Much has been made lately over the tremendous development here in the Washington area. From Tyson's Corner to Crystal City to Silver Spring and out beyond the Beltway, new commercial and "multi-use" centers are growing up. Local suburbanites, happy with their green grass and 10 neighbors to a block, are growing scared. There's even a name for the fear. It's called "Los Angelization" -- but it's wrong. I know, because like Ben Stein, the Hollywood producer ex- of Silver Spring who has sounded the alarm of "Los Angelization" on these pages, I have lived both in Washington and L.A.
The alarmists have chosen their buzzword well. No one really knows what "Los Angelization" means -- except that it must be something bad. What self-respecting Washingtonian wants his home "Los Angelized"? The term conjures up more than just a style of growth; it also conjures up an attitude. "Does this mean we'll have to act like them too?" the helpless wonder.
But all that "Los Angelization" really means is this: Just as the unification of some 80 towns -- each with its own heart -- growing out to meet one another created a single, heartless Los Angeles, Washington and the quickly growing "emerging cities" (14 at last count) are growing closer together -- into one. And this feeling, as in Los Angeles, grows more ominous as people learn to rely on cars in ways they hadn't before. As more and more people swing around the Beltway to get to their place of work or to shop, rather than taking the subway in, it just feels like the metro area is sprawling.
But though it may feel like sprawl, look around, it's not. It's a new kind of growth, maybe, but not a sprawl. Residential life here simply will not allow itself to "Los Angelize." Just what and how much the developers build is of little consequence because the suburbanites got to most of the land in between first. As long as residents want their neighborhoods suburban -- even if they alone cannot control the growth of their shopping districts -- they will have it thus.
In Los Angeles, residential areas grew up wherever people could find space between the towns; here the commercial centers grow, whether by plan or accident, wherever the developers can find space among the homes. Being there first gives the residents a big advantage; it lets them set the rules. So houses still stand at odd angles to one another, like teeth still unstraightened by the same braces of development that have forced almost all of residential Los Angeles into neatly aligned rectangles with just so much grass in the front yard and back.
Just look at "monstrously overdeveloped" Fairfax, which Time magazine recently dubbed a "megacounty." Look out from the top of one of those office buildings in Tyson's Corner. What do you see? Trees. The place is an island. Some lucky developer found an opening for his buildings. Proof of what I say is everywhere, even in the areas that have already been "ravaged"; much of the suburban feeling has been preserved. Ninety percent of what I see inside the Beltway seems almost rural compared to much of residential Los Angeles. Buses don't rush past your front door, you don't hear the honking of traffic jams from your bed at 11 at night.
A final thought: As long as Washington remains the nation's capital, this area will have a real heart. Washington lends it all a purpose. And the subway -- like a giant tether -- keeps the smaller developments from spinning off. L.A. has no such tether. So do yourselves a favor, control your development, but rest easy: L.A. East you'll never be.
Mark Gordon is a member of the editorial page staff.