I saw the successions of signs while I was on the road, just as their posters must have planned. But these real estate-related signs didn't capture my attention because of their glossy photos or glowing promises; they were notable for their stark and emotional appeal to those driving by. Homemade and written in Spanish, the simple signs challenged the pending demolition of a nearby affordable apartment complex for new luxury housing.
But like the apartments they were trying to save, the signs didn't last. When I returned to the neighborhood a few days later for a closer reading, the signs had vanished. So have most of the residents of the Arlington, Va., apartment complex in question, taking the energy of everyday life with them. Parking lots, formerly tightly packed with compact cars, are now rimmed with temporary metal fencing. Dumpsters sit next to buildings. Sidewalks that used to be crowded with residents are quiet.
I've covered housing for too long not to understand that the pressures on this complex were inescapable. Built in the 1930s through the 1950s, these basic low-rise brick apartments are located on what has become highly desirable land that's a short walk from a Metro station. Who can blame an owner for wanting to sell and realize the value of such a property? And who can blame a developer for making the sound business decision to replace affordable units with high-end homes? When land is this costly, expensive housing must follow if a developer wants to stay solvent.
At the same time, I find it an undeniably sad event. Apartments like these bring both demographic and economic diversity to a community, creating a pulsing vitality on the surrounding blocks. Unlike many suburban single-family developments, where the streets are deserted on weekdays and life is primarily lived in backyards, apartment neighborhoods are filled with energy at all hours. During the day, elderly residents go shopping on foot, pushing their groceries home in a wheeled metal cart. After work, young professionals jog through the streets, burning off stress with a pair of Nikes and their iPod. Food trucks sell pupusas and other treats on summer evenings. And on weekends, immigrants and their extended families flock to nearby parks, taking over shelters and athletic fields for an afternoon of soccer, socializing, and outdoor grilling.
Such blends of activities and residents are beginning to disappear from Arlington neighborhoods, as affordable apartments go condo and immigrant-friendly rentals are demolished for "higher" land uses that typically include new housing that is more dense and more expensive.
On paper, it certainly makes sense, and I applaud a move toward higher density in close-in suburbs. But as I drive by the now-empty apartment buildings where so many immigrants began to build their American lives, I wonder what the intangible costs will be for these new developments and the communities around them.