Amidst the broader cultural polarization and the ensuing moral panics (or perhaps the moral panics that have prompted the cultural polarization?), we’ve witnessed far more people announcing their political loyalties than in the past, often through overt displays in their front yards. While one can find these sort of signs just about anywhere in the country, I have a sneaking suspicion they’re more prevalent in Washington DC, where at least 50% of the population lives and breathes politics. For much of the last two years, signs indicating the preferred response to COVID-19 have been everywhere—a validation that the pandemic has become deeply political. Any remaining skeptics out there (those who don’t see the politicization of the pandemic), should see the blog article I linked earlier in this paragraph. Many of those signs were ubiquitous in 2020 and 2021. Some still are.
Keeping this in mind, it’s no great surprise that a new global crisis (or “sectarian entanglement”) has supplanted coronavirus, and that Washington DC metro is now replete with the yellow and blue national flag of Ukraine. Not only is it relatively easy to find flying outside people’s homes, but places like Arlington County, Virginia have draped them from the protective fencing at every highway overpass. (It no doubt helps that Arlington County has a sister city in Ukraine.)
A month ago, I’d imagine that, outside of trivia junkies, most people were unaware of the distinctive yellow and blue horizontal bands that comprise the Ukrainian flag: blue for the vast sky and yellow for the broad expanses of arable land. Only three other nations use such a color combination: Sweden, Kazakhstan, and Palau. Over the course of just a few weeks, the average American has come to recognize that blue-and-yellow signal perfectly. Homeowners in the DC metropolitan area have displayed their support with the usual aplomb, as indicated by these homes whose colorful façades already compete with season cherry blossoms, located in Arlington’s neighboring municipality of Alexandria.
It took no more than three minutes trolling around Old Town to find a home featuring the Ukrainian flag. And then another, barely a block away from the first. It’s not to difficult to find a luminescent counterpart at night:
I’m not sure what the homeowners here are trying to achieve through the shape of the lights, but it’s clearly the Ukrainian yellow and blue. Then, of course, Washington DC homeowners have never shied from taking stances on social issues, and (those yard signs notwithstanding) a Ukrainian flag/lights may be the next embellishments to replace those coronavirus tree ornaments.
The private sector has been a bit more demurring in such overt demonstrations of support and solidarity. But that hasn’t stopped some businesses.
The colorful display of lights in the background offers a view of a prominent intersection in Arlington’s neighboring municipality of Alexandria.
More unexpected are the tenants within those walls featuring all those yellow and blue lights, like that big display in the original photo. Walking one hundred yards closer, it all becomes obvious.
If you’re surprised that the nationally known convenience chain 7-Eleven cares about the conflict in Ukraine, you’re not alone. My first assumption was that it might be this particular franchise owner, given that franchising usually allows considerable leeway in individual expression. But 7-Eleven isn’t the only tenant: this cluster of pedestrian friendly structures near the Braddock Road WMATA Metro stop features a few others, and the blue-and-yellow motif extends across all of them.
This dry cleaning operation stands just fifty feet west from the 7-Eleven; the two businesses share the same parking lot. More yellow and blue. And the largest tenant occupies the most prominent corner, in the same structure as the dry cleaners.
The yellow and blue seems to trace the cornice line of the entire Yates Corner building, including the Italian restaurant Lena’s.
Across the street, on the opposite corner from the 7-Eleven, Lena’s, and the dry cleaners, a gas station employs the same color scheme indicative of Ukrainian support.
It’s no small irony that the yellow and blue might have been appropriate here even if the last month’s invasion had not taken place. After all, the Sunoco logo’s primary two colors are yellow and blue; the red arrow is more of an ornamentation, because the brand’s primary scheme at least partially mimics the Ukrainian sky and those amber waves of grain—unintentionally, we can assume (my research hasn’t led me to conclude otherwise).
Are these color schemes another example of meme culture: of one person setting a standard through a simple signifier and the others jumping the bandwagon? To some extent, yes, in the sense that blue-and-yellow flags have proliferated largely without an overt top-down declaration. But in this case in Alexandria, another common thread ties these buildings together. Any idea what it is? Sure, the title of this article is a spoiler; here’s a different angle of the Sunoco station.
Take a look at that surname. “Yates” is hardly an uncommon last name, but it’s widespread enough (like “Smith” or “Jones”) that this could be a coincidence. Within Alexandria, it seems to pop up everywhere. No surprise: the Yates family owned the auto center with the Sunoco for many years, then expanded their brand by purchasing the underutilized parcel across the street, demolishing the old auto-oriented buildings there (which also featured a 7-Eleven and a dry cleaners), and redeveloping to a larger structure that accommodated a two-story restaurant, with considerably fewer off-street spaces and a pedestrian scaled frontage. This Yates developer called the end product “Yates Corner”, visible as backlit lettering near the top of the photo with “LOVE” in red lights. And that’s not all: patriarch Jeff Yates founded or co-founded (with his brothers) a car wash and auto detail center, an auto body shop, a family restaurant (Table Talk), and was in the process of developing a pizzeria before his untimely passing in 2018.
And, as evidenced by the trio of buildings festooned with the Ukraine’s patriotic colors, the Yates family has proven savvy real estate developers. Yates Corner (the largest building by far) offers a significantly smarter urban design than its conventional strip mall predecessor, endowing the area with a higher and better use (more leasable square footage on a single parcel), and the second floor ostensibly houses Yates Service, Inc.—the agglomeration of all businesses under the Yates umbrella, managed by younger brother Jason. This consolidated operation of the Yates family’s franchises and spinoffs (the restaurant Lena’s is named after their mother) all cluster just a five-minute walk from the metro station.
I’m not certain exactly which Yates is managing what among this trio of buildings; that doesn’t really matter. But it was the Ukrainian yellow and blue that clued me in to the shared ownership, while impelling me to do the research about the prominent Yates family, a name I had wondered about for quite some time, during my days in Alexandria. And it means that the powerful bicolor support in the original photo has a single brainchild as its origin—or, at the very least, a brain family. Well, all that is, except for the one protruding tower further in the background, seen again from this view where the Yates Automotive is in the foreground.
See it back there—the yellow and blue glow in the center of the photo, just to the left of the streetlight? That is, of course, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, historically the tallest building in Alexandria and an easily visible landmark since its construction in the 1920s, as a dedication to the nation’s first president and the original surveyor of the City of Alexandria. Subsequent transit oriented mid-rise and high-rise development in the Carlyle neighborhood has undermined the prominence of the Masonic Memorial somewhat, but it reasserts itself at night, bathed in seasonal colors that shift routinely—red and green for Christmas, red white and blue around Independence Day, pink around Valentine’s Day, etc. The yellow and blue is the novel color scheme, just as it is for the Yates Corner and the family’s various enterprises. And unlike the flag, it’s easily visible at night from a distance. Here’s a much clearer, closer view:
One can only hope, at this point in March, that a different political concern can soon overtake the devastation reflected through this yellow and blue…and that the next time we witness red, white, and blue at Yates Corner or the Washington Masonic Memorial, it’ll represent American colors and not the Taiwanese flag.