The police department’s overall vision for transportation safety in Arlington County focuses on the safety of all travelers. We encourage all who use our roadways to comply with the law and proceed with care and caution to ensure their safety and the safety of others who may be sharing the roads,” said county police spokeswoman Kirby Clark. “Officers observing traffic violations issue citations, based upon their discretion, to travelers, regardless of their mode of transportation.”

The stakes for cyclists are high — according to ACPD’s 2017 Annual Report, there were 80 bicycle-related crashes in Arlington County in 2017, ending a multi-year downward trend. There were 32 such crashes reported in 2016 and 46 in 2015.

It doesn’t require a degree in physics to understand that in a direct encounter between the two, bicyclists are at a far greater safety risk than are drivers. As one cyclist put it, “Any generally bad driving behavior and/or willful ignorance of traffic laws is exacerbated when you are cycling since one doesn’t have the protection of sheet metal and the bulk of a car.”

Arlington County has taken a number of steps in working toward a negotiated truce between the two sides.

The Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC) advises the County Manager on issues that affect cycling in Arlington, including safety, education, community involvement, awareness and promotion, and the development, operation and maintenance of on- and off-street bicycle transportation and recreation facilities. Elsewhere, county staff and members of a citizens working group are in the final stages of developing a draft update to the Bicycle Element of Arlington County’s Master Transportation Plan.

Education is a critical element of the solution, as well. The county’s PAL program — encouraging drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians to be Polite, Alert and Predictable — seeks to educate all Arlingtonians about ways that they can remain safe regardless of their selected mode of transportation.

The Safe Bicycling Initiative (SBI), a cooperative venture between ACPD and BikeArlington, utilizes education and enforcement to make Arlington’s roads safer for bicycles. SBI’s targeted enforcement throughout the county resulted in numerous citations of both bicyclists and motorists, all of which served as an opportunity for police to increase awareness of the SBI and related traffic laws.

In the end, however, the solution lies out on the roads. The “us versus them” mentality adds to the problem, not the solution. It is critical to respect all users of shared spaces, and to look out for their safety needs. Both sides need to be well educated, and need to be willing and able to put that knowledge into practice.

And when somebody, somewhere, does something wrong — as they inevitably will — it’s important to realize that they are merely an individual behaving badly, and not representative of an entire group.

While such efforts will not be easy, they will make Arlington’s roads safer, and less stressful, for all.

Photo courtesy Sal Ferro

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Are you a communications staffer with the federal government, or any other federal employee who’s furloughed and has news-writing experience?

If so, ARLnow wants you.

Thanks to our Patreon community, ARLnow is now commissioning longer, community-focused articles from local freelance writers. (And with additional reader support, we could be doing more.) With the shutdown still going on, we’d like to help out by commissioning articles from federal employees who can use the supplemental income.

So if you are furloughed and have a local Arlington story to pitch, email us at [email protected] and let us know what you’d like to write about — anything from human interest feature stories to explorations of local issues or policies. Also please include links to an article or two you’ve written in the past.

We can publish the article under a pseudonym, if need be, given any such restrictions at your federal agency.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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The following feature article was funded by our new Patreon community. Want to see more articles like this, exploring important local topics that don’t make our usual news coverage? Join and help fund additional local journalism in Arlington. 

 “You walked in and you just felt good,” says Eric Brace.

When the IOTA Club and Cafe, a Clarendon performance venue whose motto was “live music forever,” closed its doors in the fall of 2017 after more than 23 years, Brace took it hard. Though the Last Train Home frontman played IOTA with his rootsy rock band on two of the club’s final three evenings, he couldn’t bear to return to the club for its closing night.

“I did not go on the last day because I was kind of too sad,” says Brace, who lived in the D.C. area for about 20 years before moving to Nashville. “I was just physically and emotionally wiped out.”

In a somewhat ironic turn, Last Train Home — a band that had one of its first gigs at IOTA in the mid-’90s and went on to play annual New Year’s Eve shows there for a string of years — performed a late-December set at The Birchmere just a few hours after our conversation. The legendary Alexandria music venue was an inspiration to IOTA’s founders, longtime Arlington residents Jane Negrey Inge and brother Stephen Negrey, who identified it as one of their “idols” in a press release prior to the club’s closing.

Now, more than a year since the closing of the storied arts space — home to performances from Norah Jones, John Mayer, Ryan Adams, Dawes and countless others between 1994 and 2017 — Arlington has yet to fill the void.

For Josh Stoltzfus, deputy director of Arlington Cultural Affairs, the county arts scene is essentially a series of micro-scenes, defined by the venues and events in each neighborhood. But when it comes to specific music spaces, Stoltzfus says, “there is no one flagship that everything revolves around.” Luckily, the county boasts many restaurants and bars offering live, local music, including Galaxy Hut, Rhodeside Grill, Westover Beer Garden, Cafe Sazon and Bistro 29.

Yet none of those establishments regularly host a mix of national touring acts, D.C.-area musicians and poetry readings, as IOTA did for more than two decades.

Today, the Wilson Boulevard building that once housed IOTA lies dormant, its vestibule sporting a dangling string of twinkle lights and a well-preserved, if incongruous, welcome sign. The block is slated for redevelopment as Market Common Phase 2, a property of Regency Centers, with construction expected to begin early this year.

In the press release announcing their closure, IOTA’s owners cited the impending construction and anticipated rent increase as contributing factors in their decision. But as a cultural mainstay that managed to survive for nearly two dozen years in a transforming neighborhood, IOTA and its legacy has not been forgotten.

One project memorializing the space is “The IOTA Chair,” a video series led by D.C. musician Rachel Levitin, who purchased a chair from one of the venue’s fire sales and re-imagined it as a set piece for performances and interviews of onetime IOTA performers she posts on Facebook. Another notable tribute is on the way — in September, Inge launched a GoFundMe campaign for a book that will retell IOTA’s history through her and Negrey’s eyes. Thus far, the effort has raised only about 13 percent of its $30,000 goal but garnered dozens of supportive comments.

“IOTA was one of the most beautiful music communities I ever met in my travels; it helped make my life worth living,” writes one donor.

Inge declined to be interviewed for this article but reflected on her venue via email: “At IOTA, live music was the center and purpose of everything we did,” she writes. “We chased inspired live experiences and creative new music for our stage. Stephen and I had the honor to meet and work with wonderful poets, musicians and musical performers, touring and local. We got to know the people who appreciated the shows, who got it, and who supported IOTA to keep us going for so long.”

For D.C. singer-songwriter Laura Tsaggaris, who started playing IOTA in the early 2000s and has performed throughout the area, the club was “the center” of the local songwriting scene.

“It felt easy — easy to stretch out and do what you wanted to do there,” Tsaggaris says. “I’ve never felt as comfortable as I did there.”

To acquire an IOTA-esque mystique, an Arlington music venue would need to strive not just to attract talented national artists but also serve as a sought-after haunt for the local arts community. Arlington singer-songwriter Justin Trawick, founder of “The 9” songwriter series and co-host of “The Circus Life” podcast, began making the trek to IOTA from Leesburg in 2005 in pursuit of the club’s well-known open-mic night. IOTA had a scene, he says, perhaps matched today only by Jammin Java in Vienna or a couple of newer D.C. venues, such as sister venue Union Stage.

“They’ve really created an amazing culture of not only bands that play there, but people who want to hang out there in that ‘Empire Records’ kind of way,” Trawick says. “IOTA had that.”

Though IOTA certainly had a successful open-mic culture, with two sign-up times per night to accommodate the dozens of eager performers filing in, Arlington’s open-mic opportunities live on. Alexandria musician Alex Parez hosted IOTA’s weekly open mic in its final three years and has since transferred the IOTA format to Rhodeside Grill. While he says “no place can replace IOTA,” he expresses pride over the local talent that continues to surface in Arlington.

Yet Brace, who is also a former music journalist for The Washington Post and the founder of Nashville-based Red Beet Records, expressed doubts about whether modern-day Arlington can provide an affordable space for an IOTA-size venue, which had expanded its capacity to roughly 300 when it closed.

“Arlington’s square footage is so expensive; it’s hard to have a place where you can afford to just have a big empty space in the form of a stage, and it’s hard to invest a lot of money in a great sound system and have a great sound person every night the way IOTA did,” Brace says.

But with the coming arrival of Amazon HQ2 to the newly named “National Landing”, it’s not unthinkable that music venues along the lines of The Wharf’s Union Stage or Pearl Street Warehouse could be part of the development mix.

A spokesperson for National Landing developer JBG Smith declined to comment, but the property website does highlight JBG’s plans for the “Central District” redevelopment project, set to include “a 130,000-gross-square-foot entertainment and shopping destination anchored by a 49,000-square-foot Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a specialty grocer, restaurants, bars and other experiential offerings.” Could a live performance space be one such offering?

For now, Arlingtonians hoping for an IOTA-like experience will have to wonder and wait for an existing Arlington music hub to expand its offerings (not to mention its footprint) or an entirely new venue to spring up.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Brace says. “There’s always people making music, and they’ll have little pop-up clubs in basements or house concerts. I’ll choose to be hopeful.”

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Dear Arlington,

We have some good news: Nearly nine years in, ARLnow is on solid footing.

Thanks to our loyal readers and valued advertisers (who you should support!) ARLnow is one of the few solidly profitable online-only local news outlets of its kind. Not publisher-driving-a-Tesla profitable, but we’re not in danger of going away anytime soon.

This is why we’ve never asked for donations.

But as you might have guessed, this is changing. Because while we often hear from people who say they love the site and don’t want it to change, we also hear from readers who want more.

Have you ever thought, said, commented or tweeted that ARLnow should investigate a certain community issue that’s important to you? Or that we should have had someone attend a certain meeting? Or written more in depth on a certain topic?

If so, you’re certainly not alone. We hear it all the time. But the fact of the matter is that the ARLnow you see today is the result of daily heroic efforts, stretching the journalistic resources we have at our disposal — given our current business model — to the max and then some.

During this crucial time for Arlington as a community, with Amazon on the way and plenty of challenges ahead, it is more important than ever for local journalism to thrive here. With the support of our community, we could uncover more truths, hold more people and institutions accountable, and tell additional local stories.

So while we’ve resisted it since our founding in 2010, it’s now time to ask: will you support us and help elevate the level of local journalism in Arlington?

Head to our new Patreon page and see how you can pitch in, what perks you can get, and what your monthly contribution could help fund.

Thank you!

Sincerely,

The ARLnow Team
(Scott, Jordan, Alex, Catherine, Dwayne and Vernon)

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