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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Weekly output: credit-card fraud, SaaS developers, Amazon and Crystal City, digital marketing, CTO life, Roborace, For The Web, DMCA exemptions

I fell seriously behind on tweeting out new stories this week, as Web Summit occupied most of my mental processor cycles during my stay in Lisbon. I also didn’t keep up with headlines in my RSS feed or even setting aside a minute or two a day to plod along in Spanish tutorials in the Duolingo app.

The Summit organizers usually post video of every session not long after the conference, but that hasn’t happened yet; when it does, I’ll embed those clips below. They now have.

11/5/2018: Why those chips in your credit cards don’t stop fraud online, Yahoo Finance

The story assignment came from inside the house, in the form of my having to call up a bank to have our cards reissued after somebody spent close to a thousand dollars on that account at Lenovo’s online store.

11/6/2018: Disrupting the traditional SaaS business model: The rise of the developer, Web Summit

My first panel at Web Summit featured two people running software-as-a-service shops: Nicolas Dessaigne of Algolia, and Adam FitzGerald of Amazon Web Services. This topic was well outside of my usual consumer-tech coverage, but a 20-minute panel isn’t too much airtime to fill if you do some basic research.

 

11/6/2018: Why Crystal City would be the right call for Amazon’s HQ2, Yahoo Finance

When I saw the Post’s scoop about Amazon getting exceedingly close to anointing Crystal City, I e-mailed my Yahoo editors volunteering to write any sort of “10 things to know about Arlington” post they might need. They didn’t require that, but they did ask me to write a summary of my county’s advantages–and some of its disadvantages, as noted in a few grafs that reveal the nerdiest bit of verbiage you’ll hear around Arlington.

11/8/2018: Marketing performance in a digital age – complexity to clarity, reaction to action, Web Summit

This was my most difficult panel at this conference, thanks to some reshuffling of questions late in the game and poor acoustics onstage that left me and my conversations partners Vincent Stuhlen (L’Oreal) and Catherine Wong (Domo) struggling to hear each other.

 

11/8/2018: CTO panel discussion: A day in life, Web Summit

Barely 30 minutes later, I had my second panel of Thursday, and this conversation with Cisco’s Susie Wee and Allianz SE’s Markus Löffler went much better.

 

11/8/2018: The human-machine race for the future, Web Summit

What’s not to like about interviewing the head of a robot-racecar company onstage? As a nice little bonus, this chat with Roborace CEO Lucas Di Grassi got introduced by my conference-nerd friend Adam Zuckerman.

 

11/8/2018: The man who created the World Wide Web needs you to help fix it, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee’s Monday-night keynote about his initiative to improve his creation, as informed by a conversation Thursday with the CEO of his World Wide Web Foundation.

11/9/2018: Primer: What new DMCA exemptions mean for hackers, The Parallax

It had been a few years since I’d last unpacked the government’s ability to tell companies and researchers not to worry about the thou-shalt-not-mess-with-DRM provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Spoiler alert: I remain a skeptic of this ill-drafted law.

Updated 11/16/2018 with embedded YouTube clips.

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.

Thanks, Iota

My favorite bar in the D.C. area is pouring its last pint this weekend. That makes me sad.

When Iota Club and Cafe opened in the summer of 1994, Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood was nobody’s idea of a nightlife destination. You had some good and cheap Vietnamese restaurants, a few dive bars (though not enough to string together a proper bar crawl), and a surplus of used-car lots.

Iota helped change that. The place had great beer on tap, the owners booked good musicians–although the tiny stage in its initial cozy confines couldn’t accommodate more than a quartet of skinny people–and they didn’t slack off when it came to food. It worked for an indie-rock Saturday night and a recuperative brunch Sunday morning.

A search of my calendar shows a long list of both local musicians (Jenny Toomey, The Kennedys, Alice Despard) and better-known out-of-towners (Kristin Hersh, Mike Doughty) that I saw there. But the Iota act I caught most often was my former Post colleague Eric Brace’s band Last Train Home.

That roots-rock group provided the soundtrack for a lot of evenings out with friends, and then for many of my first dates with my wife.

As other bars and restaurants opened up, Iota expanded into two adjacent spaces. The larger stage made bringing an upright bass or a piano an option, while the kitchen raised its sights and started doing new-American dishes good enough for me to take my mom there.

(I wrote the non-bylined ode to Iota’s catfish wrap that ran in the Food section in 2006. I already miss that, along with the fries that came with it.)

Iota even got a prime-time shout-out when an episode of The West Wing had a few of its White House staffers head across the Potomac for an evening out. For years later, a framed copy of that script hung on one of Iota’s brick walls.

The past several years saw the place retrench a bit. Management took away the good tables and the nice tablecloths and pared back the menu to sandwiches–really good ones.

Parenthood put a major dent in my own attendance, and my less-frequent visits found fewer people in the place. When I stopped in before 5 a few Saturdays ago, I was the only customer in sight.

But what finally did in Iota was something too predictable in its changing neighborhood: a redevelopment proposal that would have forced the place to relocate for a couple of years, then most likely pay a higher rent.

The developer’s renderings of the expanded building included Iota’s black-and-white facade, but I wasn’t shocked, just sad to see Iota’s owners announce three weeks ago that it would close at the end of September.

Of course, Last Train Home returned to play two final nights at Iota; I caught the last two-thirds of Thursday’s set and was glad to see a few Post pals there.

Now I have to put Iota’s absence on my list of neighborhood sorrows, along with the demise of most of the Vietnamese places, all the dive bars, and some of the newer, fancier restaurants that couldn’t cover escalating rents.

I still prefer the Clarendon of 2017 to its identity of 20 years earlier–I can do almost all of my shopping on foot, and we couldn’t have bought our home without the condo I’d bought nearby in 2000 doubling in value over four years. But this progress hasn’t happened in a straight line or without costs.

Some of you reading this have probably never heard of Iota until now, and my words may not adequately express what made it special.

But you probably do have some quirky bar or restaurant nearby that’s been around a while, doesn’t attract all the beautiful people, doesn’t have much of a social-media game and can’t be found anywhere else. Why not stop in for a drink tonight or brunch tomorrow?

See a naturalization ceremony if you can

The day before President Trump signed his cruel travel ban, I re-read my old Post colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s recount of the American fates of Iraqis who had helped Post reporters at enormous risk to their own lives, which (spoiler alert) ends with one of his translators becoming an American citizen.

A day later, I realized how badly I wanted to see a naturalization ceremony myself and then learned that there’s no Web calendar you can consult for your next opportunity to cheer new Americans. So I had to wait.

Two months later, Arlington County’s Twitter account announced one would happen at the Central Library. Of course I’d clear my schedule for that.

The event started with some introductory remarks, a presentation of the flag by a police color guard, and Washington-Lee High School student Mayari Loza belting out and signing the national anthem. FYI, Nationals Park.

Joyce Adams, supervisory immigration services officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, led a roll call of the countries represented by the day’s citizenship candidates–from Afghanistan to Vietnam. People clapped and cheered, the candidates waved their miniature American flags, and I wondered inwardly what was left of the homes of the immigrants from Iraq and Syria.

“Each has demonstrated his or her knowledge and understanding of the histories and the principles and the form of government of the United States,” Adams noted. How many native-born citizens could claim as much?

After we all said the Pledge of Allegiance, the candidates raised their right hands and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. It starts with “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” and ends with “so help me God.”

It also commits new citizens to perform a few tasks I have never been asked to put on my to-do list, like “perform work of national importance under civilian direction.” I’m good for it, America… but can it not be this weekend?

USCIS district director Sarah Taylor announced, “Congratulations, you are America’s newest citizens!”, and another round of cheers and flag-waving broke out. It got a little dusty in the room at that point.

Then all 57 new citizens walked across the stage to get their certificates of naturalization–a college-diploma sized document including a picture of the new citizen. This part could have been a college graduation, except that while some of my new fellow citizens were dressed in suits, others were attired as if they had ducked out of work. And they had waited longer. And, yes, the pronunciations of many people’s names got clobbered in the readout.

The first person to get a certificate, a man wearing his military uniform, paused a moment to give that document a kiss. Everybody posed with theirs for a quick picture. The last one put her hands in the air and said “I’m so excited!” We all were. I still am.

 

Weekly output: Mobile World Congress, cross-country skiing, SIM cards

One of these things is not like the others.

2/25/2014: Why Some of 2014’s Most Intriguing Gadgets Will Never Reach American Stores, Yahoo Tech

My Mobile World Congress report represents a sequel to the post I wrote for the Disruptive Competition Project from last year’s MWC, except I’m now more optimistic about the market for unlocked, unsubsidized phones. Even if a lot of people in the media still can’t grasp how to compare unsubsidized and subsidized prices.

Medium cross-country skiing post2/26/2014: Ski(d) Marks, The Magazine on Medium

I’d been meaning to write something for The Magazine’s outpost on Medium–in part because I like writing for that outfit, in part because I wanted to try the editing interface I’d heard so much about without writing for free. This essay about the joys and trials of cross-country skiing in the city–something I originally thought I’d write here–turned out to be that opportunity.

3/2/2014: It’s not so SIM-ple to trim a SIM card, but here’s how, USA Today

A reader asked a while back about whether she could pop the micro-SIM from a work-issued iPhone 4S into her own iPhone 5’s nano-SIM slot. I decided to wait to answer it until MWC, so I could see how much traction the nano-SIM was getting in the market. Answer: not much.

Sulia was all about MWC this week: my impressions of Nokia’s don’t-call-it Android X phones, a recap of the debut of the privacy-optimized Blackphone, how Samsung’s new Galaxy S 5 gets a little closer to the stock Android interface, an inspection of a $25 smartphone prototype running Firefox OS, why the developers of a phone version of the Ubuntu version of Linux think carriers will like it, and an update on the cordless-charging standards battle.

After the jump, a Flickr slideshow from the show and its surroundings.

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