The way elbows are flying between suburbs and city these days, you'd think the two were locked in a fight to the finish, a war that only one style of living could survive. The suburbs and the District battle for retailers, office tenants, concert headliners and the Montreal Expos.
But this is no zero-sum game: Despite the insults flying to and fro over the Potomac -- "You can't get there from here!" "We never set foot there!" -- we are witnessing both a renaissance of downtown Washington and a blooming of suburban culture. The two locales compete, but what's happening right now is a simultaneous decentralization of how we live and a return to the core. The only real limit on the success of both places is our ability to get where we're going.
Washington appears to have won the bitter battle between suburbanites who want baseball in Loudoun County and city types who want the game downtown. Virginians snarled that no right-thinking suburban family would risk life and limb to take in a night game in the urban jungle. The city responded with one-liners about how Loudoun is the moral equivalent of Iowa. D.C. Council member Jack Evans maturely threatened that if Virginia won the Expos, the city wouldn't let the team use RFK Stadium as an interim home, nyah-nyah.
On a higher plane, the acrobats of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian blend of circus and theater, last week moved their act from McLean to Washington because, as Cirque's marketing director, Andre Cote, put it, "Ours is a high-end product, and it's important to be close to the core, where things are happening."
Let's all be very quiet and not tell the nice Canadians that the parking lots outside RFK are not exactly Wisconsin and M on a Saturday night.
Cirque first visited Washington in 1988, pitching its tents on the Mall -- but the show was a nonprofit back then. When it dropped that status, it lost the right to use National Park land. So the show -- which will draw more than 100,000 people to about 50 performances -- moved to a big empty lot next to Tysons Galleria mall. Crowds were good. Everyone was happy.
But at Cirque's Montreal headquarters, the search for an urban site continued. Last year, Mayor Anthony Williams offered a big lot in the downtown core -- the site of the old convention center, which was supposed to have been razed by now.
Except that this is Washington and the site is caught up in -- place your bets -- years, decades or centuries of bureaucratic wrangling, so there's no place to stage a circus. Thus, RFK.
Cote says Cirque has found that urban sites attract both city and suburban dwellers, while suburban locations draw from a smaller pool. The District is thrilled to snare an attraction "to get tourists off the Mall and keep them in the city at night," says city spokesman Chris Bender.
The opposite idea motivated the planners of Strathmore, the concert hall about to open in North Bethesda. The Baltimore Symphony, like most orchestras, struggles to find subscribers at its downtown venue. So, why not chase music fans to where they live -- in this case, in affluent Montgomery County? On the theory that after a long day, commuters are loath to get back in the car for another slog downtown, Montgomery is spending $90 million for a concert hall -- just as Prince George's has its Smith Center at the University of Maryland and Fairfax has its Center for the Arts at George Mason.
Who's right? The Baltimore Symphony or Cirque du Soleil? Both, of course. There is a panache and prestige to being downtown -- baseball owners nationwide have learned that, theaters and nightclubs have capitalized on it and retailers who fled cities after the 1960s riots are rediscovering it.
And there is an ease and convenience to the burbs -- as retailers, football teams and movie theater chains have long known.
One-way traffic is a thing of the past; the PM backup coming into the city on I-66 is as bad as the outbound congestion. People will go just about anywhere -- if they can get there.
Despite Cirque's romanticized view of the city's appeal, the circus will succeed in town. Both Strathmore and the Kennedy Center will thrive.
But some things best fit one kind of setting. Malls -- a planned destination -- belong in the suburbs. Baseball -- an after-work drop-in -- does best in the city. This week, the gods and Peter Angelos willing, that should come clear.