Twenty-five years ago, Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood was largely a collection of neglected residential streets and closed storefronts along Mt. Vernon Avenue where you had to look over your shoulder at night.
Today, Del Ray is an artsy, eclectic, friendly community with a nostalgic small-town vibe that lives up to it’s slogan: Where Main Street Still Exists. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, Zebra spoke with some of the women who helped bring about Del Ray’s transformation and strong sense of community.
We picked Del Ray because of its inspiring image of change and these women – out of so many women and men involved – because they were there from the beginning and could paint the picture.
Pat Miller has a hard time talking about herself because she believes what is important is other people. She won’t tell you, for instance, that the square in Del Ray at the corner of Mt. Vernon and Oxford Avenues honors her community work. Or that she was named an Alexandria Living Legend in 2012.
Can you tell me about the work you’ve done in Del Ray?
It started with an idea I had years ago when I saw an art show in Michigan and thought it would be fun to develop something similar in Del Ray. We had 13 artists in our first show. But it grew over the years into Art on the Avenueand we’ll celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Now it’s a regional arts festival that includes more than 350 artists and attracts 50,000 people on the first Saturday of October each year.
I have always loved how art can be a focal point for a community. That’s why I chair the Alexandria Commission for the Arts. I’m not an artist, but I want to ensure that artists will have a place to show their work. Twenty-four years ago, we invited local artists to sell their art from vacant buildings on Mt. Vernon Avenue (The Avenue). They got to use a venue and building owners got to show the cool potential of the space to possible occupants.
Another way that Del Ray grew was that we started events to bring the community together. I have served on the board of the Del Ray Business Association (DRBA)for 20 years. I was formerly president and now I’m co-chair of the Special Events Committee. We plan events where neighbors can gather, and one of my favorites is the Del Ray Farmers Market each Saturday morning. I’m the Market Manager. I love working with the farmers. Since all the produce is home grown, we used to limit the market to the growing season, April to September, but now we’ve added a winter season. It gives nonprofit organizations space to get their word out.
Two other organizations that are dear to my heart are the Alexandria Police Foundation, which I’ve worked with for the last 12 or 15 years, and was honored to be named a board member, and The Friends of the Commission for Women, which raises money for the battered women’s shelter. We just rolled out a “Shower for the Shelter” registry on their web site to buy things like pots and pans for women who are moving into a new life.
Where does your passion come from?
When I moved to Del Ray, the first thing I loved was that people were actually on their front porches. They knew their neighbors, which is rare in Washington. And these days, residents can walk from their front door to so many stores and restaurants.
Is there a woman you particularly look up to?
My mother was a very strong woman who supported everything I did and made sure I got to all my activities even while she was running her own business, a small town café. Everyone stopped into her café for a cup of coffee. That’s where my love of growing a community came from and, to this day, I still have a hard time not offering to feed people.
The theme for IWD is #BalanceForBetter. What are your thoughts on gender balance?
The Friends of the Commission for Women just finished a report on the status of women in Alexandria (Zebra December 2018) and we are helping roll out the findings. Awareness that women are still not paid as much men and more frequently hold administrative types of jobs is critical. But it seems to me that Alexandria City is moving in the right direction with the right leadership.
Gayle Reuter is a close friend and community development partner of Pat Miller. She, too, is an Alexandria Living Legend. Reuter co-chairs the DRBA events committee with Miller. Gayle loves her community and, as you’ll see, the community loves her back.
In 1991, Reuter started working on the Block Party, a celebration of the revitalization of The Avenue that started when low-interest business loans became available. Reuter went door-to-door asking for Block Party sponsors. That’s how she met Jack Taylor, of Jack Taylor’s Alexandria Toyota. He was happy to contribute and ultimately that changed everything for her.
By 2002, Reuter was a single mom with two kids, renting a house in Del Ray. Her landlord decided to sell but she couldn’t afford to buy, and she started looking for a new place to live even though it broke her heart to leave Del Ray.
One knock at the door changed everything. Jack Taylor had found a way that Reuter could buy her house. A city program had been established to provide interest-free loans to qualified first-time buyers. The problem was that it required applicants to complete a three-month class, and the landlord wanted to sell immediately. What happened next was almost unheard of.
Jack Taylor bought the house so that Gayle would have time to complete the class. When she got the loan, she bought the house from him. To top it off, her neighbors and local businesses surprised Reuter with a new roof.
Tell me about the work you’ve done in Del Ray.
I moved to Del Ray in 1983 and volunteered with the Del Ray Citizens Association. I worked on the first Block Party in 1991. My job was to get donations, together with Nancy Dunning, who was a community activist and pillar of Del Ray. We introduced our idea to shops and restaurants and had such a positive reception that some even handed us $100 bills. We closed The Avenue and hired a band for the Block Party. So many people helped. That’s when I first fell in love with Del Ray businesses, with their generosity. We’d kept it going for four years when Pat Miller suggested that we turn it into Art on the Avenue.
We started another grassroots initiative in 1996, after Paul Haire, who now owns The Dog Storeand Your Dog’s Best Friends, said, “I always wished we had a Halloween parade.” We proposed the idea to the City, they approved it, and that year we hosted a small Halloween Parade that was just a few blocks long. It has since become one of the neighborhood’s favorite traditions. We get more than 10,000 participants.
It was about that time that we got the Farmers’ Market started. Now we have so many recurring events through the DRBA, like the Taste of Del Ray, First Thursdays (summer monthly festivals), Turkey Trot, the Music Festival, Well Ray (a health and wellness event) and Bar Crawls. Also the Holiday Tree Lighting, where more than 2,000 luminaries are lit to honor Nancy’s memory.
I’m also a big supporter of ALIVE. It helps Alexandrians with food, shelter, early childhood education and childcare.
How have you managed to be involved in so many initiatives?
In 1991, I was a single mom with two little kids, working two part-time jobs. Sometimes I brought my kids with me in the stroller to meetings. Sometimes we had meetings at my house. I used to put the kids to bed at 9:00 p.m., clean up and do laundry, then work from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. I felt guilty because I was taking time away from my kids, but now that they are older, they’ve told me that they appreciate what I accomplished and now they carry the community involvement torch. It was tough to juggle everything, but it helped that I worked for [Alexandria City Council member] David Speck and then Congressman Moran because they always understood my need for community work.
Can you name a woman you look up to?
My mother. She was a stay-at-home mom, president of the Officers’ Wives Club, and a volunteer at an orphanage in D.C. and for the Red Cross during the Vietnam War. She would go out in the middle of the night to welcome home wounded soldiers at Andrews Air Force base and help them call their families.
I also look up to Carol Bailey, a fellow Del Ray volunteer who always manages with a smile no matter what obstacle is thrown her way. She is an influential community activist who always puts others first. If ever I think I can’t go another day, I think of her.
Carol Bailey has focused her efforts on improving the lives of people with special needs. She worked with the Miracle League of Alexandriato develop the Kelley Cares Miracle Field at 1108 Jefferson Street in Alexandria. It is a synthetic, rubber-like turf baseball field. The turf is designed for wheelchairs to roll on and provides a cushioned surface to soften falls. Carol’s son, Ryan, who has Down Syndrome, has a bench named after him there. Bailey was also on the committee behind the adjacent Ruthanne Lodato Memorial Playgroundthat accommodates special needs children.
Bailey lives in the home that her grandfather bought when he worked on the railroad and where she grew up. She wasn’t allowed alone on Mt. Vernon Avenue as a child, but she helped change the street. She started the Block Party with Reuter and Dunning, is the co-chair of the Halloween Parade, has a key role in all the events and has pulled the permits for more than 10 years. You will find her working the events with Ryan. She’ll tell you that she received the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award from the DRBA for her “physical labor.”
What has been your goal in your work for the community of Del Ray?
My family, including my daughter, Sara, and my son, Ryan, are the most important things to me. Ryan is everyone’s joy. He is 29. My goal has always been to get him to be part of the community. I got involved in therapeutic recreation and Special Olympics locally. We formed our own baseball team, and Ryan played basketball and ran track and field. Episcopal and T.C. Williams high schools often let us use their facilities. Ryan graduated from T.C. in 2011. Then I hooked up with Lindsay Swanson from Kelley Cares. Together with Pat Miller, we did a sock hop dance to raise money for the Miracle Field. Now, Kelley Cares has a mobile sensitivity room for autistic children and Ryan’s picture is on the side.
What traits are you most proud of? What do you most admire in other women?
My philosophy is that I don’t look back. I just start with today and improve everything from here. I am an easy-going person, I go with the flow. In all of the years that I’ve been part of this Del Ray network, we’ve never disagreed once. I just look at the situation, see what we need to do, and do it.
Patty Moran is another do-it-all woman who works all of the events. As the Principal’s Assistant at T.C. Williams High School since 2006, sponsor of their Key Club, and member of the Del Ray Citizens Association, she gets a positive response when she asks for helpers and is often in charge of organizing volunteers. Moran used to take a week away from work every year to run the Department of Human Services’ Sponsor a Family program. She received the American Red Cross Burke Award, Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award, the Outstanding Senior Citizen Award, and the Joan White Grassroots Volunteer Service Award.
Why do you have a passion for developing Del Ray?
I have always loved working with people. I have an affliction: when I see an initiative with a good cause, I respond. I’ll do whatever anyone needs to be done, and I’ve done everything once. This is how my world expands.
When my son started at T.C. Williams in 1988, I helped out so much that I had my own inbox at the school even though I did not work there yet. Now it’s such a joy for me to connect with the students. I help them adjust, and they help me solve issues. It is heartening to see so many young leaders fulfill the Key Club’s community service mission by helping with Del Ray events, Meals on Wheels, and more. It opens doors and it looks good on their resumes for college.
Can you name a woman you look up to and why?
There were 12 kids in our family (two sets of twins) with such varied personalities, and my mother was smart and knew how to deal with our differences. She didn’t judge you, she just accepted you the way you were. My dad died when he was 49, so she took care of us on her own. She told me that, back in the ‘30s, she got a college scholarship but her parents said no because they wanted the money for her brother to go to college instead. So she never finished, and that always bothered her. That’s how things were, but they are so much better now. I also look up to my daughter and best friend Kate Moran, who is following in my footsteps and those of her Aunt Nancy as a community activist.
The theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceForBetter. What are your thoughts on gender balance?
At T.C. Williams, I mentor the students to find balance in their lives. I coach them not to be 100 percent studies, or 100 percent activities. Same advice applies as they move through life: even with a young family and responsibility, you always need to make time to feed your soul. Balance makes everything better for both men and women.
Your sister, Nancy Dunning, was known as the Queen of Del Ray and was an integral part of starting the revitalization. Can you tell us more about her?
Nancy and my cousin, Jim Moran (Former Congressman), were here when we moved to Del Ray in 1976. She and I did everything together. She always had a vision of what Del Ray could be. She would come up with all of the ideas, and I’d help her implement them. Nancy touched so many people and you wouldn’t know it because she didn’t seek acknowledgement. She won Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award.
Nancy Dunning, known as the Queen of Del Ray, was a realtor with McEnearney Associates and a key member of the DRBA. Tragically, she was murdered in 2003. To honor Nancy Dunning’s achievements and to remember her, the community is working on the Nancy Dunning Memorial Garden.
“Nancy was a wonderful community organizer and early catalyst for a lot of what is still happening right now,” says Del Ray business owner Nora Partlow. “She came up with a lot of ideas and we took off with them. The memorial park is so important because you need to keep the memory of those who helped make this community.”
The park project will be merged with an initiative to turn an unused pool at the Nicholas A. Colasanto Park (2704 Mt. Vernon Ave.) into a spray park under one umbrella called the Del Ray Gateway project.
After Nancy died, Jen Walker, who was part of Dunning’s team in real estate, took over and has been a key player promoting Del Ray ever since. She runs Cinema Del Ray (an outside summer film series), works with the Mount Vernon Community School, and helps with all of the DRBA events. Walker won many awards including Small Business Philanthropist of the Year, the Heart of Del Ray, Del Ray Star and is a Living Legend of Alexandria.
As important as it is to have community initiatives to push the neighborhood forward, it goes nowhere unless you have business owners willing to invest. Nora Partlow fit that bill. Together with her business partner, Scott Mitchell, Partlow opened St. Elmo’s Coffee Pubon The Avenue in 1996. It was an immediate success and a catalyst for business growth. After that, new businesses, like the Evening Star and Mancini’s, appeared. St. Elmo’s has been at the heart of the community ever since and Partlow has been a mentor for many business owners.
Partlow volunteers at all the community events and is a recipient of the Key to Del Ray Award from the DRBA. Senator Adam Ebbin offered Partlow a commendation from the Senate of Virginia to recognize her community leadership and contributions.
Can you tell me about building your business in Del Ray?
I first got to know the people in our community when I was a bartender at the Snuggery Café (now Evening Star). I noticed that most of my customers were young, in their 20s to 40s, and they wanted a place on The Avenue to hang out and talk. In 1996, Scott Mitchell and I took a chance and opened St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, despite skepticism from a lot of professional contacts who worried that Del Ray was the wrong place to invest.
We used questionnaires to find out what residents wanted and we built accordingly. We used environmentally friendly and healthy products, featured local art and music, and had toys ready in our children’s corner. We made it a job requirement that employees be able to walk to work to keep jobs in the local community and so that we could open early and close late. St. Elmo’s was successful right away. The day it opened, there was a line. Within eight months, we expanded another 1,000 square feet. St. Elmo’s immediately became the community gathering place. To succeed in business, you have to give the community what they want, not what you want, and that’s what we did.
All of the businesses in Del Ray helped each other and worked with the DRBA. We formed a close network, with business owners like Barbara Mancini, Sarah Gabriel, Lori Clark, Royce Cohen, Cindy Gompert, Susan Galbraith, Renee Altman, Paula Hoalzel, Ann Welsh, Willie May Mitchell, and many more. We shared our secrets and our vendors. Rhoda Worku, for example, was the first person I reached out to when we decided to sell Panetier Bakery & Café (a venture Scott Mitchell had started with Alex Bambara). I guided her through learning the business, because she had never owned a restaurant before. We collaborated to help each other. Caboose Cafe made the sandwiches and salads that we sold at St. Elmo’s. We created a legacy of people working together.
I wanted to help the community, so I worked with the Chamber of Commerce, the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, Potomac West Business Association, Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association and I was the president of the Board for First Night Alexandria.
After 19 successful years, we sold St Elmos in 2015, and today the new owners, Larry and Christine Ponzi, carry the torch. Now, I focus on my real estate career with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and I am still heavily involved in Del Ray.
What advice do you have for young women and men today?
Not everyone can be his or her own boss. To be an entrepreneur, you have to be born a risk taker and to know your strengths. No business owner is an expert on everything, so you have to ask for help to fill your gaps.
What traits are you most proud of and what do you admire in other women?
What I brought to the community is my enthusiasm and my belief that if you jump in, everything will follow. So many Del Ray business owners are women. We are a compassionate, enthusiastic group of “doers” who aren’t afraid to sweep the street. We listen and negotiate instead of fighting.
These women have formed a productive network and deep friendships that resemble an intricate spider’s web. It’s hard to tell where one person’s work ended and another’s began. Throughout our conversations, like the spider spinning its silk in different directions, many more names were mentioned, too many to list, people who contributed and became part of the web. This camaraderie is the backbone of Del Ray’s “Main Street” community.
For International Women’s Day and Women’s History month, Zebra celebrates the women of Del Ray, and all of the women of Alexandria, many of whom have equally impressive stories to tell.