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 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington may be Virginia’s least worthy Confederate memorial

Two years after racist violence in Charleston forced most of us to realize that the Confederate battle flag had long since decayed into a symbol of hate, racist violence in Charlottesville has hammered in the rest of that lesson: The same logic applies to statues, memorials and other public commemorations of the Confederacy that whitewash it as a noble but failed venture.

Arlington County exhibits less of this Lost Cause litter than most of Virginia, but one of our few examples may be the least worthy in the Commonwealth: our part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The name affixed to U.S. 1 from Interstate 395 to Alexandria and to State Route 110 from Rosslyn to I-395 has long been an embarrassing exercise in denial.

• The residents of what was then Alexandria County voted to stay with the Union by a 2-to-1 margin.

• Union troops promptly liberated the county at the start of the Civil War and turned much of it into an armed camp that saw no Confederate attacks; in the bargain, we got Fort Myer.

• Non-Virginian Jefferson Davis displayed neither battlefield genius nor courage during the war and was a lousy political leader. In an essay arguing for moving Confederate statues to museums and cemeteries, National Review editor Rich Lowry idly flicked Davis into the trash as “the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy.”

• This highway only got its name in the 1920s after a lobbying effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy–part of a larger effort to cement a narrative of white supremacy–that put forth Davis alongside Lincoln as “the two great leaders of the critical period of American history.”

• Lest we lose sight of the subtext here, the Confederacy started a war that cost the lives of 750,000-plus people and threatened to dismember the United States so its citizens could keep and abuse other human beings as property.

Arlington effectively backed away from this highway in 2004, when a reshuffling of Crystal City mailing addresses to match them with building entrances erased many Jefferson Davis Highway addresses–including the one of the apartment I shared with three friends after college. (For a while, Apple Maps was a dead-ender about this realignment.) Arlington also renamed a secondary road from “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” to “Long Bridge Drive”; FYI, the park later built next to the renovated street is great for plane- and train-spotting.

Renaming the highway itself, however, requires permission from Virginia’s General Assembly. The County Board put that among its 2016 legislative priorities, but our representatives in Richmond set that goal aside and wound up getting ignored on other issues.

The city of Alexandria, however, faces no such restriction and has started taking suggestions on what to call its portion of the road. And now, after Charlottesville, Arlington’s elected leaders seem more resolute.

Thursday, the County Board issued a statement solidly backing the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, with a softer endorsement of rechristening the county’s portion of Lee Highway. (I once saw Robert E. Lee in an entirely different category from Davis; I had read less at the time about his conduct and the greater cruelty of his troops.) Arlington’s school board, in turn, pledged to reconsider the name of Washington-Lee High School.

That leaves the General Assembly with a choice when it’s back in session, either in 2018 or in a special session that Governor McAuliffe could call sooner: Accept that the Confederacy’s losing effort doesn’t warrant a participation trophy for one of its weakest leaders on this stretch of concrete, or disgrace itself with racially-coded control-freakery. This is not an issue with many sides; there is one right side of history here, and Virginia had best place itself on it.