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Suburbs With a Sense of Place and Purpose

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page VA03

Ralph Rosenbaum chose to live in Old Town Alexandria because there was just something about the feel of the place: the narrow streets, the town square, the brick and clapboard rowhouses pleasantly askew with age. And everywhere, there was a sense of history, as if the 18th-century town slept easily with the ghosts of its past.

The way Rosenbaum lives in Alexandria reminds him of the way he had lived in London, with the Old World feel of walking to work along narrow streets and shopping at the market for dinner on the way home. It reminds him as well of the small New Jersey town where he grew up, where the scale of the known world is manageable, where you know almost everybody. It just felt right.

The Latino Festival in June 2004 drew throngs to Arlandria, on the border between Arlington and Alexandria. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

Dennis Burr is different. He sought out one of the brand-new high-rise buildings in the urbanized Ballston corridor of Arlington when he went looking for a home. He loves that he doesn't have to sit in traffic to get anywhere, the way he did when he lived in Fairfax. He strolls along the boulevard and checks out the new specialty shops and restaurants, or wanders in the nature preserve behind his building or over to the library across the street. With a Metro stop literally at his front door, he easily can get anywhere he wants to go in a matter of minutes. And he doesn't have to shovel snow.

Arlington and Alexandria are at once close-in suburbs to the federal city in Washington and distinctive urban villages. In both, as in the best cities, there is some almost mystical combination of architecture, urban purpose and sense of place that appeals directly to the heart of those who live and work there. And in each, the place, the feel and the people are constantly changing.

Alexandria likes to think of itself as the cozy "City of Neighborhoods." Suburban Rosemont. Leafy, hilly Beverley Hills, where neighbors "ghost" each other's houses with surprise treats every Halloween and the "pit" park is packed with strollers most times of the day. Funky, artsy Del Ray. Arlandria, with authentic pupusas from Veronica's and day-long soccer games with salsa music blaring every weekend at the park off Four Mile Run, is inhabited by one of the largest concentrations of people from the Salvadoran region of Chirilagua outside El Salvador. Landmark, in the West End, is "apartmentland" to some, where immigrants from Ghana, Ethiopia and other African countries go to all-night prayer services every Friday and immigrants from Somalia treat the Starbuck's off Beauregard Street as if it were a cafe in the heart of Mogadishu. And then there is Old Town, with its roots as a Scottish mercantile town of shipping and tobacco, a city that employs six archaeologists to help it uncover its past, a place where even the dirt speaks.

Tourists, 1.5 million of them, come every year to see where George Washington addressed his Revolutionary War troops on the steps of Gadsby's Tavern. They come to see the narrowest house in the country: a little blue slip of a thing seven feet wide. They come to look at the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee, whose 4-year-old ghost is said to play pranks in the garden. They come to gawk at the Confederate statue on Washington Street -- the one with his head hung in shame and his back turned to the north. They come to see where young black freedman Benjamin Banneker helped survey the boundaries of the new capital city. And they come to see what remains of the slave pens on Duke Street, once owned by the largest slave trading company in the South.

What they haven't come to see -- not yet, anyway -- is the patch of land where a Mobil gas station now sits, just above the massive turmoil of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction, where an estimated 1,800 former slaves, considered "contraband" of war, were buried in the 1860s. "It was completely forgotten," said city historian Michael Miller. "It was not one of our finest hours." Soon, however, because of Miller and the city archeologists who are paid to remember, the gas station will be gone and a memorial park will be erected.

"There is a sense of place here," said Rosenbaum, the urban planner for the city. "Del Ray is a place. Old Town is a place. You have a feeling of being part of something, rather than being in a cul-de-sac or a high-rise that doesn't particularly relate to anything else." These are communities.

Just to the north, Arlington was once considered the "country" outside Alexandria. Even into the 1940s, most of the land was pretty, rolling pastures and quiet farms. But World War II, the building of the Pentagon and the expansion of the federal government quickly brought a massive building boom. The county is split by both Route 50 and Interstate 66, which, for some, has created a division between wealthier North Arlington and the South Arlington of more apartments and affordable housing -- itself becoming a relative scarcity as property values have shot up 70 percent in the last three years.

Here, civic associations rule, said Burr, who heads the Ballston-Virginia Square Civic Association. "We play a very big role," he said. Everything is done "The Arlington Way," which means each group gets to have its say on an issue and proudly talks it nearly to death before moving forward. That's just what they did when everyone agreed to plans to build small-scale Manhattan-style high-rise condominiums with shops and restaurants lining the streets along the Metro route -- but only if each stop somehow retained its unique character. Witness the Clarendon Alliance's motto: "Keeping Clarendon weird."

So much of what the county and citizens are trying to do is to avoid what happened with Rosslyn, where a city of office parks rose. True, from the buildings' top floors, the views of the lazy bend of the Potomac and the bright white monuments of Washington are dazzling. But planners were dismayed by the dead space every evening when all the workers emptied out, leaving a monumental ghost town. They wanted life in these urban spaces. They wanted to create places where people could feel at home. Still, planners envision Rosslyn in the future as a city of soaring skyscrapers.

Now, Arlington, like Alexandria, is one of the densest urban environments in the nation.

Who chooses to live in Alexandria and Arlington, and why? The numbers tell a story. These days, both are havens for young, middle-aged singles and professionals -- and their dogs. In each community, fully 40 percent of the residents live alone, nearly twice the national average. In each place, fewer than one-fifth of the residents have children younger than 18, which may help explain why the school populations in both systems have been slowly shrinking.

People tend not to stay long in either place. For many, their roots are shallow. In Alexandria, 48 percent of the people living there in 2000 had arrived in the last five years. In Arlington, the number was 43 percent. "That's almost half. We're a very transitory area," said Lisa Fowler, a demographic planner for Arlington County who lives in Alexandria's Old Town. "A lot of people want to blame that on the new high-rise buildings. But that number hasn't changed since the census in 1970."

Housing stock has a lot to do with the movement of people. In both Arlington and Alexandria, rental units make up 60 percent of the housing.

The people in both communities are, on the whole, well-paid. Both Alexandria and Arlington are among the top 20 jurisdictions with the highest median incomes in the nation. A majority of the residents are registered Democrats. Federal workers live in Arlington and Alexandria, as do lawyers, lobbyists, government contractors, doctors, financial workers, shopkeepers, characters and quirky aunts, newcomer yuppies and lifelong residents, refugees settled by the Arlington Refugee Center and a new wave of immigrants who work in construction and service jobs.

The places that had once known diversity only in black and white have in the last decade become meccas for people from around the globe. In Alexandria, one-fourth of the population was born in a foreign country. In Arlington, 60 languages are spoken by children in the schools. Escuela Bolivia is a Saturday school overflowing each weekend with new American families who do not want their children to forget where they came from.

Author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: "Between the traditional and the new, or between order and adventure, there is no real opposition; and what we call tradition today is a knit work of centuries of adventure." In Alexandria and Arlington, places steeped in memory and the constant churn of reinvention, the adventure continues.

Brigid Schulte is a reporter on the Post's Metro staff. She can be reached at 703-518-3029 or via e-mail at schulteb@washpost.com.

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