Alexandria, VA

Aggravated assaults have increased every year for the last three years in Alexandria, and Police Chief Michael L. Brown said that his department is working on methods to reverse the trend.

“Some of these are happening behind the doors of residences in the city, and we’re trying to get a better understanding of that,” Brown told ALXnow. “We’re working with the Department of Community and Human Services to see what we can do to come up with a program that aligns city services with the need of individuals so that they don’t have to call 911 and we can do something else beforehand.”

In 2019, there was a 37% spike — 208 calls for service for aggravated assaults, compared to the 151 incidents in 2018, which itself was a 10.2% increase from 2017. That year saw an 11.4% increase from 2016. So far this year, there have been eight reported incidents, and the department will be releasing its annual report with final tallies in the coming weeks.

Brown, now in his third year leading the department, said that many of the incidents were caused by suspects who have had difficulty coping with stress at home. He also said that there is no specific hotspot for incidents in the city and that the crime is evenly distributed.

“What is troublesome to me and the police department is that so many of these things are domestic in nature,” he said. “These are people who are in or were in relationships, and it gets down to how that person was coping with that relationship which led to a 911 call because it turned into a crisis. We’re going to find a method for the city to  get the word out to folks to get help.”

Starting this month, the department is increasing its focus on community policing by placing officers in designated beats. That, Brown said, will allow officers to forge stronger relationships with communities and may help stem the tide of aggravated assaults.

“The expectation is that officers will stay within their beats and become a visible presence in the area — like the mailman,” Brown said. “So, you may find that there’s a particular set of high rises or area where officers are working with those communities to identify problems and try to deal with them before they become a 911 call.”

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Everything must go! Numerous Pier 1 Imports stores will be closing in Virginia by the beginning of March, and that includes two Alexandria locations.

Staff at the Pier 1 at the Potomac Yard Shopping Center (3901 Richmond Hwy) are marking merchandise 20% to 40% off, and bigger discounts are expected in the days ahead. The store has two full-time and 12 part-time employees, all of whom were informed of the closing after the Christmas holiday.

The Texas-based company was founded in 1962, and announced earlier this month that it will be closing around 450 brick and mortar locations around the country — nearly half of its stores — as sales continued to dip.

“Although decisions that impact our associates are never easy, reducing the number of our brick-and-mortar locations is a necessary business decision,” Pier 1’s CEO Robert Riesbeck said in a statement. “We thank our team of hard-working associates for their commitment to Pier 1 and to serving our customers.”

The Pier 1 Imports online store locator no longer lists the locations that are closing around the country. There will be at least a dozen stores that will close in Virginia, according to Business Insider.

“We will definitely be here for the next couple of months,” said a Pier 1 staffer in Alexandria who could not disclose their name.

The Pier 1 at 4609 Duke Street will also be closing its doors, and the only locations in Northern Virginia that will remain open are in Fairfax, Woodbridge and Leesburg. Locations in Arlington and Bailey’s Crossroads are also closing.

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There’s a new dog-friendly boutique hotel in town. The six-floor, 124 room Hyatt Centric Old Town Alexandria (1625 King Street) opened just a few blocks from the King Street Metro station on Wednesday.

“Today we are 100% open, 24/7 and year-round. It’s really exciting,” General Manager Matt Karow told ALXnow. “As you may know, Alexandria is one of the most dog-friendly cities in the country, and inside the rooms you’ll find some fun, quirky little things that pay tribute to man’s best friend.”

The hotel was designed by Alexandria-based architect Cooper Carry, and is the second in Virginia behind the Hyatt Centric Arlington, in Rosslyn. The rooms are small, and a standard king will run visitors $200 to $215 a night. The hotel’s junior suites (there are two) cost about $300 per night. The dog-related quirks include art on the walls and coat hooks that look like dog posteriors.

The ribbon cutting for the hotel was attended by Mayor Justin Wilson, members of the city council and representatives of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.

The hotel also opened the French & Southern lobby bar and restaurant. The restaurant features French staples like duck confit and quiche, but also southern favorites including shrimp and grits.

“It’s a top notch restaurant. It’s phenomenal,” restaurant co-owner Steve Greksouk said. “This is a beautiful place and it’ll be really fun to welcome guests from out of town.”

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Alexandria Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gregory Hutchings needs help, and says that his newly approved chief of staff will is a key component to the success of the school system’s organizational structure.

“Right now I have nine direct reports, so that’s nine department heads reporting directly to me,” Hutchings told ALXnow. “Each of those individuals has a department that they oversee.”

Dr. Stephen Wilkins, the incoming chief of staff, was hired as the chief human resources officer for the school system last June. His relationship with Hutchings goes back a decade, when the future superintendent unsuccessfully applied to be the principal of T.C. Williams High School. At the time, Wilkins, a retired U.S. Army colonel with master’s degrees from Harvard and the U.S. Army War College, and a doctorate from Walden University, was serving what would be a three year stint as the ACPS HR chief.

In 2013, Hutchings became the superintendent of the Shaker Heights City School District in Ohio, and hired Wilkins to be his assistant superintendent of business operations and human resources. Wilkins was later appointed interim superintendent for Shaker Heights when Hutchings left to become ACPS superintendent in 2018. He held the position for nearly a year, and then Hutchings reached out and asked him to return to Alexandria.

“Steve is just an anomaly. He’s just a rare find,” Hutchings said. “And there’s so many things that we’re doing right now, as we’re embarking on the ACPS 2025 strategic plan, as we’re trying to establish systems and processes, and to have alignment throughout the organization, that me as being the only person to work with our senior leaders makes it challenging.”

Wilkins is currently transitioning to his new role, which begins on July 1. The reorganization means that he will oversee the human resources department and the department of facilities and operations. That’s in addition to hiring new directors within each department, including a new director in the office of capital planning and design, the director of the office of employee engagement and relations and a director of the office of recruitment and retention.

The chief of staff’s duties also include supporting the office of the superintendent and assisting with the strategic management and execution of action items among the senior executive staff.

“That will be my role. It’s an interesting role, to say the least. It’s one that’s going to be developed as we go along, but we’ll get it done,” Wilkins told the school board at its Dec. 19 meeting.

Hutchings said that the new chief of staff will allow him to focus more on the school system’s strategic vision.

“Once you get to the CEO, superintendent level, it really should be around what is going to be our strategy, our processes, our systems, to get to that outcome that we are all seeking,” Hutchings said. “And this new structure will hopefully keep me out of the weeds as often as I am in there now.”

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Boyd Walker has never done this before. On the night on Jan. 29, the Alexandria resident will travel nearly 1,000 miles with 18 others in a four car caravan from Alexandria to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to volunteer with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“It’s fun. It’s an adventure. It’s a road trip with a bunch of people who share your values and goals,” Walker told ALXnow. “Whoever the candidate is, there should be tremendous enthusiasm, because Donald Trump is the most corrupt dangerous president we’ve ever had and will be very damaging to our democracy and our planet if he spends another four years in office.”

The Iowa caucus, which is the first nominating battle between the Democratic candidates vying to run against President Trump this fall, is on Feb. 3. The presidential primary process has yielded a historic number of Democratic candidates, fundraising figures, and engagement among grassroots activists and volunteers.

The contest has galvanized many Alexandrians to action, including 19-year-old Barrett Fife (above), who took a year off from the College of William & Mary and moved to Urbandale, Iowa, last August to work on the presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. She’s now a field organizer for the campaign, managing up to a dozen volunteers who are knocking on at least 100 doors a day in the run up to the primary.

“I’m taking a break. My school was really amendable and said to take as much time off as I need and to give them a ring,” Fife said. “No matter who wins, our nation is going to be more broken and divide than ever before, and I think Mayor Pete will help heal those divisions.”

Fife interned in years past with Del. Mark Levine (D-45), but it was the kind of work that an assistant would do.

“It’s been crazy to now be leading 40-to-70-year-old Iowans. Sometimes they look at me like, ‘Who is this kid?’ but it’s been fun flexing those leadership muscles,” she said. “It’s been absolutely amazing. It’s been crazy because I’ve lived in Virginia my entire life and go to school in Virginia, so this is the longest I’ve spent away from home.”

Clarence Tong, chair of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, said that Democrats are “laser-focused” on defeating Trump.

“It is exciting to have the Iowa Caucus finally here in just a few weeks and Alexandrians will have the opportunity to vote in the Virginia Primary on Super Tuesday (March 3),” Tong said. “Absentee voting has already started, so please make sure to make arrangements to vote if you cannot make it in person.”

Kurt Peterson of Charlottesville will lead the caravan of 18 local Sanders supporters in four cars to Cedar Rapids. His group will stay in Airbnb rentals and do as directed by field organizers on the ground. In 2016, he knocked on more than 1,300 doors in seven states for Sanders.

“We’ll do whatever is most beneficial to the campaign,” Peterson said. “We’ll see how things go. I’m probably not going to New Hampshire or South Carolina, because I think the effort is needed here. But after Super Tuesday we’ll see how we do and what’s next.”

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The Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney believes that the Virginia General Assembly will pass measures to decriminalize marijuana this session, but that doesn’t mean he will stop prosecuting simple possession charges.

In fact, while Bryan Porter introduced a diversion program in the summer that would allow people to be treated more leniently, that’s not stopping him from prosecuting such cases.

“In other words, the diversion program is my response to the community’s desire to have simple marijuana possession treated more leniently,” Porter told ALXnow. “I support marijuana decriminalization and I suspect that it will pass in some form during this Assembly.”

It seems like a natural conclusion — that the Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Alexandria will follow the letter of the law — but that’s not the case in Arlington and Fairfax County. Steve Descano, the newly elected Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, as well as Arlington and Falls Church Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa ­Dehghani-Tafti, have stated that they will not prosecute simple marijuana possession charges. Both have moved to dismiss simple possession cases since taking office at the beginning of the month.

Porter said that his diversion program allows people charged with marijuana possession to avoid conviction, fines, and court costs and allows them to have the charge expunged.

“The program is prospective, meaning that someone charged today (or tomorrow) would have the opportunity to have their charge dismissed and expunged,” Porter said. “Furthermore, citizens will be allowed into the diversion program even if they have previously had a charge diverted. My diversion program has been looked to as a model by other prosecutors around the state.”

Sen. Adam Ebbin’s (D-30th) bill to decriminalize marijuana, which is working its way through the state Senate, proposes a maximum $50 civil fine for a simple possession charge. Virginia State Police reported that there were 29,000 marijuana-related arrests in 2018, accounting for 59 percent of total drug arrests.

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Alexandria’s finest were recognized by the City Council last week. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Alexandria Police Department, and Mayor Justin Wilson honored the department with a city proclamation in council chambers.

“The most important role of local government is to protect public safety, and we are fortunate that the residents of the city are able to rely 24/7 on the best police department on the planet, the Alexandria Police Department,” Wilson said. “Every day you confront danger so our residents do not have to. You keep our residents safe, and you do it with a smile and incredible customer service.”

Police Chief Michael L. Brown thanked the city for the recognition and said there will be a number of events this year honoring the department, including an open house of police headquarters and a gala. The actual anniversary of the department falls on July 15.

“It’s a long and established legacy we have here,” Brown said. “We really do appreciate the fact that you’re taking the time to recognize the contributions of men and women who have come before us, and, of course, the men and women who serve this community right now.”

APD officers are allowed to wear commemorative badges throughout the year in recognition of the anniversary.

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How spicy do you like your vindaloo? For the last five months, Spice Kraft (2607 Mount Vernon Ave.) has helped diners answer that very question, and on the frigid evening of Monday, Jan. 20, the restaurant finally held its ribbon cutting.

“We are finally settled down, and it took about four months,” said Spice Kraft manager Anthony Shankar. “We want to keep the price at a minimum level, but at the same time we want to give a very good experience in terms of service and food presentation.”

“Our chef is from South India, and he’s really into fusion cuisine,” Shankar added. “He can mix up South and North Indian cuisine and create a diverse variety of dishes.”

The restaurant had a soft opening at the end of August, after it replaced Bombay Curry, which closed last year after more than 20 years in business on Mount Vernon Ave.

The Jan. 20 event was attended by Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, Alexandria Small Business Development Center Executive Director Bill Reagan, members of the Del Ray Business Association and neighbors.

“We welcome you with open arms,” Wilson told Shankar. “We are thrilled that Anthony is continuing that tradition and bringing great Indian food here to Del Ray.”

Shankar, native of Chennai, India, moved to Alexandria with his family from Roanoke, where he managed the Indian restaurant Taaza for seven years. He also brought along former Taaza chef Premnath Durairaj, who has worked with Shankar for more than two decades.

“We make food that is mild, spicy and extra hot from all over India,” Durairaj said. “Business is greater than we expected. We have good support from the neighborhood.”

The restaurant serves well-known dishes like veggie samosas and Chicken Tikka, in addition to vegan options and gluten-free bread.

Spice Kraft is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and from 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Dinner hours are from 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and from 5-10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.

Photos by James Cullum

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Planning on getting hitched in Northern Virginia? The upcoming 2020 Alexandria Wedding Showcase will feature dozens of vendors from throughout the region to help you and your beloved on the most important of days.

Alexandria resident Monte Durham, host of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta,” is headlining the event by hosting a VIP brunch and a fashion show, which will feature dresses, tuxedos and hair and makeup by local businesses. Durham plans to open his own salon in Old Town Alexandria later this year.

Last year, Alexandria Living Magazine took over the wedding showcase from Visit Alexandria, the city’s tourism bureau, which started the event in 2016. The event will be held on April 26, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Westin Alexandria Old Town (400 Courthouse Square) and will feature more than 60 local vendors, including florists, caterers and dressmakers.

“Last year, there were more than 450 people who attended the showcase,” Beth Lawton, co-founder and publisher of Alexandria Living, told ALXnow. “There’s no deadline, but we’re selling out quickly.”

“We’re really focusing on making this an experience,” Lawton added. “One of the salons is talking about doing consultations, we have a fitness studio doing one-on-one meetings and a lot of our booths are going to be offering prizes of their own. So, you’ll be able to possibly win a lot of free stuff for your wedding, which is great because the average wedding cost more than $30,000.”

As far as prizes go, the Westin is giving away a grand prize of 250,000 Marriott Bonvoy points, which can be used toward plane tickets, hotel stays and more.

“Essentially, a couple who wins this will be able to spend eight nights in France or Hawaii,” Lawton said.

The event will also be featured in the March/April edition of Alexandria Living Magazine, which will be full of wedding-related stories.

“Alexandria is one of the most romantic cities in the world, and this event really shows how the city is a great wedding destination,” Lawton said. “Weddings require so much. You need the food and wine, you need a venue, the dresses, the tuxes, the flowers, hotels for people coming in from out of town, transportation, gifts. There’s just so much that goes into weddings, even small weddings, that it’s not too surprising that there are so many businesses in the area that can support that.”

Tickets for the event are $20 for those who register before April 10, $25 for regular admission, $35 for couples and $50 to also attend the VIP brunch.

Additionally, for those who want to devote their entire weekend to weddings, the Carlyle House will host its free, annual wedding open house from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 25. Couples are invited to meet wedding vendors, tour the facility and talk about getting married at a historic site in the port city.

File photo (top) by James Cullum

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Eric Crenshaw believes in fate and that he was destined to create paintings depicting the emotion involved in the story of the Enterprise slave ship.

The ship left the port of Alexandria on Feb. 11, 1835, and was blown off course by a hurricane and landed in Hamilton, Bermuda, where a British Court freed 72 of the 78 slaves, who were held in appalling conditions on the Enterprise.

The 64-year-old Crenshaw is currently working to depict the emotion involved in the unbelievable story with an art installation. “Building Bridges, Not Walls” will be showcased next year in Alexandria and at the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in Hamilton. Crenshaw is currently finalizing a location for the exhibit in Alexandria.

“This is a story about freedom, and I’m working to find descendants of the Enterprise as we speak,” Crenshaw told ALXnow. “It’s the story of turning tragedy into triumph, and I’m a Christian. I believe that God had a hand in making this happen.”

Two years ago, Crenshaw and his wife, Rhonda, were visiting friends in Hamilton when they came upon a historical marker recognizing the Enterprise.

Many of the slaves on board the ship were kidnapped freed blacks and were not listed on the ship’s manifest. The previous year, Britain abolished slavery in each of its territories, and upon arrival the Enterprise’s captain, Elliot Smith, was presented with a writ of habeas corpus by former slave Richard Tucker, commanding him to deliver the 78 men, women and children to a Bermuda court. Thomas Butterfield, the chief justice of the court, then interviewed each slave and freed them all.

It was only 25-year-old Matilda Ridgely who decided against freedom and returned to the United States with her five young daughters, Ann, Betsey, Helen, Mahaley and Martha.

“Matilda’s story is what captivated me. She had to choose between freedom and returning home to her other children in the U.S.,” said Crenshaw, who lives in National Harbor. “One of the paintings I’m working on is called ‘Matilda’s Dilemma,’ which will show the pain of the decision that she had to make. She’s going to have five tears streaming down her face and in the tears you will be able to see the reflection of her children.”

As part of the installation’s creation, Crenshaw met Tom Butterfield, founder and creative director of the Masterworks Museum and direct descendant of the former Bermudan chief justice. He is also now working with a genealogist to locate descendants of the freed slaves to invite them to the exhibit, and plans to include pieces by Bermudan high school students.

“The fact that we were just walking down the street and saw this plaque, that the gentleman I met at the museum just so happened to be the great-great-great grandson of the chief justice of the Bermuda court who freed them, and so many other things that have lined up to make this happen seems to me to be more than coincidence,” Crenshaw said. “I was meant to do this.”

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If you’ve followed the recent widespread war over the best chain-restaurant fried chicken sandwich on the market, there’s a new homegrown player in Old Town.

Reston-based Thompson Hospitality, the owner of Hen Quarter at 801 King Street, has converted the first floor of the restaurant into the southern-style restaurant The Rub. While the second floor is still devoted to Hen Quarter, the new establishment, which opened on Thursday (Jan. 17) offers five fried chicken sandwiches with fries ranging in price from $8.50 to $12.50. The sandwiches are all made to order and take about eight minutes to prepare.

“We couldn’t ignore the recent explosion of the fried chicken sandwich,” Craig Carey, Thompson’s vice president of marketing strategy, told ALXnow. “We’re really motivated by bringing awesome creative food that is inclusive of everyone’s budget.”

The sandwiches were created by Chef Graham Duncan, formerly of Alexandria Restaurant Partners.

Carey is also the founder of Big Buns Damn Good Burger Co. in Shirlington, and partnered with Thompson Hospitality a year-and-a-half ago. He said that Thompson, which includes Austin Grill, Matchbox and American Tap Room among its brands, plans to open many more restaurants throughout the region over the next two years. Those new restaurants include a new Big Buns in Reston by this April, and a Big Buns in the Navy Yard in June.

The company plans to open three to five Matchbox and Big Buns locations per year, we’re told.

Carey said that the fried chicken sandwich was the most popular item on the menu when it debuted at Big Buns in 2015.

“The Rub is really about the customer, and I think it’s a really cool space to have fun with,” he said. “The fried chicken sandwich is really something that has exploded for us. Soon we will be coming out with a new fried chicken sandwich every month.”

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A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help a 31-year-old Alexandria man in serious condition after being struck by a driver in the 300 block of Yoakum Parkway on the afternoon of Monday, Jan. 6.

Jahid Shahbazov, who suffered spinal fractures and had his right leg amputated after the crash, remains unconscious in Georgetown University Hospital, according to his friend and campaign organizer Heydar Allahverdi. Shahbazov, who lives near the scene of the incident, was stopped along the curb and taking something from the trunk of his car when he was struck around 4:30 p.m. and wedged between the two vehicles.

The driver of the car called police, stayed at the scene and has not been charged. The crash is still under investigation, according to the Alexandria Police Department.

“He’s still unconscious. The doctors say they don’t want to wake him up because of the pain,” Allahverdi told ALXnow. “Right now we are just sitting and waiting for him to come back to life. He’s had four surgeries so far. His left leg is in bad condition, too, and they are worried about there being no circulation in it.”

To date, just over $28,000 of a $100,000 goal has been raised through 571 donations to help Shahbazov, a native of Azerbaijan, who has lived with his wife in Alexandria for four years. He’s a part-time Uber driver and has been taking quality assurance automation courses for the last six months, said Allahverdi.

He also doesn’t have health insurance.

“Jahid is a very kind person. I’ve known him for many years,” said Allahverdi, who is roommates with Shahbazov’s twin brother. “I’ve never seen Jahid hurt anyone. He’s a calm person. He never says bad things about people. He just handles his business. I never thought he would go through something like this. His wife, she is devastated. She’s having a hard time and is staying at the hospital the whole time.”

Most of the donations have been raised by friends and family.

“We are from a different country, and we don’t know many people,” Allahverdi said. “He’s going to face a lot of problems after he gets out of the hospital. He’s going to have psychological trauma, he will be suffering from not having a leg and we don’t know how long it is going to take or what the driver’s insurance is going to cover.”

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