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Postcards From the Edge City

Tysons Corner in 1956, a quiet stop at the junction of Routes 7 and 123. (By Homer Heller, Courtesy Fairfax County Public Library)


By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 1999; Page A1

Another in a biweekly series of stories about the people and events that shaped Washington in the 20th century.

The aging veterans of the Tysons Corner revolution remember it in slow motion, "like watching the leaves turn in the fall," as Til Hazel puts it.

Oh sure, there were some historic moments, says Hazel. Back in 1961, for example, when developer Gerry Halpin decided to launch the first major office building in Tysons before the asphalt was dry on the Beltway there.

But not even John Tilghman "Til" Hazel Jr. who in the last 40 years has done more to shape the Washington area than anybody since Pierre L'Enfant guessed that Tysons would become the largest urban core between Washington and Atlanta. He was astounded to see it rise up with more of everything from white-collar jobs to cloth-napkin restaurants than downtown Miami.

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When future historians search for the hinge in time when places like Tysons became the new standard form of urban place, they might look to a quiet moment in September 1976, when Gail Feagles joined Hazel's Fairfax law firm. She ultimately became its first female partner. Soon after arriving, she became involved in transforming an old gravel pit into an unprecedented office-hotel-mall-road complex. It was known as Tysons II.

Feagles, of course, sees herself as nothing special. She's no Joan of Arc. She's only 47, hardly crazy about being labeled historic. Nonetheless, she was at the crest of that moment in which women, in unprecedented numbers, moved out of the kitchen and into the work force.

It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of that revolution the often-quiet, sometimes unseen power of millions of individual decisions. When America's women changed almost everything about how they lived, worked, shopped, socialized, played, prayed and died, places like Tysons Corner became inevitable.

Living on the Edge

The tall office buildings and hotels that mark Tysons Corner today represent only the most striking local example of a worldwide upheaval in which 19th-century downtowns have been overshadowed by enormous white-collar job centers that until recently were considered suburbs. Dictionaries now define these places as "edge cities." Examples include Silicon Valley in California and the Route 128 technology corridor in Massachusetts.

There are now almost 200 edge cities in the United States, each bigger than downtown Memphis. Fewer than 50 downtowns match their size. In the Washington area, 16 edge cities rise the densest concentration in the world. You know them when you see them. Those offices on either side of the Dulles Access Road that's Reston, fulfilling all the functions of a city, even if it still has neither a mayor nor a city council. More edge cities: Those enormous biotech centers off I-270 in Montgomery County, the high-rises in Prince George's County near Redskins Stadium, and the trendy singles area of Wilson Boulevard amid the offices of Rosslyn-Ballston.

These are no longer suburbs because at 9 in the morning, people no longer leave them, but rather head toward them to go to work. They have all the functions a city ever had. They are not sub-anything.

Tysons, though, is the one that first made us realize something new was on the march.

As recently as the '40s, Tysons was a nondescript intersection of two little farm-to-market byways Leesburg Pike and Chain Bridge Road. It didn't even sport a traffic light. There was an orchard and a little store remembered simply as "the beer joint." One of Tysons' earliest real estate speculators, Frank Kimball, started buying up property in 1959 only after he failed to persuade his employer, the Marriott Corp., to view the place as a credible location for a hamburger stand. Too far out.

But the world was moving.

First, Americans moved their homes out past the 19th-century definition of "city," to Leave-It-to-Beaver bedroom suburbia. Powered by the automobile and mass production of the single-family detached house, Fairfax County tripled in population from 1950 to 1960.

These baby boom-driven suburbs were the "realm of women," as scholars call them. William H. White, in "The Organization Man," referred in 1956 to the world of cul-de-sacs as "sororities with kids."

The second wave of the revolution the malling of America came in the '60s, when an important urban function the provisioning of our worldly goods moved close to the realm of women. In 1968, Tysons Corner Center opened as the nation's largest single-level mall. And in 1976, with the arrival of Bloomingdale's, it surpassed the old downtown as the region's center of consumer sophistication.

The third and most important change came when Americans started moving high quality white-collar jobs, the means of creating wealth, out to where they lived and shopped. Places like Tysons could no longer be ignored.

The first corporations didn't mean much to most people back in the '70s. They were dissed as "Beltway bandits," defense and intelligence systems integrators, sucking up federal dollars, creating nothing you could measure in tons like steel or corn. How important could "knowledge workers" possibly be? So important, it turned out, that Tysons became the incubator for the high-tech boom of Northern Virginia's Netplex, the emblem of which is America Online. The bulk of the world's Internet traffic to this day goes through Northern Virginia's edge city buildings.

The Unusual Law Firm

"Where I landed in history was clearly right at the turning point," Feagles recalls. "I was a small-town girl who never dreamed of being a lawyer."

Gail Feagles, nee Winter, was born in 1951 in Warrenton, Mo., in the hills 70 miles west of St. Louis. This was so long ago that a place near her home called Chesterfield then just farms is today an edge city roughly comparable to the Fair Oaks/Fair Lakes area.

"I headed off to the University of Missouri in 1969 expecting to be a French professor," Feagles recalls. Even that was ambitious. She remembers most women thinking about being nurses or junior high teachers. "But senior year, I thought about becoming a lawyer," and without realizing the significance of what she was doing, she sat for the LSATs.

She remembers vividly the humiliation of seeming like "a fluff head" the day she arrived at Duke Law School. She locked herself out of her apartment, and because there were no other female law students around, she turned to one Prentiss Feagles, the man to whom she is still married.

In the fall of '75, the two looked for places to work. They ended up in Washington, even though Gail Feagles was adamant that she "didn't want to be a quote Washington lawyer like in a regulatory firm. I had clerked at a traditional firm in St. Louis and I wanted to work in, like, a normal law firm."

"Normal" has rarely been used to describe the 15-person firm called Hazel, Beckhorn and Hanes Til Hazel's firm.

Hazel who started as a young lawyer in the late '50s condemning property for the Virginia side of a poorly understood road called the Beltway was by the '70s a force of nature, smashing one attempt after another to limit Northern Virginia's explosive growth. Hazel never lost a zoning case before the Virginia Supreme Court.

When the Feagles looked for a place to live, they ended up in Fairfax City, near her firm. That is still a choice that shapes our world. It is an article of faith in real estate that people try to live as close as possible to the job of the spouse who does the evening cooking. Therefore, to build a profitable office building, you usually put it as close as possible to the home of the female wage-earner.

Leaving the Kitchen Behind

Cities, ultimately, follow people. Tysons is no different.

The first wave of settlers in the 'burbs was driven by the unprecedented surge of prosperity and childbirth that started in 1947. Women evolved into a mass of job seekers in 1960, when the first prescriptions for The Pill became available. As women took control of reproduction, the number of births in America would drop dramatically, bottoming in 1977.

When motherhood became a choice, the world of careers became an option.

In 1963, in the wake of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and the successes of the civil rights movement, women staked their claim. The peak year in American history for women walking out of the kitchen and into the paid work force was 1978. By 1980, the number of women in the workplace had, in 20 years, doubled to 44.9 million, on its way to over 63 million today.

Women began to think they could be lawyers instead of French teachers; doctors instead of nurses; engineers instead of secretaries.

Earle Williams remembers how the shift hit Tysons. He was the head of the Beltway Bandit firm BDM International. "There was no bright flash," he recalls, like, "Hey, you know, there are a lot of bright women coming in here."

But the supply of talented women engineers, computer scientists, managers was blossoming. "Women tended to be higher motivated, better educated," he recalls. "From 1972 to 1987, we grew at an annual average rate of 29 percent. We were hurting for people. You could get some really bright women, and you didn't have to pay them any more. Suddenly, there was this reservoir of talent."

This entry of women into high-end work had unexpected consequences. The number of cars doubled from 1970 to 1987, while the human population increased only incrementally.

In the '50s, not that many women knew how to drive. They took the bus downtown to shop. Few households had two cars. Today, more American households have four cars than have none, and more have three cars than have one.

When women work as they do in the Washington area in a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world they no longer have time to be chauffeurs. So teenage kids get cars, too.

The result is places like Tysons. In the late '70s, developers realized they could rack up astounding profits if they built downtown-quality office space, bringing high-end jobs to what was once the "realm of women," where the schools were good and the neighborhoods safe. Especially because they offered "abundant free parking."

'Like a Small Town'

Gail Feagles' first memories of Tysons are not of office buildings. Tysons for her meant department stores Woodies and Hecht's. And the car dealerships, such as JKJ Chevrolet, where she got her brand-new 1977 Chevy Malibu. Because working women needed cars.

In 1980, the Feagles left their town house near George Mason University and moved into that paragon, the single-family detached home. Talk about your Holy Grail: The subdivision was called Camelot and their four-bedroom, three-bath house was on King Arthur Drive.

Seven years later, her firm by then merged into a giant called Hazel and Thomas moved into a grand building in the edge city of Merrifield, at Route 50, just minutes from Feagles' home.

By then, Feagles had contributed a decade of legal work to the transformation of Tysons. Tysons II was not just a high-end mall with office buildings. Tysons II was also a Ritz-Carlton Hotel, giving Tysons a center of quality that upstaged the car dealerships.

Most important, Tysons II created an internal system of roads including the celebrated three-lane left onto Route 123 that fueled an eruption of office buildings. Today, the imposing skyline at Tysons houses 115,000 white-collar jobs.

Times continued to change, though. In 1984, Feagles had her first child, a boy. In 1986, her daughter was born. The '80s became the era of the supermom, those pioneers who combined job and home in new ways.

Feagles is retired now, the mother of teenagers. She still shops at Tysons especially at Borders Books. "I still have an emotional connection," she says with a laugh.

But her first choice for shopping today is not a mall. She prefers a little place called Potomac Village, with an Italian restaurant, Renato's, and for special occasions, Flaps, with its fabulous crab cakes. You can't buy major appliances or office supplies or a car there, but there's a Vie de France, a Gap, hair salons, banks, grocery stores.

Again, Feagles is on the leading edge. Tysons continues to grow. But newer edge cities are giving it competition, part of a movement called the "New Urbanism." The centerpieces of these places are walkable cores like Reston Town Center. Now such a center for civilization and identity is planned between Tysons I and Tysons II.

What does a little place like Potomac Village have that Tysons does not? "It feels like a small town," Feagles says. "It's hard to go into the Safeway or Giant without routinely running into two or three people I know. I guess it gives you a sense of community."

For Feagles, community means "a way to contribute; we all really want to make a difference." In this way, she continues to be a pioneer, seeking ways to come together with other people. But as the emblematic foot soldier in the history of the development of Tysons, she has already made a difference.

Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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