Defending Defense Drive

There’s a good reason the entrance to one Falls Church enclave, Hillwood Square Mutual Association, is called Defense Drive. Picture the buildings without the canopy of stately oaks, flower gardens and the riot of nesting songbirds and you have a color snapshot of life on the home front during WWII. This cluster of buildings (and many of its residents) has resisted change since Ike was president. Now the last defense housing project in Fairfax County holds its breath, waiting to see if it will make it through another May.

Hillwood Square - Defense Drive

Hillwood Square Village was dedicated as wartime housing for workers at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, on Memorial Day, May 30, 1942. Families from around the country moved into the new buildings, shook hands with their neighbors and got down to the daunting business at hand in a calm and orderly manner they bounced out of a ten-year depression to win the most devastating war in human history. It is impossible to imagine what our world would be had they not pulled together and prevented Fascism from dominating the world, as it tried to do.

This month, members of Hillwood decide whether to stay and defend its uniquely American way of life, or sign the developer’s contracts that are in the mail. For 69 years there have been meetings and votes, bylaws and committees, but this time a developer’s tactics coincide with a challenging report on the aging infrastructure. Some folks find it a little suspicious; there are allegations of insider deals and finder’s fees.

The whole country faces similar infrastructure challenges, but it’s different when 160 people try to figure out how to fund the brand new sewage system that some (but not all) engineers say is necessary. There’s still optimism. They’ve weathered claims that the pipes would explode for years, because repairs patched the leaks. Many members want to preserve a unique community that retains its small town virtues: it’s a safe, friendly, affordable place to raise children or retire, earning the nick name ‘home of the newly wed and the nearly dead’. Hillwood shows how much Fairfax County has changed as a result of the determination and sacrifices Americans made during WWII and it stands as a living monument to those times.

Wartime Hillwood Square Home

During the war, the Federal Housing Administration rapidly housed the massive influx of workers that came to the DC area, but was scarcely able to keep up with the demand for affordable housing. Hillwood Square, like some war housing, wasn’t built with luxuries such as dining rooms. Meals reaped from victory gardens and ration books were shared at the table in small kitchens. Families with 6 children squeezed into Hillwood’s largest three bedroom units; people slept on daybeds in the living room.

There were air raid sirens and blackout drills. People saved scrap metal for the war effort. Many in DC were still standing in bread lines because they were still poor, although working. General Eisenhower put in 18-hour days and never saw his brother Milton’s house in the daylight, although he lived nearby Munitions factories ran 24/7; workers had 2 days off a year. Women set up childcare centers and took jobs or volunteered. Elderly people went back to work; teenagers quit school and went to work the year ”White Christmas’ was a big hit. It was patriotic to invest in war bonds.

An old photo shows Hillwood Village as it was in 1942, when the oak trees were first planted. A block away, Route 50 was two lanes lined with trees all the way from Fairfax to DC. The war-time workers used the bus that ran from Hillwood Avenue to the Torpedo Factory and the train was so close they could hear the wheels click-clacking at night. The Frozen Custard stand across the road always had a line out front. They went to movies at The Jefferson Theater, which had plush balcony seats and showed double features for a nickel. Residents of Hillwood recall a goat with a penchant for flower beds that paid visits in the early 50′s, delighting the children who tried to catch him.

Fairfax County was rural then, its population just around 40,000 and far from being one of the richest counties in the country, which it is today. In 1950 Hillwood Square formed a cooperative, purchasing 19 acres, 160 units and the community building from Uncle Sam for $500,000. They sold shares in the enterprise to those who wanted to stay on and advertised the remaining units to new residents who joined the association. Those who’d purchased 1/160th of the enterprise set up the bylaws and rules that still govern the community, sixty nine years later.

Pat Hickerson was seven when her parents bought their share in 1950; a two bedroom unit for which they paid less than $3,000 in cash. “It was a wonderful place to grow up.” she recalls. “We played on the grass in big front yards, away from cars. They designed it that way, to be safe for children. They’d sunk a sprinkler, a huge fountain into the blacktop behind the community house and we loved it in the summer. We used to have one push lawn mower, provided by Hillwood, for each row of units. Members shared it and the grass seed Hillwood provided. It was blue collar, no fences and everyone went to the meetings-they were standing room only.”

In the boom years that followed the war, the fields and woods surrounding Hillwood filled with buildings. Seven Corners came in 1956 and Tyson’s Corner followed in 1966. Although people saved the money they’d earned, some still found it hard to buy a home in Fairfax County and opted to stay in the defense housing. So did their children. The great grandson of a man who was employed as a pipe fitter at the Torpedo Factory still lives at Hillwood, today.

The 19 acres Hillwood sits on is a rare prize that some want to sell, although others want to wait. The Hillwood Historic Group, a small group of members has had Hillwood added to the county’s historic register and are now working to have the community added to the state and national lists of historic sites. Tabitha Yothers is one of the members who are funding a search for grants which might defray the cost of upgrading the infrastructure. “We don’t know how to go about doing this, we’re just trying to preserve Hillwood” she said, adding, “I hope most people who live here won’t take the latest lowball offer.”

Some are willing to take the $35 million, which averages $230,000 a share. “It’s a great down payment, but I’m retired, I can’t afford to buy a place nearby with a yard, with that!” says Pat.

The elderly are taking it worse. Some cry. They feel at home here. They’re what’s left of ‘the greatest generation’; the ones who elevated America to global prestige. Not veterans, they’re just the people who ate rations, collected scrap metal and quit school to work round the clock shifts, here on the home front.

Lisa Remick
May 26, 2011