At some retail outlets, we expect political flags flying out front. What better way to signal that your restaurant serves Greek cuisine than with those distinctive hellenic blue and white stripes? But, for reasons I’m still trying to figure out, there’s a niche culture of flag-flying in the automotive world (both retail and service). I guess I can understand it with a car dealership: a big piece of land and a nondescript building with a huge unsightly parking lot needs some bold visual element to jump out on the horizon line. But what about this?
Look at all those flags. They’re not huge or showy, but there’s a lot of them, and many different kinds. Ironically, not only is this the second blog article in which I’ve featured the Washington DC bedroom community of Kensington, Maryland, but the previous article also featured an automobile service station in this suburb, just two-tenths of a mile away from Kelley’s Auto Body. (The two businesses really couldn’t be any closer, or any farther, and still be in Kensington; the town is less than one-half square mile in overall size.) And while the architecture to both facilities suggests they’ve been there awhile—the vintage look creates a patina that serves as a subtle signal to outsiders that this is a long-running biz—only Kelley’s Auto Body is replete with flags, each of which is its own less-than-subtle signal.
Let’s take a look at the façade’s flags first.On the far left, we see an American flag. No surprise there. This being Maryland, the second flag from the left is equally unsurprising. Few states have flags that are as garish and distinctive, and Marylanders are understandably unapologetic about flaunting Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms on anything and everything. It’s a pretty good flag; not the best (cue the angry Marylander response), but pretty good. The next flag in the sequence is undoubtedly a hat-tip to the founding family’s last name: why not include the Irish tricolor when referring to a Kelly…even with that extra E near the end? Given that Ireland is one of the most prevalent countries of ancestry for Americans, it should come as no surprise that there’s almost certainly a large smattering of Irish-Americans in and around Kensington, though these days they’re so established and assimilated that Kelley might as well be just as much an American last name as an Irish one.
As we wind around the corner, however, the flag references get a bit more obscure. Let’s start with the one in the middle.This is the only one I never would have guessed, though I’m kicking myself in hindsight. I honestly thought it might be the flag of Kensington or the surrounding Montgomery County, until I got up close to it and could make out the text that wrapped around the coat-of-arms within the central band. (This being a windy March day, I didn’t bother trying to snap a close-up photo.) That coat-of-arms says “REPÚBLICA DE EL SALVADOR EN LA AMÉRICA CENTRAL”, so it goes with out saying that it’s the El Salvadoran national flag. Anyone who’s spent much time in Washington metro can sense the Salvadoran presence, which is no surprise, since they comprise the largest immigrant community, with well over 200,000 people who claim it as their country of origin. It would surprise no one if at least one employee at Kelley’s Auto Body is Salvadoran. The Kelley family may even have handed management of the business over to Salvadorans, though for my money, I’d bet that the true owners are the source of the last remaining flag—two of them, flanking the Salvadoran one. (I don’t want to cavil, but the Salvadoran flag is the weakest one from a vexillological or semiotic perspective; the tiny coat-of-arms makes the flag both less memorable and more difficult to discern, explaining the problems I encountered. All the others are simple or convey their jurisdictions boldly.)
Let’s return to that last flag on either side of the Salvadoran one. It’s the Armenian tricolor: a blood red, a sky blue, and a different shade of orange than the William of Orange in the Irish tricolor. This is the flag that, due to its unusual color combination and rarity in this party of the US, really caught my attention. As Armenians would indicate, it’s the color of apricot, one of the most prevalent fruits of this small country in the Caucasus Mountains. But unlike the other national flag on this side of Kelley’s Auto Body, the Armenian community, measuring around 10,000 individuals, is not big enough to assert its presence in metro DC in any major way. Sure, it can support two Armenian Apostolic churches, both of which are just a few miles south of Kensington, straddling the DC/Maryland boundary. But this is hardly Los Angeles, where Armenian-Americans are abundant. The presence of the flags here could be a recognition of the tiny enclave nearby, but if that were the case, why not recognize the significantly large Ethiopian community while we’re at it? Why two Armenian flags? My suspicion is that Kelley’s Auto Body is Armenian-owned in 2020.
That covers all the bases. A humble little auto repair shop is a tribute to the cultural amalgam that asserts its presence, distilled through bold colors of various state and national flags. For some, this many flags could seem overwhelming, disingenuous (why should such a small business recognize so many countries), or even invidious (if there’s a long-standing hostility between two of these countries). But all of those would be a real stretch. There’s no particular overt historical connection between Ireland, El Salvador, or Armenia—all small countries—nor is there any environmental or climatological explanation for why they all ended up equally small Maryland. Whether O’Shaughnessy or Gonzáles, Johnson or Hovhanessian, the flag-hub that links all these spokes has to be none another than the stars and stripes.