Note: Gentle Readers, if you have noticed an unhealthy fixation with the neighborhood of late, my apologies. This is a book in progress which will incorporate many of the tales of Big Pink, its characters and characteristics. We will be going down a lot of rabbit holes in the meantime, so bear with me. It is only a month of focus, or 50,000 words, so bear with me.


05 November 2007


Big Pink Flank

I feel queasy this morning. General-President “Mushie” Musharef of Pakistan has made his choice, and declared martial law. His security forces have detained around five hundred opposition members. He has knocked the media off the air, the Constitution has been suspended, and a policy of zero tolerance for protest is in effect.

It seems we just went through this in Burma-Myanmar; our erstwhile pals in Ankara are poised for a strike into Iraqi Kurdistan. This is a policy nightmare for Uncle Sam, the result of a lot of choices, and I sincerely wish the best to Dr. Rice and the State Department. I am quite busy myself, or I would offer my services.

There has been zero tolerance for protest here in Washington, which echoes down through the years. I exercised my rights as a citizen and made a choice to join the large crowd that descended on Washington on the 4th of May in 1970 to observe the protests against the Kent State shootings and the Cambodia incursion.

It was very educational, and I found the easiest way to avoid arrest and confinement in RFK Stadium was to blend in with the tourists. One moment I was watching H-46 helos bringing troops to the Mall from across the Potomac, and the next, taking the better part of valor, escaped into the gift shop of the Museum of American History where I watched the riot through the window.

President Nixon had made a gesture of conciliation the day before, choosing to venture out of the police-ringed White House to meet briefly with protesters, but nothing was resolved. I mean, like how could it have been?

There were implacable forces in motion, half a million troops in the field, and the protest went on, though not as planned. The churches that had thrown open their doors to let the kids sleep on the floor were interdicted, and the fierceness of the commuters on insisting on going to their jobs seemed to come as a surprise to the protestors the morning it all fell apart.

It was an impressive response, and I was immediately convinced that the Government of the United States of America was not going to be overthrown by kids in ragged jeans with baseball bats. I filed that away, mentally, and tired to figure out a way out of town.

The choices included plane, rail and road; I thought the best way was hitching. At least it was the cheapest, and that is how found myself on Route 50, desperately seeking the way west to the interstate and back to Michigan.

I was standing on a corner in Arlington, hoping for a ride, and was in the immediate vicinity of the Buckingham neighborhood. I didn't know it then, except to note that the low brick buildings seemed familiar, akin to the older parts of Royal Oak Michigan on the Woodward Avenue corridor, the one we used to cruise in our Father's cars in high school.

In the canyon of the concrete of Arlington Boulevard, I looked up and was startled to see a gigantic figure of Christ, looking down on me and the traffic in a gesture of blessing.

It was huge and more than a little un-nerving. The bronze eye sockets were deep and hooded, and the statues arms were outstretched as if it were about to bend over and envelope me.

I got a ride in a van a moment later, filled with scruffy men who were also fleeing the city, and got as far as Pennsylvania with them.

If I had known a little more about the area, I would have realized I was near the Arlington Hall, and just a little east of Big Pink, which was now the tallest and newest luxury apartment building in a resurgent Arlington.

From 1964, when Frances Freed broke ground on Big Pink, through the mid-seventies, the County saw tall, monochromatic brick and steel towers rise up as residential buildings. Big Pink was an astonishing example with the pale glossy brick flanks, with large banded windows and full aperture inserts of dramatic color. Most units had their own balconies, little concrete islands in the sky arranged in sleek, contemporary tiers with minimalist structural details.

Along with Big Pink on the list of International Style buildings in Arlington are “Prospect House,” behind the Iwo Jima memorial, “The Representative” on the nose of Arlington Ridge over the Pentagon, and below it “Ridge House” and “Horizon House,” on Army-Navy Drive.

If anyone had told me that morning that I would actually be a member of the Country Club there, while simultaneously looking for temporary lodging in the least expensive of all those buildings, well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. There must have been something that brought me back.

The thing that linked the International Style buildings in Arlington is their architect, a Czech who fled his native country in 1952 and made his career changing the skyline of Washington DC. His name was Vlastimil Koubek, and he was a rising star when Frances Freed summoned him to the second floor office of the strip mall at Glebe and Pershing.

He did a hitch in the Army when he arrived, and I cannot tell from the records whether he was assigned to Arlington Hall by virtue of   his language abilities. Certainly he was affected by the neighborhoods, since he put his stamp on the new look of the County, and lived here the rest of his life.

Koubek's commercial and residential work is noted for advancing the clean-lined international flavor to a city more inclined to Greek and Roman columns and porticoes. He partnered with the architectural luminary I.M. Pei to design the L'Enfant Plaza's East Building, and his influence can also be seen in the former headquarters of the American Automobile Association overlooking the Beltway, among others.

Big Pink is my personal favorite, though I can be permitted a certain chauvinism in that regard. Frances Freed was quite specific in what she wanted to see in her grand building: 24/7 concierge service, night-time security guard, plenty of resident and guest parking with some of it under the building, swimming pool,   saunas, and washers and dryers on residential floors, and commercial activities on the ground floor.

Big Pink has its quirks, which he fixed in his next great contribution to the Buckingham neighborhood, the last collaboration with Frances Freed before the Paramount Communities empire broke up: the twelve-story Hyde Park complex. To make up for the lack of land, he delved three stories into the ground for his garage and wrapped the park closely around the building.

His European sensibilities can be seen in the way he arranged the campus, with the extensive grounds and landscaping, and the way the amenities can be viewed from above.

In 1985, the year before I dragged myself back to Washington, he was named one of the top twenty local figures who had the greatest impact on the look of Washington.” He died of cancer in 2003 at his home here in Arlington, close enough to Big Pink that he could see it on the skyline that he drew on his drafting table.

I wish I had known all this at the time. It might have inclined me toward sticking around the Buckingham neighborhood and meeting the people who were making the world that I was going to wind up living in.

I certainly thought about the nature of choice, later that night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the driver of the van thought that a State Patrol cruiser might be taking an interest. One of the scruffy men announced, dead serious, that he would not be taken alive.

I contemplated that for a moment, and decided to get off at the next and soonest opportunity. I slept that night in the trees just off the highway, and I think, on the whole, it was one of my better choices.

Copyright 2007 Vic Socotra

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