"Michael Jordan of Planning"
In 1979, a young woman from Milwaukee moved to Arlington. She had a job writing speeches for Washington Post owner Katherine Graham while doing her own freelance writing. Eventually, she started working for the Arlington County Democratic Committee, where she was known as the “List Lady,” and later for the Arlington Planning Commission, where she was called the “Michael Jordan of planning.”
Her name was Carolyn W. Johnson (1941-2018), but she was known to everyone as Carrie, and she has a large legacy in the development of Arlington County in the last decades of the 20th century.
Johnson attended Smith College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1964, and first came to the Washington, DC, area to work for centrist Republicans such as Maryland Senator Charles Mathias, Jr. In 1971, she helped advance the bill that established the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park; her writing work attracted the attention of Graham and the Post, and she started working there in 1972.
Joking that once she moved to Arlington she had to become a Democrat, Johnson worked for over 20 years with the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) as their Data Director. Johnson compiled lists of actual voters and potential votes, keeping these lists up-to-date in a transient area. Her lists, and the information that could be culled from them for party work, earned her the nickname “The List Lady.” Even as technology changed and developed, Johnson stayed with her lists, and made that technology work for her. In 2009, Johnson won the Mary Marshall Outstanding Democrat Award from the ACDC.
Planning Commission Work
However, Carrie Johnson’s most important work in Arlington was her tireless work for the Planning Commission; she was one of the longest-serving members, from 1986 to December 2005.
During her time on the commission, she mentored many fellow members and other Arlington planners, worked to bring the Smart Growth theory to fruition, and was instrumental in the establishment of Long Branch Park (her most treasured achievement), Fort Meyer Heights, Virginia Square, and Four Mile Run.
Johnson had a unique ability to bring disparate parties together to compromise on development plans.
Upon her retirement from the Planning Commission, County Board member Chris Zimmerman credited Johnson specifically with bringing together developers, county planners, and residents to create Pentagon Row - just one example of Johnson’s ability to bring people together, to work for a common goal that would benefit the most people. At that same retirement celebration, County Board member Paul Ferguson referred to Johnson as “the Michael Jordan” of planning.
Retirement, of a Sort...
After her retirement from the Planning Commission, Johnson did not slow down. She had fallen in love with Butte, Montana, while on vacation and she had a vacation home built there, where she supported their local library and its local historical collections. At the same time, she was also a supporter of the Center for Local History (CLH) and Arlington Public Library, and worked on her papers in order to donate to the CLH.
Johnson never stopped thinking about a better Arlington. In 2014, she led a working group to explore whether an elementary school could fit on the land surrounding the Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Community Center. And one month before she died in May 2018, Johnson spoke at a County Board meeting about her concerns with state rules regarding turning left from Arlington Boulevard onto Irving Street.
Carrie Johnson never wanted to stop improving Arlington, and she never wanted to stop working to make Arlington a better place.