According to Sunday’s Washington Post, the Ballston area of Arlington County, our home from 1981 through 2004, “is a national model for ‘transit-oriented development’ — and it is now defining the debate over how to redevelop the Washington suburbs.”
Wow. Never knew we were part of a national trend as we watched the evolution of our neighborhood over 23 years.
We lived in a high rise condominium in Virginia Square for all of those 23 years in Arlington County. Tower Villas, as our home was called, stood as the only high rise or condo development in the area when we moved from Illinois to Washington in 1981. Today it is surrounded by luxury high rises and office complexes — a monument to urban density. It was, and is, a thriving, bustling community where we could walk to any of some 30 restaurants, buy groceries at four nearby stores or shop to our heart’s content at a mall, a “main street” retail development and hundreds of locally-owned stores.
We saw lots of change in our neighborhood over the years — some good, some bad. Many eyesores disappeared under the wrecking ball. So did some landmarks and local institutions. A Polish bakery, too many locally-owned stores and restaurants and too much open space vanished but Arlington planners managed to save a fair amount of park space. I could, if I wanted, walk from our home to the District of Columbia through a network of walkways and pedestrian overpasses. The Virginia Square subway stop provided rapid transit to most of the National Capital Region.
But the growth displaced much of “Little Saigon,” the Vietnamese community that brought good food to Clarendon. The yuppie eateries with their chrome and tofu just weren’t the same. Starbucks arrived like a plague of locusts, opening four of their overpriced java huts within walking distance. When we left the area in November 2004 the DC area had more Starbucks than any metro area of the country — including Seattle.
Gone by the time we left was The Company Inkwell, a tony eatery that was a favorite of Washington lobbyists when we arrived. So was Whitey’s a local landmark that the Washington Post once called “the best neighborhood bar” in the National Capital region.
Whenever my work took me out of town, which was often, I returned to find more and more change at a rapidly escalating pace. The construction crane, someone once said, had become the official bird of Northern Virginia. Although the Post story claims the growth in Ballston did not result in an increase in traffic, those of us who lived in the area disagree. The traffic became heavy and unbearable which, with other factors, led to our decision to leave the area and move to the sparseness of the country.
Many are attracted to the amenities of urban living and we, at times, miss the ability to run out and grab a bite to eat at midnight or order Chinese delivery in the wee hours. But the reduction in stress and not having to deal with traffic jams, the constant sounds of construction and sirens splitting the quiet of night more than offset.
For some, the Ballston area of Arlington County may be a “national model.” For us it became a motivation to get the hell out.