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Taking a step back in time

Once the United States became involved in World War II, my grandmother was one of the many women who went to work for Uncle Sam state side. Having spent years working in a factory that made furniture, she was assigned to help build torpedoes. Just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capitol, there was a plant built in 1918 that originally made torpedo shell casings and then torpedoes.
The job came with housing. In 1942, the government quickly constructed several housing developments for their employees. These people lived next door to each other, carpooled to work together and worked side by side. The place they lived became much more than a just a physical location. It became more than a neighborhood of people who all just happened to work for Uncle Sam. It became a community of families and friends that counted on each other through thick and thin.
It was this community that shared each other’s grief when their loved ones were killed in action. It was this close-knit group that surrounded my mother with support when her first husband was killed on a ship torpedoed in the Pacific. It was this same community that looked after all of the children that ran up and down its small yet secure neighborhood. If you did something wrong, your parents knew it before you made it home. It was a time when the adage “It takes a village to raise a child” was more than fitting for this neighborhood of families and friends known as Hillwood Square.
There were 160 row-house units in Hillwood Square and consisted of one, two and three bedroom homes. They weren’t elaborate or fancy houses, just a small, basic home. After the war, the government wanted to demolish the houses. The neighbors joined forces and decided they wanted to purchase their homes. They formed a coop that still exists to this day.
After the war, some of the original people moved out and new people moved in, although some families remained there for many years. My parents, grandmother and aunt stayed there until they needed a nursing home or passed away. Despite the changing faces, that same small town America feeling never left Hillwood Square for many years.
When I was a child, the community was full of kids of all ages. You could walk out your front door and within two minutes you were at the playground. You may not have thought anyone was paying attention to you, but the watchful eyes of caring neighbors were always looking out for you as you climbed the cherry tree and popped the fruit right into your mouth. I had a favorite neighbor just up the walk. To me, it didn’t matter that Mrs. Clookey was probably in her late eighties. A retired schoolteacher, she passed on her love of reading to me by sharing her many books in her home. To this day, my bookshelf holds a set of miniature books she gave me by the author, Maurice Sendak, who is best known for the children’s classic, Where The Wild Things Are.
This was the kind of neighborhood where you woke up with Mrs. Weaver from up the street praying over you because your mother was having surgery that morning. It was the kind of place you could run across the small driveway and borrow a cup of milk or sugar or watch your favorite tv show because your father was watching Perry Mason. It was a community where people like Mr. Linkenhoker took the time to explain to the youngest of his neighbors why the stars couldn’t be seen on a cloudy night. It was a place where your parents didn’t worry when you went out to ride your bike or roller skate. They didn’t worry because they knew other people kept a close eye on their children. It was place where Old Man Vernon sat on his front stoop and made sure he called out to you “You get on home now, it’s getting dark,” as you ran home to be on time for dinner. II received an email yesterday afternoon from one of my cousins. It was a group letter addressed to five of us informing us that Hillwood Square, home to all of us growing up, was going to be sold as one parcel to a land developer. For years, there was always talk of selling, even back to when I was a child. They always managed to vote it down and life continued. But not this time. A large company has come in and offered the members of the coop a price they couldn’t refuse. Each unit will receive the same amount of money, regardless how many bedrooms they have. For some, it will be a good deal, but for others, Hillwood Square provided affordable housing in the DC suburbs.
I was immediately saddened at the prospect that this place we called home for so many years was going to be demolished, leveled and flattened to the ground as 455 new rental apartments will be constructed. It’s more than a removal of all evidence we ever existed, despite Hillwood Square having been dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and on the Fairfax County Inventory of Historical Sites. It’s the removal of a place and a time that made us feel safe and secure. It was our home. Our neighbors were family.
Each time I’ve made the trip back to Virginia and wandered down Route 50 to Arlington Cemetery to visit my parents’ grave, I would pass the exit that would take me back to Hillwood Square. Each time I would tell myself I didn’t want stop there. I didn’t want to see my childhood home with someone else living there, someone who had cut down the hedges that were full of honeysuckle that would bloom early every summer. I didn’t want to see that someone hadn’t tended to my grandmother’s rose bushes. And now, knowing that I may not have many opportunities to visit a place so near and dear to my heart, I am ready to make that trip up north one more time to relive those moments once again before I engrain them not just on my heart but in my head. I want to hear the laughter of my family, my cousins and friends once again.