A Virginia Tech alumna took her capstone project to the airwaves through a radio series in Arlington, Virginia.

Valeria Gelman, who received her master’s degree in fall 2017 in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech in the National Capital Region, was in a planning studio class in the spring 2017 semester. For the course, Gelman and eight other classmates were tasked to collect local histories from longstanding, or “legacy” businesses in Arlington.

“One of the most compelling issues in preservation today is documenting ‘living history,’ which often conveys stories of underrepresented groups,” said Elizabeth Morton, professor of practice in Urban Affairs and Planning in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, who led the studio class. 

“Barber shops, frame shops and bakeries may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about historic resources, but they often are an essential part of the sense of place," Morton said. "This is especially critical in localities experiencing significant growth, and the studio was inspired by places like San Francisco, London and Barcelona, which are exploring ways to promote and protect these types of community institutions.”

The businesses Morton’s class focused on, located along the Lee Highway Corridor and in the historically significant African-American Nauck/Green Valley neighborhood in Arlington, may be facing significant new developments, and collecting oral histories of these establishments could not be more timely. When Gelman and her classmates began collecting these stories, they found that many businesses in Arlington were indeed anticipating some major changes in the area in the next few years.

“Lee Highway is the focus of a major public-private planning effort, and looks like the ‘next frontier’ in growth for Arlington,” Morton said.

The tight-knit Nauck/Green Valley community retains a handful of businesses set up by African-American entrepreneurs decades ago, but public and private investment has been altering the neighborhood demographics.    

“Sometimes change creates difficulties for businesses that have been around for a long time,” Gelman said. “They’ve contributed to the … particular character of the community. And when change comes … it is unclear whether or not they’re going to be able to make past that.”

Storefront of Lebanese Taverna in Arlington, Virgina
One student interviewed the owner of restaurant chain Lebanese Taverna that has been around for almost 40 years. Photo Courtesy of Urban Affairs and Planning students.

In May 2017, Gelman and her classmates presented the oral histories and some planning recommendations in a public meeting attended by local businesses, community members and representatives from county government. The project was well received, and the interviews were transferred to Arlington Public Library to be housed at the Center for Local History.

While portions of the oral histories were included in an interactive website students created as part of the class, Gelman thought the interviews had even more potential.

“When the class ended, I felt that how can we just end it like this? To me it was almost devastating that we spent this time, we bothered people, we recorded this,” Gelman said.

At the final presentation a county staff member, impressed by the initiative, suggested that students explore using the material as the basis for a radio broadcast.   

“The idea stayed with me,” Gelman said.

Man stands in front of a wall in his store
One student interviewed the owner of Glebe Radio & Appliance, Dabney Wharton, in Arlington, Virginia. Photo Courtesy of Urban Affairs and Planning students.

Gelman was encouraged to talk to Lynn Borton, a producer/host of the program “Choose To Be Curious” that airs on WERA 96.7 FM in Arlington about a possibility of converting existing interviews into a radio show. Borton encouraged Gelman to pitch her idea to the board of Arlington Independent Media (AIM), a nonprofit community media center.

“I sent to them the idea and samples of what we had already recorded and they were very excited about it,” Gelman said. “There was not a doubt about any of it. They just said, ‘Go, run with it.’”

With the the approval from AIM in hand, Valeria’s capstone was born.

Gelman started working on the project in August, and it took three months to finish. She had to turn hour-long interviews into 20-minute radio segments. The final series consists of 10 episodes of feature interviews with 14 different businesses,

Morton, who has been working for several years with Arlington County staff to document African-American and Vietnamese cultural history, is certain that Gelman’s project will inspire creative new ways to publicize this ongoing research.   

Street view of store front in Arlington, Virginia
One student interviewed the owner of Sam Torrey Shoe Service in Arlington, Virginia. It opened in 1945. Photo Courtesy of Urban Affairs and Planning students.

While working on her degree and the capstone radio show, Gelman was also a part-time employee at the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Being a full-time student and a graduate assistant, while also working part-time was not easy for Gelman, however she said that making the radio show was a lot of fun.

“It was something that I wanted to learn how to do,” Gelman said. “It felt like a hobby that I have outside of work.”

Before applying to Virginia Tech’s program in Urban Planning, Gelman already had a master’s degree in Urban Ecology from the University of Helsinki.

“I knew the program was structured in a way that as a working professional, you can still go to classes,” Gelman said. “So the combination of financial support, of proximity [to Washington, D.C], and the way that the schedule is that one could work, made it very attractive to me.”

Store front of barber shop in Arlington, Virginia
One student visited Moore's Barber Shop in Arlington, Virginia. Photo Courtesy of Sarah Steller, an Urban Affairs and Planning student.

“The Local Shop” has been on the air since December 2017 and is scheduled to broadcast  every Saturday at 9 a.m. until April, on WERA-LP Arlington, Virginia 96.7 FM. It can also be found online on Mixcloud.

Gelman hopes “The Local Shop” will live on.

“I think that it’s a very replicable project because I started with nothing and in three months, I was able to produce a show,” Gelman said.

Gelman and Morton want to recognize the other students in the studio class who provided a lot of the raw material. They thank Andrew Ausel, Charles Egli, Rachel Ferraiuolo, Emily Lockhart, Sarah Steller, Michael Tamarin, Hazel Ventura, and Pete Winslow.  

Studios, like the “legacy business” studio that launched Gelman’s radio show, are a critical component of the practice-based learning approach of Virginia Tech’s master’s programs in Urban Affairs and Planning in both Blacksburg and Northern Virginia. Each year, studios are offered on different cutting-edge topics, and each provide students with hands-on experience and a chance to engage communities.

Story and video by Olivia Coleman

Woman smiles in radio studio
Valeria Gelman '17 poses in a radio studio in Arlington, Virginia, where she produced a 10-episode series called "The Local Shop."
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