In a 2001 Brookings Institution report called “The World in a Zip Code,” the Columbia Pike area of South Arlington, Virginia was cited as having one of the most diverse zip codes in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region, with immigrants originating from over 120 countries. This still holds true today. With so many different languages and cultural practices, residents of Columbia Pike don’t often have the opportunity to celebrate the shared experience of being neighbors. Except for once a year, when South Walter Reed Drive is closed to traffic and open to music, dance, food, and excitement.
This is the Columbia Pike Blues Festival. Since its beginning in 1998 as a small community event held on the playing fields of a local elementary school, the festival has grown to be a yearly staple in the Columbia Pike neighborhood. Organized by the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization (CPRO), a coalition of businesses, civic associations, property owners and members of the Arlington County Government committed to the improvement and revitalization of Columbia Pike, the festival will feature nationally acclaimed blues artists and local musicians.
Amy McWilliams, age 54, associate director of CPRO, has worked on the blues fest for the last 16 years. She explained that blues was chosen as the genre because of its broad appeal. “It’s something that would attract all of the different cultures that live here.”
But beyond the chosen genre, McWilliams has witnessed the power music has to bring people together from both her personal experience as a performing artist and her many years working on the festival. “I think music breaks down barriers between people because it’s universal and every culture has its own musical traditions. It’s kind of the perfect vehicle for building community.”
In breaking down barriers, the Festival also serves as a platform for celebrating diversity and supporting local initiatives. Seven restaurants from Arlington County will be serving food at the festival — everything from Nigerian food to Thai food, from barbeque to bubble tea — and several non profits will also join the festivities, such as Music For Life, which focuses on bringing music to at risk youth by providing lessons in guitar and drums. CPRO has also partnered with Art in Action, an organization that puts canvases up around the stage and creates original artwork while the music is playing.
But the most beautiful contribution is often what comes from the community itself. McWilliams explained that some of the most memorable moments are those spent watching old and young alike fill the streets with dance.
“The blues festival really, I feel, lets everybody open their doors to each other and enjoy an event that’s for the entire community and not just for one cultural group, or ethnic group, or economic group, said McWilliams. Her co-associate director, Samantha Wentling, age 34, elaborated,” “It’s a way for all of these people to celebrate and have fun together and have something that they’re proud of in their neighborhood.”
The Columbia Pike Blues Fest will take place on June 14th at 1pm — less than a week away! One of the most special aspects of the festival is that it is free so all members of the Columbia Pike community can take part in the celebration. Your support will continue to make this possible. Click here to donate now.