|Looking north across the Highway Bridge (now the 14th St. Bridge) with Harry’s Blue Bird BBQ under the arrow.
Hoover Airport is in the foreground and the former Jackson City would have been just to the right. Photo from
the Library of Congress.
One can imagine the ghostly white haired southern gentleman pacing his colonnaded portico fretting over the disorder below on the once idyllic Arlington plantation. Robert E Lee owned much of the land stretching from the mansion in Arlington cemetery to the foot of the current 14thStreet Bridge. His plantation was the epitome of southern orderliness with the Lee family managing vast mercantile operations dependent upon the forced labor of slaves. Everything and everyone had their place on his plantation.
By the 1920s the area had gone through massive changes after Union soldiers occupied the land and permanently wrested it from the orderliness of the Lee family. As the ghost of Lee paced his portico, he would have seen a perpetually burning dump with a small group of dwellers eking out a living operating moonshine stills just to the west of the current Pentagon; two airports for dirigibles and airplanes respectively, the runways of which pilots precariously navigated the burning dump and Military Road traffic that bisected them; and a small cluster of manufactures around the current site of Crystal City. Most of Lee’s original land was taken up by the Agricultural Experimentation Farm run by the US government.
Perhaps this specter of the old order would have been most disturbed by a tumble down joint 300 yards from the Highway Bridge (now the 14thStreet Bridge) on the current site of the Pentagon power plant along the lagoon next to Interstate 395. If Lee’s ghost could make out the Blue Bird from his portico, he would have seen blinking neon lights making the parking lot with many licentious activities just visible in the night. If he could have seen the inside, he would know this was not a place for southern gentlemen. This little jazz joint was a battle in the longer war over whether Arlington was going to be southern or cosmopolitan, a place of orderly bureaucracy or chaotic corruption, and, finally, how the county would assert its territorial rights against a federal government it had been in rebellion against 70 years prior.
But let’s take a step back and start from the beginning. This area of the county was no stranger to vice and served as the playground for Washingtonians from the mid-1800s into the early part of the twentieth century. Just on the other side of the current Interstate 395 from the Blue Bird was Jackson City, which was group of buildings founded amid much optimism that a new city would rise on that spot before it degenerated into a place of gambling, booze, and other activities. It was perfect for an illegal playground because it was only a short ride by streetcar over the 14th Street Bridge (then called the Long Bridge and later the Highway Bridge). Corruption, indifference, and bureaucracy allowed Jackson City to deteriorate into a murderous lawless place because it sat in a place that belonged to no one. Virginia, DC and the Federal Government disclaimed ownership citing an opaque clause in the retrocession agreement giving the land back to Virginia from the original borders of Washington, DC. Vice thrived here until a conservative vigilante force aligned with the burgeoning prohibition movement burned most of Jackson City to the ground. However, it limped along for years before the railroad bought the land and razed the rest of the buildings. During the early twentieth century, the area had a series of names, Relee (a play on R.E. Lee), East Arlington, and South Washington, all of which confirmed it was an area in a state of dispossessed geographic limbo. During the teens and twenties, a waterfront amusement park operated just to the north of the former Jackson City site before going under with the land going to investors to build the Washington-Hoover Airport.
There was a purgatorial air to the landscape as the variety of abandoned buildings, repurposed for new uses, intermingled with the airport, and surrounded by industries such as oil storage and brick manufacturing. The smoldering dump, experimental farm, and the dirigible port enclosed the area, which became the home of castaways and the playground of vice-seekers. This must have felt like home to the gamblers, pimps, and other marginalized people living in the limbo of the underworld. The lawlessness was inviting to the lawless.
During the early 1900s the Washington Post often imagined the gullible government clerk with his savings in his pocket hopping the train to Jackson City dazzled by the notion of winning the jackpot only to lose everything and dejectedly walking back across bridge unable to afford the train fare. Undoubtedly this tradition played a factor in the location of the Blue Bird as a place to give Washingtonians a good time while methodically separating them from their money. As late as 1922, a remnant of Jackson City called The Miami (aka The Easy Way) still operated on the site perhaps housed in one of the old buildings.
The vexing problem for law enforcement officials was the area was a true no man’s land. When DC retroceded the Virginia portion of Washington, the document put the DC border at the high water mark of the Potomac. In the 1800s, Potomac flooding reached the current foot of Columbia Pike and probably covered most of what is now the Pentagon parking lot. However, when building the Washington-Hoover Airport, the owners trucked in dirt that pushed the high water mark closer to the banks of the Potomac. Adding to the confusion, the Federal Government owned Arlington Cemetery and an experimental farm, which covered a large part of the surrounding land to the north.
It seems likely another barrier to law enforcement, was that nobody really cared about the area. Up the hill near the current Air Force Memorial was Hell’s Bottom, which was a prominent gambling den that had degenerated into a squatters’ slum. Nearby was the perpetually smoldering dump that was home to the county’s dispossessed that lived an isolated fetid existence. Along the water, there were people living on disused barges and armed thugs operating moonshine stills hidden in the underbrush. In the twenties, along the walls of the cemetery, young people had “petting parties”, shocking the sensibilities of this proper southern town and raising the ire of the local Klan. If Washingtonians were feeling randy, they would head for this area that was becoming known as a “no man’s land” by the Washington Post in the 20s. Geographic limbo granted freedom to Washingtonians to engage in illicit activities between the lines of bureaucratic authority.
One notorious person operating in the area was George Horning who opened a pawn shop across Route 1 from the airport in what was probably a disused building from the waterfront park. Horning ran a “blind” in DC, but based his operations in this no-man’s-land so he could skirt the regulations on pawn businesses. His scam was to invite people in need of a loan to his DC office and give them a ride to his Arlington office to complete the transaction. At least one newspaper speculated that Horning may have had connections with the criminal underworld. The revelation that you could operate in a legal limbo here may have led to the opening of the Bluebird. (The Washington herald., June 26, 1918, Page 9).
The Blue Bird was opened by Harry Riganis by 1929 and an ad described it as being opposite the bathhouse for Arlington Beach. Harry Riganis was a Greek immigrant with deep ties to the Greek community centered around 7thand 9th Streets on Pennsylvania Ave, but spreading over to Capitol Hill and the SW Waterfront. His circle of associates included restaurant owners, gamblers, and ethnic gang members from the SW Waterfront. Before he opened the Bluebird, Riganis worked as a clerk, a waiter, and a deli owner. In 1930, the year after the Blue Bird opened, he declared himself unemployed in the census while his wife worked as an accountant. At first he lived on 6thSt. in a neighborhood where Russians and Poles mixed with migrants from North Carolina. Sometime in this period, Riganis became prosperous enough to move to Georgia Ave in Takoma Park. By 1940, he also owned a restaurant on Pennsylvania Ave. and was an executive with the Greek owned Richfield Dairy. During World War Two he was arrested for running a racket with food ration tickers. Clearly Riganis was prosperous and well connected.
The Greek immigrant community in DC was significant in a city that, until recently, was not known for its immigrant communities. The lack of any Italian community to speak of meant DC was not a mafia town; however it teemed with much freelance organized crime. Prominent underworld figures, some with ties to organized crime in Philadelphia and New York, controlled large swaths of the vice industries. However, there was considerable space for upstarts to form their own gambling, bootlegging, or other unsavory industry without having to answer to mafia powers. A few Greek families associated with the Southwest waterfront of DC banded together to help each other launch businesses, purchase real estate, and, perhaps, run rackets. With names like Mamakos, Kavakos, and Soffos, they joined other ethnic whites to form gangs like the Waterfront Bunch in the rough and tumble Southwest DC. They came up in a SW waterfront neighborhood, known for the rough strip of bars called Sailors’ Row along 7th St., where Navy Yard workers and sailors trawled for booze and prostitutes.
Though he did a stint as the ubiquitous DC job generically called “clerk”, Riganis spent most of his time working in restaurants. He married a woman named Georgia, who was from the Mamakos family. The Mamakos were famous for their son Steve, a prominent local boxer, who had famously learned his trade in the Southwest waterfront gangs. Steve’s brother Bill “the Greek” was a small-time local hood engaging in various trades such as housebreaking and larceny. In 1938 he was indicted as part of a ring stealing office furniture.
The Mamakos family connected Riganis to the Kavakos family through marriage. The Kavakos would later run Club Kavakos in the 40s and 50s at 8th and H St, NE. The club was a top drawer of entertainers and of local gamblers looking to blow off steam. However, it was a place of vice too. In 1951 people were arrested for dealing marijuana out of an adjacent apartment after arranging the deal in the club. During the 1952 Senate hearings on DC police corruption, investigators felt compelled to subpoena the club’s phone records for potential wire fraud. The committee also entertained an anonymous tip claiming that teenage boys were being lured into a druggie jazz lifestyle on Sunday afternoons when teenagers gathered at the club.
Riganis opened the Blue Bird in 1929 with the Bill Mamakos as floor manager, Const Adams as the manager, and members of the Kavakos family rounding out his inner circle. On top of that he hired some small time thugs to work as bartenders and bouncers. Many of these men would cut their teeth running nightclubs, and rackets, at the Blue Bird as they made the transition from the streets to respectability. Almost immediately, the Blue Bird sought “young girls” for “curb service”. We can infer from later police raids that these waitresses engaged in surreptitious liquor sales and prostitution. One Arlington resident told the Washington Post in 1985, that he remembered people buying bootleg liquor at the Blue Bird during Prohibition.
The confounding question about the Blue Bird is why authorities allowed it to operate for so long. When the Blue Bird opened, the end of prohibition was five years away and Arlington still had a robust “dry” movement that railed against other illicit establishments, but it’s hard to find any references to any legal action taken against it until after prohibition ended. Indeed authorities burned down a massive still in the swampy dump a mile or so to the northwest (Post 2/7/33) and regularly took action against bootleg operations along the river nearby. Perhaps the land’s ambiguous jurisdiction allowed it to operate in a legal limbo. Perhaps it was protected by one of the larger gambling rings known to pay off local authorities. The larger gambling rings were known to have some operations in Arlington and the Blue Bird may have been another piece of a larger empire.
Arlington County saw fit to collect taxes on the property and the board heard requests from property owners, including the Blue Bird, for improved water service in the thirties. The question is, why did the county police demur from enforcing the law on the Blue Bird so readily when clearly the county consider it within their taxable jurisdiction? Was it simply bureaucracy that prevented police action or was something more sinister at work? During this period gambling control in the district shifted from Sam Beard to Abe Pilsco (aka “Jewboy” Dietz) and later to Emmitt Warring. All three operations paid significant protection money to DC police. Were they doing the same in Arlington? Or was the Blue Bird under the wing of Sam Beard’s empire, but fell out of favor when Pilsco took over. To speculate further, Jimmy LaFontaine, who owned a notorious gambling den in Maryland, opened his first place, the Ivy Club, in Jackson City. His operation began its decline in 1934. Around this time, Lyman M. Kelley, chair of the Arlington board, was removed from office for bribes. Was the county government simply too corrupt to act?
Riganis did his best to obfuscate the legal situation once prohibition ended by paying taxes and getting the necessary liquor permits in Virginia, but essentially abided by the more advantageous DC liquor laws. This meant patrons could get hard liquor and could stay open all night. The record is silent on whether he got the necessary permits from DC too.
Given this, it’s interesting that the Blue Bird’s serious legal problems and media coverage began in 1935, shortly after Prohibition ended. On the night of March 20, 1935, a DC taxicab driver named Calvin R Ely, got into an altercation with Nick German (nee Germanokos), a bouncer at the Blue Bird. Ely ended up dead from a “cerebral hemorrhage caused by external violence.” It seems that German was never charged. Two months later, the county would appoint a prominent citizen as the “special officer” for the Blue Bird, to monitor the establishment on behalf of the county.
Meanwhile the question of jurisdiction came to head between DC, Arlington, and the US Park Service. Fatal car accidents due to speeding; the murder of a young female government clerk; an assault on a makeshift houseboat along the river; and continuing problems with bootleg liquor in the area brought the stakeholders to the table. The matter was a practical one of who answers the call when someone needed help from the police or fire departments. For example, a woman frantically called Arlington, Alexandria, DC, and the Park Police as a bloody brawl was in progress in the parking lot of the Blue Bird with each police department demurring. The woman was able to tell Alexandria police that a soldier was being severely beaten before she was dragged from the telephone booth. Beyond this practical matter of public safety, the issue went deeper because it was settling a historically ambiguous agreement that had political, tax, and autonomy implications for a jurisdiction that had seceded from the United States only 70 years prior.
After the disreputable prominence of the Blue Bird rose, the citizens of Arlington began to speak out against the establishment. The head of the DC Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a remnant of the old Prohibition movement, cited the Blue Bird as an example of “notorious” places “that should be investigated, and, if possible, closed.” Zula Dietrich, writing in Zula Remembers recalled the Blue Bird as a “roadhouse of great renown and reputed wickedness” with “mysterious blue lights” filtering “into the darkness”, her good Christian parents would put the car “in high gear” to avoid witnessing the sinfulness.
So what exactly was going on in the Blue Bird that shocked the moral senses of upstanding Arlingtonians?
The arrival of the Blue Bird represented a deeper shift for Arlington County. Sure gambling, boozing, and other decidedly un-conservative activities took place in this area, but these were done within the racial confines of the old south – blacks and whites boozing and carrying on with their own kind. Here was a ramshackle nightclub on Robert E Lee’s doorstep offering the urbane notion of blacks and whites interacting. There is some evidence that the Blue Bird was not segregated and the sheer grittiness combined with an African-American band must have shocked Virginia officials. Here you could find pulsating jazz, illicit booze, loose women, blinking neon lights, gambling, and many untoward things lost to history. Mothers lock up your daughters.
The primary patrons of the Blue Bird were the gambling underworld of DC and the myriad of their marks and suckers. It was people specializing in separating other people from their money and people naive enough to risk losing their money in gambling.
A typical patron would be Jerry Swisher, who was arrested at the Blue Bird in 1939 after slashing Samuel Audia with a razor leaving Audia in need of 41 stitches. Swisher was a notorious member of the Northwest DC gambling underworld. Living on 9th St, his haunts were the bawdy houses and pool halls around Northwest DC, where he hustled for a living. Swisher ran with men in the hustling underworld, and the Blue Bird was probably one of their stops in the hustling circuit. HIs case would be tied up in the jurisdictional fights over the Blue Bird and included the court examining old maps to determine exactly where the border with DC laid. However, the trial would be disrupted as Audia, probably adhering to the code of silence of the underworld, denied that Swisher cut him despite witnesses claiming otherwise. Swisher would go free as a bargaining chip in the boundary dispute, but would meet his end at the end of a knife blade after stepping outside a tavern with another 9th St hood named James Rigsbee.
In terms of what went on inside the Blue Bird, we can get a clear snapshot from a few sources. First, the famous jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton praised the Blue Bird in 1939:
There are a few good roadhouses in suburban Maryland which happily aren’t bothered by curfew laws, although the music isn’t so hot with hill-billy bands being popular. Harry’s Blue Bird Barbecue, in nearby Virginia, has a good 6-piece jam group with an ace Negro tenor man. This spot usually has the best sessions. It’s an all-night rough and tumble joint, selling beer only because of state liquor laws. (http://www.doctorjazz.co.uk/page10c.html, retrieved 2/13/14) Prof. Alan Wallace sends the following article from Down Beat, dated March 1939, Vol. 6, No. 3, page 1, column 7.
The “ace tenor” Jelly Roll Morton referred to was probably band leader Alonzo Snowden. The band also featured a singer named Maurita Gordon, known as the “Singing Coed” because she became a popular local singer while attending Howard University. Gordon would go on to have a career singing and playing piano in DC nightclubs. This top-flight jazz was unusual in Northern Virginia where music tended to be popular dance tunes or “hillbilly” music (what we would call now old-timey or early bluegrass). Bands tended to have a guitar, bass, banjo, piano, and a fiddle and the audience would do set dances like the square dance. The jazz at the Blue Bird, probably played exclusively by black musicians for an integrated audience, would have been exotic and risqué in the more rigidly racially stratified Virginia. Some of the songs they performed were “The Umbrella Man” and “Sweet Sue” according to a copyright violation suit in 1939.
In addition to the hot jazz, undercover police witnessed a “vulgar floor show” featuring women doing the “hootchie kootchie” dance. The police also claimed that women approached them and told them that “any number of girls can be furnished for a party” at a cost of $5 per girl plus $1 for a taxi to take them to a secluded place, which was probably up the road at the Agricultural Research Farm. These same officers witnessed slot machines where they lost “much money” and got “back a little”. For liquor, the officers saw bartenders go to the orchestra pit and pull liquor bearing a DC tax stamp to serve at 50 cents a shot. At the time, restaurants could only serve wine and lower alcohol beer, but could not serve liquor. It seems investigators made sure they thoroughly enjoyed all aspects of the Blue Bird in order to complete their surveillance.
In 1937, VA ABC agents and Arlington police raided the Blue Bird for the first time. They charged dozens of people, primarily from DC, with various charges including resisting arrest, prostitution, and serving illegal booze. Ultimately a judge ordered the Blue Bird to close at 2am in accordance with Virginia law, which was nod towards the Blue Bird being in Arlington’s jurisdiction.
In August 1938, Riganis counter-sued the county after the county demanded he obtain licenses for his cigarette sales and his juke box. Riganis sued to have the Blue Bird placed in the jurisdiction of DC. The lawsuit caused the county to order police to stay away from the establishment until the lawsuit was resolved. In May 1939, the county police received another call about a fight at 5:45 am, but they refused to respond. The woman caller then tried the DC police and then the US Park Police, but they each refused to respond. Finally, Virginia State Police responded to break up the fight.
The Blue Bird would continue on growing ever more notorious as it operated in legal limbo. In 1940, the county, the state, DC, and the federal government reached an agreement giving the land to Arlington.
Finally, in January, 1941, county, state, and federal agents raided the Blue Bird at 3 in the morning. Police arrested 30 people, which was then the largest mass arrest in county history. In addition to the 30 people arrested, police confiscated 22 slot machines, 5 pistols, and 58 cases of beer, 40 gallons of wine, and a gallon of liquor, all of which were improperly taxed. It’s likely the booze bore DC tax stamps and was stronger than what was allowed in Virginia.
Despite all the illicit activities at the Blue Bird, it was the improperly taxed liquor that finally brought down the restaurant. An Arlington judge ordered it padlocked and everything in the building confiscated. The Blue Bird owners were fast and loose with their ambiguous jurisdiction and paid selective taxes, recognized selective laws, and enjoyed their limbo, but a judge closed it down for taxes.
The owners paid some taxes dutifully to Arlington and Virginia, but it purchased booze in DC because of the more advantageous liquor laws. Once the jurisdictional dispute was settled, it wasn’t the knife fights, the prostitutes, or the gambling that did in the Blue Bird. Ultimately, it came down to liquor taxes and just as so many organized crime rings past, present, and future, it takes violations of tax laws to finally break it up.
For a few months in 1941, before the land became part of the Pentagon grounds, a restaurant called the Gateway Roadside Restaurant operated in place of the Blue Bird. The Gateway appeared to operate within the laws of Virginia and ran into no legal trouble.
The legacy of the Blue Bird on Arlington County and the DC area is hard to judge now seven decades later. The Greek families that ran the Blue Bird would go on to become prominent restaurateurs and real estate investors in DC. Many of the staff of the Blue Bird continued to run in the criminal underworld and many found themselves arrested for a variety of petty crimes connected to gambling, rackets, burglary, and larceny. The loss of the Blue Bird represented the beginning of a transition towards a less lawless county into a more orderly suburban county.
Eventually the disorder of this land of Lee would give way to the Pentagon, Arlington Cemetery, and the bustling area we now know. It’s hard to look at the area now and imagine all the jazz, booze, and illicit fun people had.