New Arlington art installation commemorates uprooted Black neighborhood

A circle of light chines from above into a round tower, with strings of beads hanging down around it.

Nekisha Durret’s “Queen City,” a 35-foot-tall sculpture in an Arlington park, memorializes a thriving Black community displaced by the construction of the Pentagon. Photo by Cole Kindiger

In what is now known as Metropolitan Park — created in phase one of Amazon’s headquarters in Arlington — Memorial Park, a red brick tower stands resolute, reminding passersby that on those grounds nearly a century ago, a community was erased. 

“Queen City,” a sculpture by artist Nekisha Durrett, aims to unearth the long-buried history of East Arlington (or, as it was nicknamed by residents, Queen City), the Black neighborhood that was displaced by the construction of the Pentagon. 

The simple structure, which stands 35 feet tall in an area filled with high-rises and office buildings, seems lost in time. Its red brick exterior evokes a long-past, industrial era — one similar, maybe, to the era East Arlington residents lived in. 

When visitors step inside the sculpture, they’re greeted by 903 ceramic, teardrop-shaped “vessels” — one for every member of the East Arlington community. Each vessel was handcrafted by one of 17 Black ceramicists recruited by Durrett. 

The space is quiet, intimate and — above all — inspiring. According to Durrett, who spoke in an interview with Street Sense, that’s exactly the point. 

“I try to leave space for the viewer to experience awe,” Durrett said. “First you see this mundane brick structure that looks like it’s from some bygone period. And then you enter the space and you’re met with something completely unexpected. The viewer then has all of these questions, and then hopefully feels inspired to find the answers and then learn this history that so many people don’t know.”

That history is a tragic one. East Arlington was a victim of displacement long before the 1940s, according to a 2011 presentation by the Arlington Public Library. Many of its residents previously lived in Freedman’s Village, a post-emancipation attempt to house enslaved people, before they were forced out by the government — this time to build the Arlington National Cemetery. 

The construction of the Pentagon, at the time the largest office building in the world, initially offered a welcome source of work for Queen City’s working men, according to Dr. Nancy Perry’s 2014 lecture at the Arlington Historical Society. 

East Arlington’s residents worked on the construction of the Pentagon for months before they were informed that the project would unseat them from their home, Perry said. 

Without the means to move their belongings, many families were forced to leave behind almost everything they owned, according to the lecture. They fled — first to different temporary housing sites, and then to different parts of the country. Many of them never saw their neighbors again. 

It was that side of the tragedy — the human suffering — that the artist said she wanted to evoke. That’s why, in addition to researching the historic community, Durrett arranged a meeting with one of its last living residents. Her conversation with 92-year-old William Vollin, she said, taught her more about Queen City than archives ever could. 

“Being able to identify and speak with someone who has been carrying that history since they were 12 years old further humanized the experiences that those people would have gone through,” Durrett said. 

“When I was speaking to him, he didn’t recount losing his home or any material possessions. What he did speak about was the loss of his community. About how he never saw most of those people ever again. He speaks about the destruction of Queen City as though it just happened yesterday.” 

But the sculpture is about more than a single community, Durrett said. According to data from the housing search site Apartment List, D.C.’s cost of living is 53% higher than the national average — one of the least affordable cities in the nation. 

“Queen City” tells a story of Black displacement at a time when, according to analysis by the Urban Institute, the District’s Black population has been declining for decades. The sculpture, according to Durrett, teaches more than just history. 

“The value of learning that history is connecting the dots, it’s seeing how this sort of erasure persists into the present day.” 

Just as “Queen City” is meant to teach an erased past, Durrett said, it’s also supposed to bring awareness to the challenges the nation continually faces. But somehow, it still leaves room for celebration. 

To create the 903 teardrops that line the interior of “Queen City,” each representing an East Arlington resident, Durrett commissioned 17 Black ceramicists from across the country. 

“One thing that I asked them,” said Durrett, “was to bring forward stories of a Queen City in their own community. Each and every one of them had one.” 

Although the artists might have been aware of each other’s work, this was their first opportunity to work together, Durrett said. Each ceramicist had varying abilities and experience, especially with the teardrop-shaped vessels Durrett was requesting. 

This led to a “beautiful thing” happening, Durrett said. The ceramicists, rather than working independently on their portion of the commission, collaborated. Artists with more expertise met with less confident ones, creating an atmosphere of compassion and partnership. 

In the process of memorializing a community, Durrett said, they had become one themselves. 

“Using community, the very thing that was destroyed when East Arlington was razed, to actually create something as grand and long-lasting as ‘Queen City,’ was beautiful,” Durrett said. “It’s not just about the thing, the object — it’s about the process of making it. It’s about showing what we’re all capable of when we work together.” 

This article is updated to correct a reference to the site of the memorial.

Issues |Art|Community|Systemic Racism

Region |Arlington

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