During the current presidential campaign, the nation seems more divided than ever, but a team of photographers from Virginia has set out to show how one community – home to dozens of different ethnic groups – is making diversity work.
Photographer Lloyd Wolf has lived much of his life near Columbia Pike – a road that has linked Northern Virginia to Washington, D.C. since 1810. For the last 75 years, he says, it’s been a magnet for immigrants.
“There are something like 108 languages in the high schools here, and the thing that I think is interesting is they’re not in ethnic enclaves," he says. "There’s not a distinct El Salvadoran area, a distinct Bolivian area, a distinct Somali, distinct Ethiopian. There are some apartment buildings you go into – it’s like the United Nations, and the community has a value of welcoming. They’ve actually put out a welcome recently for the Syrian refugees. That’s part of the culture here. Diversity is something we see as an asset, not as an issue.”
Many families come to this area to find employment.
“People come to work for the federal government," Wolf explains. "You know the Pentagon is a major job center.”
And along the Pike he’s encountered many places where cultures mix.
"There’s a Middle Eastern place called Attilas. The owner is a Kurdish Turk, and his employees are Latino and Asian," Wolf says. "There’s one hair salon owned by a woman from India. She has a Latina hair dresser and a Morrocan man working for her. That’s kind of the norm here.”
Ethnic festivals offer a constant feast for the eyes, so Wolf and his colleague Paula Endo got a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to document five miles of Columbia Pike in photographs. They worked with Duy Tran from Vietnam, AleksandraLag kueva from Russia and Xang Mimi Ho from Thailand to create a book that stands in contrast to the increasingly common hate speech in America today.
“Paula was interned as a child. She’s Japanese American. She and her husband Todd were put in those camps, so you can imagine that cooperation and kindness and lack of bigotry is important to them. My father escaped Nazi Germany. The rise of this anger speech is disturbing to me, and the fact that we have a community that doesn’t think that way is important to me. I know Duy and Mimi and Aleksandra have similar feelings. Potluck around here is good.”
The photos have been published in a book called Living Diversity, and Lloyd Wolf will speak Thursday evening at the Virginia Festival of the Book as part of a panel discussion with NPR’s Tom Gjelten. It’s called A State of Many Nations: Immigration and the Changing Face of Virginia.