Crystal City wasn’t so enticing in 1993

With the news Tuesday morning that Amazon will put one of its “HQ2” locations in Arlington, Crystal City–or “National Landing,” the name picked to encompass an Amazon realm that will reach some adjacent blocks in Pentagon City and Alexandria–has suddenly become one of the D.C. area’s most interesting neighborhoods.

That was very much not the case when I moved there with three friends in 1993. For a single guy in his early 20s, there was one word for the neighborhood then: Loserville.

Then as now, Crystal City was bisected by a partly-elevated highway, with superblocks filled by bland, boxy buildings on either side. But in 1993, most of these office and apartment structures couldn’t be bothered to engage the street: Aside from a few scattered exceptions, retail and dining establishments huddled in the Crystal City Underground.

My walk to Metro from our apartment on South 23rd Street–a hulking structure with concrete-comb balcony railings that evoked Communist Bloc architecture–either took me through those climate-controlled corridors or along sidewalks with immaculate landscaping but few human life forms, as you can see in pictures I took that summer.

(My Washington Post colleague Frank Ahrens later wrote a feature about Crystal City that ran under the headline “Habitrail For Humanity” and featured this wonderful line from Sen. John McCain, a resident then: “You can start to feel more like a mole than a human.”)

Shopping was not an issue, with a Safeway a short stroll into the Underground and other everyday retail spots not much further along. I had an easy Metro commute to the Post and other places in D.C., and we were close enough to National Airport that I once hiked home from it. But the only affordable nightlife-ish spot I remember on our side of U.S. 1 was a Hamburger Hamlet.

Crossing the other side of the road shamefully called “Jefferson Davis Highway” (and which marred our building’s mailing address) would get you to a short little strip of restaurants in older storefronts on South 23rd Street. But first you had to choose between a long wait for a crosswalk signal or holding your nose as you briskly strolled through a pedestrian tunnel that reeked of piss.

Meanwhile, all the cool kids lived in apartments or group homes in Adams-Morgan, Cleveland Park, Dupont, Georgetown or Woodley Park. Going to parties at their places–nobody ever headed in the other direction–meant dreading the question “where do you live?”

After 15 months, I was delighted to move to an apartment in Arlington’s Court House neighborhood and be able to walk to cheap, delicious Vietnamese food and some moderately-hipster bars.

Crystal City has grown less ugly in the 21st century. A series of redevelopments turned the west side of Crystal Drive into a great stretch of restaurants and bars, a few new and less-bland buildings have sprouted around the neighborhood, and the brownfield to the north that mainly served as an impound lot for towed cars has become the terrific Long Bridge Park. Even most Jefferson Davis Highway addresses are gone, now that Arlington decided in 2004 to reassign buildings street addresses that mapped to their front doors.

The people quoted in a Post piece Tuesday voicing complaints along the lines of Crystal City having “no nightlife” must not realize how bad things used to be.

Amazon’s arrival should make them better still, replacing more of those ’60s and ’70s-vintage hulks with taller, shinier structures. And unlike Amazon’s other HQ2 spot, NYC’s Long Island City neighborhood, Crystal City will also see serious infrastructure improvements: Current and future Metro stops will get new entrances, its Virginia Railway Express station will be expanded, the walk to National will take place on a pedestrian bridge, and the long-term vision involves turning U.S. 1 into a surface-level, human-scaled boulevard.

But Arlington’s plans don’t include another upgrade that’s out of the county’s hands until the General Assembly notices the current century: rechristening that highway so it’s no longer an exercise in Confederacy whitewashing. Click “Okay” already, Richmond.

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This changing Commonwealth of Virginia

This January, Virginia’s congressional delegation will look different: Four of its 11 members will be women, up from one now. And seven will be Democrats, versus four today.

Along with last year’s Democratic landslide in Virginia’s state elections, these results provide part of the answer I wanted to see after 2016’s meltdown: Virginia voters aren’t buying the sales pitch of a Republican Party decomposing into a Trump personality cult.

But it’s also worth remembering what politics in my adopted state looked like only eight years ago. The GOP had swept races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general and maintained majorities in the House of Delegates and the Senate.

Some of those Republicans… fell short of the examples of such former Virginia GOP office-holders as Rep. Tom Davis and Sen. John Warner, to phrase things kindly.

Gov. Bob McDonnell showed a fondness for gifts from donors and floated laughably bad ideas about transportation funding before accepting a deal to raise the gas tax. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was exponentially worse, wasting taxpayer dollars on doomed, grandstanding lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and climate-change research at the University of Virginia.

In the House, Republican delegates like Prince William County’s Bob Marshall pushed measures like an invasive abortion-restriction bill that made “transvaginal ultrasound” a TV punch line.

And even well into Northern Virginia, the ignorant, corrupt, homophobic Eugene Delgaudio kept winning elections to the Loudoun County Board.

Since the entire state had voted in 2006 for a cruel amendment to the state constitution banning even “approximate” legal status for same-sex marriages, this balance of political power looked like something we’d see for a long time.

Now McDonnell, Cuccinelli, Marshall and Delgaudio and others like them are gone from elected politics. Last year’s rout led by Gov. Ralph Northam convinced the Virginia GOP to end its massive resistance against expanding Medicaid–a position that had set it against even hospital and business lobbies. Campaigning on keeping Confederate memorials up will not get you elected, as last year’s failed gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie and this year’s even-more-failed senate candidate Corey Stewart found. And campaigning against the NRA and its gun worship no longer sets you back here, as incoming representatives Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton can attest.

There’s still work to do. GOP gerrymandering remains an issue–and the fix can’t involve lurching to the other extreme like Maryland Democrats. The state senate’s Republican delegation still includes Loudoun’s Dick Black, who literally pals around with serial-killing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Too many things in the Commonwealth are still named after Confederate leaders who deserve no such honor. And while 2006’s hate amendment has been ruled unconstitutional, it continues to stain the constitution.

But that’s what the 2019 state elections can help fix. Unless voters here go back to sleep the way they did after 2008.

The D.C. area’s token skyscrapers

Informed travelers don’t come here to see skyscrapers. But after years of having the Washington Monument be the highest structure in sight after a couple of radio towers, the Washington area now features some edifices outside D.C. and its self-defeating height limit that… okay, wouldn’t look embarrassingly small in Manhattan.

It’s a start!

I spent this morning visiting what’s now the highest building in the area, Capital One’s 470-foot-tall headquarters in Tysons. Having watched this grow on my way to Dulles Airport over the last few years, it was fascinating to see the views from the 19th floor and on up to the roof.

It was also somewhat frustrating, in that I hadn’t thought to bring binoculars on a day a little too hazy for me to make out the District’s taller buildings. I still had a fantastic perspective of Tysons and how Metro’s Silver Line is leading it to grow upwards.

(You can get a sense of what I saw up there in my Flickr album from this tour.)

Unfortunately, I’m not likely to get that same aerial perspective again anytime soon. Capital One Tower does have event space available for outside events, but it’s clustered on the lower levels.

The second-highest building around D.C., however, features an observation deck almost 400 feet up and open to the public–tickets are $21 online, free for Arlington residents. And because the CEB Tower in Rosslyn, 390 feet tall, sits part way up a hill from the Potomac, it seems about eye level with the Washington Monument and almost that high relative to planes on their way into National Airport.

That outstanding location also lets you look down on what used to be the tallest buildings near D.C., the twin 381-foot-tall towers built in the early 1980s after a federal lawsuit sought to end their construction.

“These monsters would ruin the skyline,” Carter-administration Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus said at the time. That was a foolish thing to say then and is even more so now. Taller buildings in Rosslyn like those two and the pyramid-topped 1812 N. Moore St. help hide the ugly ’60s and ’70s-vintage boxes that defined its skyline until recently, but they still leave plenty of space for the Washington Monument and the Capitol to stand out on their own.

The other reason to applaud skyscrapers: Beyond giving you a neat view of the surroundings, they let transit and walking work in a way that sprawled-out corporate campuses can’t. And if designed right, they should also look a hell of a lot better. I’ll admit that neither Capital One Tower nor CEB Tower has quite the grace and style to get kids drawing sketches of them from memory–but we should look at these somewhat boxy assemblages as a chance to do better.

Federal Aviation Administration restrictions on building heights in Rosslyn mean we’re unlikely to get anything bigger there. But back in Tysons, there’s now a proposal for a 600-foot-tall building by the Spring Hill Metro stop. If approved and built, that would surpass a Westin in Virginia Beach to become the tallest building in the commonwealth. I would be okay with that.

Beer and behavioral economics at Nats Park

When an exhibition game at Nationals Park this spring revealed that beer prices there this season would hit $16, the sports commentariat went entirely and understandably crazy. Sixteen bucks?! That’s absurd.

Nats Park beerOr as a Yahoo Sports headline put it, “The Nationals’ new beer prices could pay for Bryce Harper’s contract themselves.”

But Mark Townsend’s post and others also noted that these higher prices were for 25-ounce servings. Paying either $15 or $16 for the equivalent of two quality beers doesn’t seem so bad.

And with the price of a pint at Nats Park having escalated from $10.50 or $10.75 to $12–the less-obvious land grab in this year’s changes to ballpark eating and drinking–spending $15 or $16 for a 24-ounce pour or a 25-ounce can becomes the only defensible option if you don’t want to feel quite so abused by your transaction.

Also less obvious: After you’ve had one of these economy-sized servings, buying another seems much less defensible than getting a second round might have appeared last year. Even with the Nats’ angst-inducing performance this summer, do you really want to down the equivalent of two-thirds of a six-pack at a game? The marginal utility just isn’t the same, not if you want to pay attention to the proceedings on the field.

And that’s how the Nats have gotten me to spend and drink less at the yard this year–not simply by charging more, but by exceeding the 25- to 50-cent annual price increase they’d conditioned me to expect, then giving me an option that only requires accepting the risk of beer getting warm in the sun.

Still free after this year’s round of ballpark price hikes: real-world lessons in behavioral economics.

Planespotting with purpose: Arlington flyovers

If you live or work within a few miles west of Arlington National Cemetery, you can expect to hear a sound that suggests you’ll on the receiving end of an airstrike: a crescendo of jet-engine noise that rapidly escalates past the volume of a departure from National Airport until a formation of military jets booms overhead.

Flyovers in support of military funerals are a regular ritual at Arlington, but the schedule at the cemetery’s site doesn’t indicate which one will feature an aerial accompaniment. Instead, follow the @ArlingtonNatl Twitter account, which usually tweets out an advisory or two about flyovers in advance under the hashtag #flyover.

You can’t count on a flyover happening exactly on schedule–I’ve seen them happen more than half an hour after the forecast time–but at least you’ll know roughly when to expect the noise.

And, if you’re any sort of avgeek, that will also be your cue to step outside with a camera or binoculars. (Read after the jump for a quick aircraft-recognition tutorial.) The sight of four planes in a missing-man formation is always impressive–and a good opportunity to contemplate the service of the man or woman being laid to rest at Arlington.

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City of champion: my Caps story

I haven’t been to a Capitals game in over 15 years. And when the Caps won it all Thursday night, I had to run out to our front porch and shout “C! A! P! S! Caps Caps Caps!”

Sports do funny things to you. Sometimes they’re also good things.

D.C.’s last major championship came in 1992, when the sports gene had yet to be switched on in me (aside from Georgetown basketball). The years since have been a tapestry of pain for D.C. sports fans, Caps fans foremost. Our teams have excelled in finding early playoff exits, often in the most gruesome manner imaginable–but no local franchise has gotten bounced from the postseason more often than the Caps.

(I know, D.C. United has won championships, albeit not since 2004–but Major League Soccer hasn’t been around nearly as long as MLB, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL.)

Consider the last decade alone: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 all saw a Caps departure in the first or second round of the playoffs, with the only difference being which team besides Pittsburgh was the instrument of our demise. So I had few expectations when the Caps started the 2018 postseason by blowing consecutive two-goal leads against Columbus–except they then declined to implode as usual and instead won that series in six games.

So I, who had not attended a game in forever for various lame reasons (expensive tickets, plans fell through, busy schedule, blah blah blah) and only occasionally followed a game online (being cord cutters put live viewing out of the question for years), found myself going out of my way to watch this Caps postseason. Over three weeks of travel, I caught games in various bars and restaurants and on one airplane, in between wearing out my phone’s battery to track the score.

That’s how I watched us beat our recurring nemesis Pittsburgh from a United Club in SFO–after asking the bartender if I’d get thrown out for asking them to turn off the Giants game. Another D.C. fan was sitting next to me at the bar, and we high-fived as the Caps blew up their Death Star and slayed the D.C. postseason sports curse.

Belated, renewed recognition: Hockey is a fascinating sport to watch, combining chaotic force and precision to yield the chance that the game can turn around in 15 seconds.

The Caps had to make it interesting one more time against Tampa Bay by losing three games in a row after winning the first two. But we shut them out in the final two games to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1998, when I had watched the Caps get swept by Detroit.

The confusing prospect of a D.C. team playing for a championship got me to attend a Caps event in person, the team’s last pre-finals practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington. The place was mobbed when me, my wife and our daughter showed up, and it was great to see so many people give the team one last push on their way to Las Vegas by cheering the players as they walked to their cars.

Five games into the finals, I spent seven and a half of the longer minutes of my life willing the Caps to keep the puck on the other side of the rink from Braden Holtby (whom I couldn’t have picked out of a lineup two months ago) and please get an insurance goal. My city’s team held on, I jumped up and down and hugged my wife–and after my front-porch exultation, we popped open some bubbly to toast the Caps.

Now it’s done. The Caps came home from Vegas with the Cup Friday afternoon. D.C. has a championship. And everybody here has a story to tell to themselves and to their kids about persistence through adversity.

Playing hooky for home openers

I watched the Nationals lose a winnable baseball game Thursday. I’ve done that a lot since 2005, but this 8-2 defeat wasn’t just any home game. It was the Nats’ home opener–as far as I can figure out, the 13th that I’ve seen in person, starting with our team’s debut at RFK in 2005.

(The exception was 2007. According to an e-mail I sent to my wife, I listened to the game on the radio from home.)

That also makes this spring pastime one of the few consistent examples of me taking advantage of the flexible scheduling that I should theoretically enjoy as a work-from-home freelancer.

As in: When I wandered into this lifestyle, I had delusions of being able to devote the occasional morning or afternoon to a movie or a museum. Nope!

The reality has been one of compressed chores. My schedule affords enough idle time to let me get in some gardening or expedite a Costco run, but tearing myself away from other obligations for a few hours in a row seems impossible… except for this one rite of spring. I should not complain about that, even when the game in question has us getting lit up by the Mets.