So Close, Yet So Far Apart
Once Solidly Part of the South, the Old Dominion Now Encompasses a Widening Cultural Chasm

By Brigid Schulte and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Alexandria still has its Jefferson Davis Highway and Springfield its Robert E. Lee High School, but if last week's election showed anything, it's that Northern Virginia is not only different than the rest of the state, it is a different state. And it's no longer in the South.

That line now starts at the Rappahannock River, where things change -- the accents, the attitudes, the pace and a comfort with the way things are. It's what some historians call the new "grits line." To them, it's no surprise that the state's northernmost welcome center on Interstate 95 is in Fredericksburg.

State politics in Richmond is still controlled by leaders south of the Rappahannock. But as Northern Virginia continues to grow, both in population and influence, the profound difference between the two Virginias is likely to become not just an uneasy alliance but a full-blown identity crisis.

Already, the fault line runs deep.

Last Tuesday, Republican George Allen won by wide margins in 92 of the state's 134 localities but lost the race because Democrat James Webb swept the densely populated Washington suburbs. At the same time, Northern Virginians voted against the amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman, but the measure passed largely because people south of the Rappahannock voted overwhelmingly for it.

At Allen's concession speech, two supporters turned to each other in disgust. "That's it," said one. "I'm moving to South Carolina."

In interviews with dozens of Virginians on both sides of the divide, each saw the other part of the state almost as a foreign country, with an alien culture. "How come they have the bad accents and we talk fine?" asked Casey Childress, a waitress at the Pigs R Us Bar-B-Que in Collinsville, a small town near Martinsville and the North Carolina border.

That's something Dick Reed can't answer. Although Reed, an economist for the federal government has lived in Fairfax County for 40 years, he has never ventured across the border of Northern Virginia. Except once or twice to see Luray Caverns.

And neither side really "gets" the other.

"We don't have a lot of tolerance for people up there. But I think we've got more tolerance of y'all than y'all do of us," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Roanoke-based Democratic consultant who helped Mark R. Warner, Timothy M. Kaine and now Webb get what he calls "the Bubba vote." "There's a certain air of intellectual superiority up there that comes with stereotyping us as being hillbillies."

Frank Dodson, 67, a retired plumber from Page County in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley, was in Goochland Courthouse last week tending to some business. He has lived all his life in what he and Allen call the "real world of Virginia," a place he fears is slipping away because of the influence of the "newcomers" up north.

"They came for contracting or D.C. jobs," he said. "Many of us down here stayed farming, or stayed with our daddy's business, and we drink the same water as we always have."

Dodson said he isn't really angry about the changing state. Except for one thing. The way he thinks Northern Virginia folks misunderstand its complicated history. He is a Virginian who said he argued with his "daddy" about the state's policy of "massive resistance" to school integration. But he also admired the fiscal discipline of those same political leaders who got the state out of debt for the first time since the Civil War.

"So I see all of our history, and I like some of it and I don't like other parts. But those folks up in Northern Virginia probably think that I'm just some old redneck," he said. "Now some of us, yeah, we love our history. But those of us that might not like it, we accept it as part of who we are. That's the difference to me. You all up there hate it; we just accept it and try to move on."

Other states have rural-urban splits or regional differences: Upstate New York and cosmopolitan Manhattan, granola Northern California and airbrushed SoCal, Chicago and the rest of Illinois.

But in Virginia, the divide is more profound. The nation's major fault line between North and South, and all the uneasy history and ugly stereotyping that go along with that, runs right through it.

"It's as if you grafted South Carolina onto the suburbs of New Jersey," said Robert Lang, a demographer and director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. "This is a cultural divide that's on a national scale."

And many in Northern Virginia say they don't want any part of the other side of the divide. With only 20 percent of residents actually born there, many said they don't want to take on the burden of history that comes with identifying themselves as Virginians. And that extends to some natives.

Paige Grainger, a fundraiser for nonprofit groups, was born in Alexandria. Her mother was from Charlottesville. But, she explained to a group of working-mother friends gathered for a glass of red wine last week, she doesn't think of herself as a Virginian. The conservative bent of state politics is embarrassing, she said. And the recent passage of the ban on same-sex marriage makes her angry, especially because it passed on the day two gay friends bought a house on her street.

"I struggle a lot," she said. "When talking to people who don't know how different NoVa is, I don't say I'm from Virginia because I don't want them to think I'm in the South. That carries such baggage. That's not a part of me." In election years, especially, she finds herself saying, "I can't believe I live in a red state."

Wendy Moniz, an advertising executive who has lived with her husband and children in Alexandria for nine years, knows that feeling. "I don't live in the South. That makes me think of debutantes and gun racks," she said. "I grew up north of the Mason-Dixon line. I'm a Northerner. I can't be a Southerner. This can't be the South. No way." When people ask her where she's from, she never says Virginia. "I say I'm from the D.C. area."

The North-South divide is apparent in state politics. Conservatives from the southern part of the state control the General Assembly and show more disdain than empathy when they hear Northern Virginia's pleas for money to ease traffic congestion. Northern Virginia legislators complain about all the tax dollars the area sends to Richmond, never to be seen again.

"When I brought some downstate lawmakers to help me campaign last year, they couldn't believe what they saw: the traffic, $650,000 townhomes in my district," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "They just had no clue about what it's like to live up here."

The differences are visceral. Municipalities such as Alexandria have tried to pass gun-control laws or other measures and are reined in by the General Assembly, which maintains supreme authority.

Northern Virginia parents resent the notion that state universities will take only so many of their children to save spots for downstate students whose academic achievements might not be as high. And downstate folks who love the land and the lifestyle hate to see their children forced to move north to find jobs.

Over the years, some have proposed, tongue-in-cheek, to partition the state at the Rappahannock.

"They can go back across the Potomac and live in D.C. if they don't want to call themselves a Virginian," said Terrence Henry, a construction site manager eating lunch at Johnny Appleseed in New Market. "But I guess it goes the same way for us. We want to have the benefit of the jobs and some of the schools. But then we turn around and say . . . 'Oh, them liberals up in Northern Virginia, they just vote for everything Democrat.' And we shake our head. So I guess we both are kind of hypocrites."

Staff writers Fredrick Kunkle and Alec MacGillis and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company