Alexandria, VA

Twenty years before slavery was abolished, there were black Freemasons in Alexandria. This month, Alexandria’s Universal Lodge No. 1, which is the first “Prince Hall” in Virginia, celebrated its 175th anniversary.

“We are standing on the shoulders of previous generations looking forward,” MacArthur Myers, the 174th past master at the lodge told ALXnow. “We have to recognize all who went before us and the responsibility of the stewardship in our presence as we look at the future.”

Prince Hall Masonry, which is historically all black, dates back to 1775 when 14 free black men were initiated by a lodge attached to the British army.

Universal Lodge No. 1 was founded on Feb. 5, 1845, by seamen William Dudley, Benjamin Crier and Sandy Bryant, all of whom became masons in Liverpool, England, in the 1830s. After returning to the states, the men joined the African American Social Lodge No. 1 in Washington, D.C. in 1838.

“Even though it says 1845, many lodges couldn’t come into being until after the Civil War,” Myers noted. “You had millions of previously enslaved people who were granted their freedom, and they had to construct a nation for themselves. They had to build hospitals and schools and they knew that they had to build institutions for the betterment of the masses.”

Alexandria was part of the District in 1845, and Dudley, Crier and Bryant founded the lodge in a secret meeting. The home for the lodge was 424 S. Royal Street in the city’s Hayti neighborhood, and it remained there until moving to its present location at 112 E. Oxford Ave. in Del Ray in 1986. The lodge is well-known in the community for its charitable work, including annual coat drives for Alexandria youths in the winter.

Myers, a retired social worker who was named an Alexandria Living Legend last month, is also the historian for the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Richmond. He’s been a member since 2012, and was raised in the company of Freemasons.

“They were different than ordinary men, because you knew about their character, you knew what they were doing in the community and that’s always been faith, hope and charity,” he said. “In Alexandria, you were a member of the Masonic lodge, the Elks, the Departmental Progressive Club and you went to church. Those were the social hubs because of segregation.”

The lodge is historically and culturally an African American club, and members frequently visit other lodges around the world. Myers, who also conducts tours of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, couldn’t speak of what goes on behind closed doors or how many members there are in the lodge, but said that the applicants have to undergo an extensive background check. Notable members include former Mayor Bill Euille and former Police Chief Earl Cook.

“There’s a fine line between vanity and humility,” Myers said. “A Mason is a Mason is a Mason, and therefore it takes the individual to decide how to you want to treat another Mason. We, in our rituals and in our teaching and learning, are taught about personal growth. For us it’s about brotherly love.”

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An Arlington man is in custody after police say he robbed a 7-Eleven store in Arlington and attempted to rob a 7-Eleven in Alexandria’s Landmark area.

Michael Sheffey, 59, was arrested on Monday by Arlington County Police for a robbery of the 7-Eleven at 2815 S. Wakefield Street in Arlington on Saturday, Feb. 15. He has also been charged with attempting to rob the 7-Eleven at 30 S. Reynolds Street on Sunday, Feb. 16.

“Sheffey was arrested and is being held in Arlington,” Alexandria Police spokesman Lt. Courtney Ballantine told ALXnow. “He has been charged in Alexandria for attempted robbery.”

Both alleged incidents are similar. They occurred early in the morning and the suspect, who wore a red jacket for both offenses, did not have a weapon, but punched the employees behind the counters at the registers of each store and made grabs for cash, according to police.

The Arlington incident on Feb. 15 occurred at around 5:48 a.m. The suspect, who was caught on surveillance footage, walked up to the register with merchandise and gave the employee cash. When the registered opened, the suspect allegedly punched the employee, “jumped over the counter and stole cash before fleeing the scene prior to police arrival,” according to Arlington County Police.

The Feb. 16 event occurred at around 6:15 a.m. The suspect walked up to the counter to buy a small cup of coffee, was told that it was $1.79 and, according to police, reportedly told the cashier, “that’s a lot,” and gave the cashier money.

According to a search warrant affidavit, during the transaction the suspect asked about when buses started to operate in the area, and as the employee turned to ask one of his co-workers, the register opened and the suspect allegedly punched the employee and lunged for the cash. The employee resisted and the suspect threw the cup of coffee in his face and was chased out of the store by another employee. Nothing was stolen.

The 7-Eleven at S. Reynolds Street is next to the Reynolds Street Bar and Grill, which has a security camera. Alexandria Police found footage of the suspect running from the 7-Eleven and driving away with his headlights off in a silver-colored Chevrolet Equinox in the direction of Edsall Road.

Based on surveillance footage, Alexandria and Arlington police determined that the same suspect committed both crimes. Police found that the vehicle Sheffey allegedly drove was still registered in the name of his wife, who died last year, according to the affidavit.

Sheffey lives in the Fairlington neighborhood, near Route 7 and the Alexandria border.

Anyone with information related to the investigation can contact Detective R. Ortiz of the Arlington County Police Department’s Homicide/Robbery Unit at 703-228-7402 or [email protected]. Information can also be given anonymously to the Arlington County Crime Solvers hotline at 1-866-411-TIPS (8477).

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A car crashed into the Pet Valu store in Arlandria just after noon on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

No one was injured in the incident at 3819 Mount Vernon Avenue, the driver was not charged and there were no customers in the store at the time.

“It was like a movie,” a store staffer told ALXnow. “I was very close to where she crashed. She slammed in really hard and she ran into the register. I just stood there watching in shock. It was like it happened in slow motion.”

The store recently replaced its front door and is in the process of replacing a couple of windows, staff told ALXnow.

The driver, who was going to the store to pick up dog food, was parking her new orange Subaru Forester, and stepped on the gas instead of the brake, we’re told.

“As soon as it happened, I got the lady out of the car and gave her some water,” the Pet Valu employee said. “She was in shock. She was like, ‘Am I inside the store?'”

The Pet Valu is next door to a Topper’s Pizza and MOM’s Organic Market, and is across the street from The Waffle Shop.

The driver ended up not buying dog food that day.

Map via Google Maps

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The largest single-day fundraiser in the region is around the corner, and this year ACT for Alexandria wants to attract 10,000 donors.

Last year’s Spring2ACTion fundraiser raised $2.1 million for 166 local charities and nonprofits, beating the $1.8 million raised in 2018. There were more than 9,600 donors last year, and this year’s fundraising goal is $2 million — just shy of last year’s record-breaking total.

This year’s day of giving falls on April 29, and goal is not so much to focus on the monetary amount but on attracting more donors. ACT For Alexandria, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Alexandria’s children, has raised upward of $10 million from 65,000 donors for more than 160 local nonprofits in total.

ACT President Heather Peeler said that the organization has come a long way.

“Ten years ago this was just a big crazy idea,” Peeler told ALXnow. “We had a goal of raising $30,000 and we thought that would have been incredible. And here we are 10 years later, raising millions of dollars in partnership with the nonprofits in Alexandria.”

All donations are tax deductible and irrevocable.

Last year’s fundraiser saved the Local Motion Project dance studio (2377 S. Dove Street) with $50,000 in donations. The top earner last year was the nonprofit Running Brooke, which raised more than $125,000. The Alexandria Soccer Association had the most donors, raising more than $50,000 from 750 people.

ACT for Alexandria spokeswoman Brandi Yee said the organization is focusing this year on “free agent fundraisers.”

“So, not only is a nonprofit raising money, but an individual can raise their hand and say, ‘I will raise $500 for the animal shelter, and I’m going to reach out to all my friends and my family and they’re going to give me the money that I raise,'” Yee said.

Photo via ACT For Alexandria/Facebook

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Alexandria is a little ahead of schedule increasing the number of affordable housing units in the city, and two new deals are getting it closer to meeting its regional housing goals.

On Saturday, Council unanimously adopted proposals to increase the number of affordable housing units in Eisenhower East by the hundreds, and to add nine affordable units in a new mixed-use Aspire Alexandria development in Braddock.

Mayor Justin Wilson called an amendment to the Eisenhower East Small Area Plan “the most aggressive inclusionary zoning, affordable housing policy we have ever adopted in the city.”

Under the proposal, 10% of additional residential rental development in Eisenhower East will be devoted to affordable rental units. At full buildout, up to 400-450 affordable units are anticipated for the area, which currently only has 66 affordable units.

“We will have to see how this all works out and comes to reality, but I think an important step about our values as a community,” Wilson said.

The mixed-use Aspire Alexandria project is the latest project taking advantage of the city’s 2019 affordable housing guidelines by increasing density in exchange for affordable housing. Its nine affordable units are but a fraction of the 133 units that will be used for senior citizens, however.

Alexandria’s low cost, market-affordable (non-subsidized) rental housing fell 88 percent between 2000-2018, and the city needs to produce 2,000 affordable housing units by 2025 and an additional 1,950 units by 2030 to meet the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ regional goal of 320,000 new affordable housing units.

At just over 15 square miles, Alexandria is looking everywhere for land, and the city manager’s office has even tapped the public school system to include co-locating affordable housing options in plans for all schools slated for development.

Helen McIlvane, the city’s housing director, said that the city is on track to meet its 2025 goal, and a little behind with the total number that it needs to raise by 2030.

“It’s a puzzle, its expensive. We have to be focused all the time at looking at opportunities and making most of them,” McIlvane said, adding that the city is trying to incentivize building owners to keep properties affordable. “There are places on the west end, where buildings are market affordable and we’d like them to remain that way. We want to secure what’s on the ground today, we want to preserve it.”

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The Alexandria City Council has unanimously approved a license agreement to allow Potomac Riverboat Company’s water taxi to ferry commuters from the waterfront to the District Wharf in D.C.

The daily water taxi service, which begins on March 1, was first introduced to Alexandria during last summer’s Metro shutdown, and commuters will start sailing at 6 a.m.

“I’m glad we’re doing this,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson. “I look forward to personally doing it. It works out really well on council meeting days, because I can leave my car here (at City Hall) and take my boat from my day job directly here.”

Potomac Riverboat Company increased its water taxi fleet last April with the addition of four new yellow boats. It also runs the Cherry Blossom, Matthew Hayes, and other named vessels. A commuter pass valid from March 1 to Dec. 31 costs $295, and a round-trip ticket costs $10.

City staff maintain that water taxi commuters will not create parking issues in Old Town — a sticking point for Councilwoman Del Pepper.

“The more ways we can find to get people off our cement streets the better,” Pepper said. “I have for about a decade opposed this, and the reason has been because of concern that our streets and our parking lots would all be filled with people getting to this destination (the waterfront). I’m going to support it with the caveat that I hope staff will be following this, and if this becomes a problem for the neighbors, I want it brought back for discussion.”

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Jaqueline Tucker’s head is still spinning. After a little more than two weeks on the job, she knows that she has her work cut out for her as Alexandria’s first-ever racial and social equity officer.

Tucker’s calendar is filling up. She’s currently meeting with department heads and just finished training with the department of community and human services. Her initial goal is to ensure that all Alexandria government employees receive racial equity training by the first quarter of next year.

“We’ve had a norm for generations that is white and male, cisgendered, and that is in the psyche of all people of color who have been historically marginalized. This has happened for generations. Our policies and our practices have been designed and set up to perpetuate those systems,” Tucker told ALXnow. “I think it’s in the consciousness of any person of color or any marginalized person.”

Alexandria has made inroads into eliminating racial and social bias over the last several years with its interdepartmental racial equity working group. Until recently, the effort was led by Deputy City Manager Debra Collins, who says that Tucker has ambitious goals.

“We’re all here to help. She’s got an army ready to work with her, and the good news is that the city has been on this journey for the last couple of years,” Collins said. “I mean, think about it. Somewhere years ago somebody said that it was okay to put a maintenance yard over African American graves in Fort Ward, right? That was a government decision at some point in the ’50s or ’60s. Or the gas station that was sitting on top of Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery. That was something that a planning director authorized back in the day.”

Tucker, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Butler University and a law degree from Howard University. Her father’s family moved to Michigan from Mississippi because of threats that they were going to get lynched, and she recalls her first taste of racial inequity was when she was 11 years old. She was on a basketball team with local a amateur athletic union league and most of the players on her team were white.

“It was myself and one other black girl,” she said. “This started at about age 11, and my personal belief is that I was one of the better players at the time… but there came like an issue of like, whether I should be a starter and my father said to me, ‘It’s just politics.’ And then for an 11-year-old, you have no idea what that really means, but ever since then I knew I wanted to be involved in politics.”

For the last two years, Tucker was the east region project manager with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, and, in fact, met many of Alexandria’s leaders when she conducted a half-day racial equity training retreat with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

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A number of traffic calming changes will eventually be coming to Monticello Blvd in the Alexandria’s North Ridge neighborhood.

The city is in the final stages of design on the project, which will bring changes to the roadway near George Mason Elementary School. The project will potentially include speed cushions and a speed monitoring sign.

It currently has no current implementation schedule, according to city spokesman Craig Fifer.

Monticello Blvd is bordered by Russell Road and Cameron Mills Road, and is used as a cut-through street for many drivers. The city received multiple community requests for traffic calming on the road before 2018, which was when staff got to work, Fifer said.

Fifer told ALXnow that the city is debating the merits of speed cushions on Monticello.

“Although speed cushions were later added to the discussion at the request of neighbors, and the fire department determined that speed cushions may be feasible under certain circumstances, transportation and fire officials are currently evaluating the use of speed cushions on different types of streets and whether speed cushions will be part of the final Monticello design,” he said.

Potential developments, which were approved by the Traffic and Parking Board, include:

  • Three speed cushions
  • A speed monitoring sign near George Mason Place
  • 10 feet of street parking removed for the addition of a crosswalk at the intersection with Old Dominion Blvd
  • 20 feet of street parking removed for visibility at the intersection with Argyle Drive

Top map via Google Maps

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If your idea of paradise is a glass full of wine and a roomful of cats, then you’re in luck.

On Saturday, City Council unanimously approved a special use permit for Mount Purrnon Cat Cafe & Wine Bar, and the two-level building at 109 S. Alfred Street promises to be full of purr-sonality when it opens this spring.

The circa-1885, 2,050-square-foot property has been a commercial site since the 1970s, and dating back to 2002 was home to Fitness on the Run and Sand and Steel Fitness (now at 5418 Eisenhower Ave.). It’s next door to the Friendship Firehouse, across the street from Morrison House Hotel and around the corner from a number of local restaurants and coffee shops.

The cat cafe would allow up to 15 felines — all from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington — to hang out cage-free in lounge areas on the first and second floors, until adopted. The interior will have a tavern feel, even catering to Old Town’s colonial atmosphere with portraits of cats as presidents on the walls.

Cat cafes gained popularity in Taiwan in the 1990s. D.C.’s first cat cafe was Crumbs & Whiskers in Georgetown, which opened in 2015.

Mount Purrnon, which got seed funding by raising $25,500 in a Kickstarter campaign, will serve beer and wine for up to 20 patrons an hour. But what if a patron has one too many? Not to worry, because same-day adoptions are not allowed. There is an interview process, which includes a background check.

Pre-packaged foods like cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, pastries and chips will also be served, and no food will be prepared on-site. There will also be no live entertainment — other than the cats, that is.

Special use permit approved!!!!! Thanks GW, happy birthday!

Posted by Mount Purrnon Cat Cafe and Wine Bar on Saturday, February 22, 2020

Photo via Mount Purrnon Cat Cafe & Wine Bar/Facebook

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These winter mornings on the waterfront might be freezing, but at least Kaleb doesn’t have far to go. The 22-year-old wakes up early in his basement apartment in Old Town, throws on his green Alexandria Seaport Foundation uniform, runs down to the waterfront and clocks in every day at 8 a.m.

“It’s hard to grasp for me, but I’ve changed my life around. I don’t do anything now,” Kaleb told ALXnow. “I just be chillin’.”

It wasn’t that long ago that things couldn’t get any worse. When he was 19, Kaleb had already been kicked out of two high schools and even his own house. He recalls spending part of that first homeless night on the curb in the rain outside of a Fredericksburg church until someone called the police on him. The church ended up getting him a hotel room for a couple of nights, and then he spent the next two years moving from shelter to shelter and couch surfing with old high school friends.

A little more than a year ago, Kaleb joined the Seaport Foundation as an apprentice and things slowly started to look up.

“I’ve grown as a person because I feel like I’m not as angry,” Kaleb said. “Angry in general, just because of life, just stuff that’s happened. So, it’s just like learning to let things go and just let things be.”

Since 1992, the Seaport Foundation has trained hundreds of 16-to-22-year-old at-risk youngsters to become experienced woodworkers, boat builders and carpenters. Kaleb, who likes to make music on his computer with his co-workers after hours, became part of a team of a dozen apprentices who spend up to two years learning carpentry and woodworking, personal finance and budgeting, resume writing and interviewing, and other life skills.

Apprentices also have to earn their high school equivalency and take outside coursework. They’re paid between $8-$12 an hour for working Monday thru Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Last month, the foundation filed a special use permit with the city to build a second facility that would allow for more staff to work on-site. It would also double the number of apprenticeships. The foundation currently operates in the 1,200-square-foot McIlhenny Seaport Center (0 Thompson’s Alley), and was dealt a blow seven years ago when it lost its second location with the sale of Robinson Terminal South.

The city is looking at waterfront locations for the new, 1,740 square-foot facility, and a public hearing is expected before the Planning Commission in April.

“We’re doing this so that we can serve more kids and also have our whole staff on site,” said Seaport Foundation Executive Director Kathy Seifert. “I think it’s important to have all the staff, all the volunteers and everybody together.”

Former School Board member Helen Morris has been chair of the Seaport Foundation board for the last two years.

“Seaport can be a home, and can be that cocoon where kids can find out who they are and can have people who really believe in them. With every single one, somehow the system failed them,” Morris said. “The new location, it’s a beautiful kind of replica of what we already have… It has a big vaulted ceiling so that we will be able to do larger projects.”

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St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub has been a Del Ray staple for decades, and it’s expanding to Old Town North.

Owners Christine and Larry Ponzi recently requested an administrative special use permit request for a change of ownership to operate the coffee shop and restaurant at 529 Montgomery Street in the mixed-use Edens property. Construction plans are set and permit applications will be submitted to the city in the coming weeks.

The Ponzis estimate that the 2,210 square-foot location could open as early as August.

“We like this area of Old Town because it doesn’t have a tourist feel. It’s more of a neighborhood,” Larry Ponzi told ALXnow. “We really like being in neighborhoods. We love to get visitors from out of town, and we do, but we really want the base of customers to be from the neighborhood.”

Edens broke ground in North Old Town in 2017. The development is also home to the Hinata sushi bar, Oak Steakhouse, West Elm and 232 residential units.

The Ponzis are also the owners of Pizzaiolo Cafe on Fern in Alexandria, Cafe Pizzaiolo in Shirlington and the Market to Market sub shop next door to St. Elmo’s in Del Ray.

The family is aiming for that familiar living room vibe of St. Elmo’s in Del Ray, with open mic nights and poetry readings, and custom-made table tops and local art on the walls. The new location will have a full service kitchen, and accommodate up to 65 people inside and 22 people with outside seating. Plans include plenty of space for couches, comfy chairs, long tables and a bar area to serve beer and wine. There will even be a kid-friendly area with toys.

“At St. Elmo’s in Del Ray, we really took two concepts and and merged them together — our Market to Market sub shop and our coffee shop,” Larry said. “So here out of one kitchen we’ll be doing an extended breakfast, breakfast sandwiches, avocado toast and smoked salmon and breakfast burritos and waffles. We have a banana oat pancake. So, actually a little more cooking than what we’re doing in Del Ray and, and then from-scratch soups and we’ll make our own homemade meatballs.”

The Ponzis bought St. Elmo’s five years ago, and the company currently employs 80 full- and part-time employees. They plan on hiring about 20 more for the new location.

The couple, who met as students at the Rochester Institute of Technology, have learned a lot since opening their first Cafe Pizzaiolo in 2007 on Mount Vernon Ave. Before their lives as entrepreneurs, Larry managed cafes and catering at the Smithsonian locations in Washington, D.C., and Christine spent a number of years as an accountant.

The Ponzis have two daughters in college, and have learned to delegate. A lot of responsibility is given to their general managers, and the company is currently interviewing candidates for the general manager position in Old Town.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Larry said. “We like what we do, we’ve learned what people like. And so we’re really shooting for something very similar, but we feel it’s a nice fresh start to be able to build the kitchen the way we want to, and there will be a much more efficient way we do it.”

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How do you like your chili? On Saturday, the seventh annual Del Ray Chili Cook-off will be a heated contest.

The Del Ray Citizen’s Association is hosting the contest, which will be held from 6-7:30 p.m. at Commonwealth Academy (1321 Leslie Ave.). Tickets are $10 and free for DRCA members.

The event raises funds for Friends of Guest House, a home for previously incarcerated women in Alexandria.

The rules are strict:

  • Only Del Ray residents can compete in the event
  • Teams can only have up to three people on them
  • Contestants must bring their own ingredients and equipment, including utensils and fuel
  • Each participant must cook a minimum of six quarts of chili, prepared in one batch prior to the event

There are two categories for contestants — meat and non-meat entries. DRCA will provide spoons and cups for serving to the attendees and judges.

The three judges will be looking at “taste, aroma, texture and after-taste. Your chili can certainly be spicy, but it isn’t a requirement,” according to DRCA rules.

Prizes totaling $450 ($150 apiece) will be presented to 1st place vegetarian, 1st place meat and 1st place people’s choice. Professional chefs are ineligible from winning the main awards, but can win the people’s choice.

Last year’s winners were Christi Hart and Daniela Spigai, who tied for the meat competition; Sue Kovalsky for the best veggie chili and Kristine Hesse, who won the people’s choice.

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