Three-quarters of a century ago the young British poet Rupert Brooke came to North America for a tour of the United States and Canada. At Ottawa, which he greatly liked, he paused to remark that "the Canadians, like the Americans, chose to have for their capital a city which did not lead in population or in wealth." He meant it as a compliment.
It is one that may still apply to Ottawa, but most certainly no longer does to Washington. Though this city ranks below the nation's major manufacturing and commercial centers in population and wealth, it is growing rapidly and inexorably. It is, as a couple of developments last week all too painfully reminded us, a giant octopus, its tentacles reaching out ever farther to grasp and then to destroy the surrounding countryside.
"Developments" is indeed the word for last week's events. One was the announcement by a Virginia land developer and a national shopping-mall builder that they will join forces to construct a 600-acre residential, retail and office complex -- including a 1.2 million-square-foot shopping center -- in Prince William County, hard by the Manassas National Battlefield Park. The other was an announcement by Xerox Realty that it will build a 2,267-acre project in Loudoun County, on the banks of Goose Creek, containing office buildings, a conference center and a golf course; the office buildings will be constructed by the Linpro Co. of Philadelphia and the conference center by VMS Realty Partners of Chicago. All participants in both endeavors no doubt will profit handsomely, if not royally.
The announcements were made on Jan. 28, which in future years we might wish to celebrate as a local if not national holiday, except that in metropolitan Washington specifically and the United States generally, every day is Developers' Day. In the making of modern America, the man on horseback is not a president or an industrialist or a financier; he is a developer, astride not a horse but a bulldozer, his hard hat glistening under the sun as he moves the earth for yet another vast steel-and-glass edifice perched atop amber waves of asphalt.
It happens every day, so why get excited about last week's news? After all, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., which is to build the mall in Prince William County, has so many malls hither and yon around the country that it probably has lost count of them: What's another, even if it's 1.2 million -- count 'em -- square feet, every one of them tucked into a little nook immediately southwest of the Manassas National Battlefield Park? Isn't that what they fought for at Manassas: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Reeboks?
Isn't it entirely appropriate that the Manassas Battlefield, one of the few pieces of land in America to which the word "hallowed" applies without reservation, should have a shopping mall in its future? One could scarcely ask for a more singularly apt American metaphor: Adjacent to the ethereally beautiful wooded countryside on which thousands of Americans died during two terrible battles in the war to preserve the Union, we shall in good time have a 1.2 million- square-foot emporium dedicated to the display and merchandising of Swatch, Seiko and Sting, not to mention 1.7 million square feet of office space and 560 new houses, surely to be occupied by the privileged few.
Small wonder that they're walking on air in Prince William County; as a county supervisor put it, "It excites me in the sense that we're no longer going to stand in the shadow of Fairfax County" -- and Fairfax, with Fair Oaks shopping center and other vulgarities, casts a mighty long shadow. No, Prince William is coming out on its own now, dragging itself and its treasured battlefield -- well, let's make it once-treasured -- squarely into the late 20th century and all its manifest glories.
How greater those glories are than the ones that came to pass at Manassas a century and a quarter ago! The first battle of Bull Run was, after all, a mere travesty. The War Between the States had begun at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and now, three months later, Union and Confederate forces met for their first major engagement on the fields that soon will bask in DeBartolo's reflected splendor. Washington confidently expected a rout and, in its aftermath, a war of 90 days' duration, but as so often happens, Washington was wrong. The Rebs had a surprise in store for the congressmen, journalists and assorted hangers-on who gathered to cheer the victory: Thomas J. Jackson stood "like a stone wall," and the Yanks were sent reeling back to the capital. The Union knew, after Bull Run, that it was in for a real war.
The point was brought home again 13 months later at what the historians call the Second Battle of Bull Run but what we, in our more elevated usage, may wish to designate "Bull Run II" or "Bull Run: The Movie." Once again the Union, with the Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac in position, was cocky; once again the Confederacy, this time under Jackson and Lee, outmaneuvered the Union's forces and erased all the gains it had made in Northern Virginia in the previous year. It would be three long years, in which the energies of both North and South would be strained to the fullest, before the conflict would end.
But what's all that? It's history, and history ... well, let's quote the patron saint of American entrepreneurialism exactly as he said it: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history we make today." Henry Ford would have been right at home in Prince William County last week, applauding the instant history that DeBartolo and its collaborator, Hazel/Peterson Cos., are in the process of making.
Of course not everybody in Prince William County is quite as enthusiastic about the prospective William Center and its attendant structures as are the developers and the county supervisor. One resident of the area complained that "we've been deceived" because the project initially had been represented as an office and residential complex with no shopping center attached, and another said: "It would destroy western Prince William and it would destroy the battlefield. How long do you think this rural area could survive the influx of all those people who would come with a mall? ... We'll fight it with everything we've got."
But madam, right though certainly you are, your "everything" is nothing. Not merely has the deck been stacked against you by the Board of County Supervisors, which clearly is hand in glove with the developers, but the tide of history -- real history, not Henry Ford's kind -- is against you, too. The United States belongs not to the people but to those with the cash and the clout, and in the postwar era those lucky few are the developers; there's not much land left in these parts, and those who control it, control us, too. Does a shopping center beside the battlefield today mean a theme park inside it tomorrow? Don't bet against it.