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Move over, ‘National Landing’ — Amazon HQ2’s neighborhood tries on ‘NaLa’

A National Landing economic association launched NaLa Beach Club in Arlington. (National Landing Business Improvement District)

At first, it showed up on freebie water bottles. Then it made its way onto rainbow shirts for Pride Month. In June, it popped up on Instagram as a hashtag, and in July, it was suddenly plastered on the surfboards and silver Airstream set up in a grassy patch of Arlington, declaring to the commuters, dog walkers and joggers strutting by that their neighborhood had earned a new nickname: NaLa.

Yes, “National Landing,” the term invented by local economic development officials to lure Amazon to Northern Virginia four years ago, is being shortened and SoHo-ized, whittled down to a two-syllable abbreviation that says everything, and nothing, all at once.

“NaLa?” asked Mohsin Abuholo, sitting on a bench near a faux lifeguard shack advertising the NaLa Beach Club on a recent humid evening. “I guess it’s a name for a female. Like Anala?”

“That must be a new thing they’re doing?” wondered Allison Gaul, 38, a lawyer walking her 10-year-old Dalmatian, Dotty, nearby. “I don’t know what the hell ‘NaLa’ means.”

“I had to try to figure that one out. I mean, sure, I guess,” said Johnathan Edwards, 40, who moved back to the area a year ago for his job at Amazon. “I’m not a big fan of it, to be honest.”

National Landing, the combined umbrella name for this set of Northern Virginia neighborhoods of Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard, was subject to plenty of confusion when it first debuted in 2018, with many longtime residents refusing to adopt a label they said felt like a corporate creation for Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Now, much like AdMo (Adams Morgan) and CoHi (Columbia Heights) before it, or NoMa (North of Massachusetts Avenue) before that, the area appears to be trying on the kind of shorthand that, depending on whom you ask, is synonymous with either peak yuppiness or a new kind of urban cool.

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Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, the executive director of the National Landing Business Improvement District, made it clear that “NaLa” was nothing more than an event series her organization was putting on this summer.

Besides the beach club, which invites neighbors to “close your eyes and enjoy this summer escape with your toes in the sand,” there is NaLa Fit, with outdoor barre and yoga classes, and NaLa Fridays at the Park, a weekly concert series featuring local musicians.

“It is more of a shorthand intended to be fun and punchy,” Sayegh Gabriel said. “There is no intention to introduce a new name for the neighborhood at all.”

But some others have also adopted the abbreviation: A dental office in Old Town Alexandria, officially outside the bounds of National Landing, has changed its name to NaLa Smiles, in part to attract some new Amazon workers as patients. (“It was a better abbreviation on boards and signage, and it sounds better,” said owner Hisham Barakat.)

Across social media, a few residents and small businesses have also begun using the shorthand for a rapidly changing area that is already seeing an influx of new apartment buildings, restaurants and corporate relocations.

“We have a lot of community pride and equity and social capital in the names that we have. So we’re really committed to keeping Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard in regular use, along with the umbrella name of National Landing,” Sayegh Gabriel added. “It is the destination we are building.”

That does not mean everyone else sees it the same way.

‘Cultural shorthand’

The logic behind “NaLa” is nothing new in the Washington area or beyond. As long as there have been neighborhoods, there have been portmanteaus meant to sell those neighborhoods and their potential trendiness.

“It is sort of a cultural shorthand,” said Jeffrey Parker, an urban sociologist at the University of New Orleans. “Places with this kind of name, this kind of nomenclature, are associated with certain types of amenities and certain types of commerce,” he said. “It is very silly, but it is branding. It is boosterism.”

One of the earliest examples in the United States, he said, is SoHo in New York. Once a deteriorating area, it was rebranded by city planners as they looked to rezone the neighborhood for the artists taking over its spacious lofts. It did not hurt that the new name evoked a hip part of London, and copycat versions followed across Lower Manhattan, such as Tribeca or FiDi (Financial District).

But more than half a century later, as New York real estate agents tried to peddle monikers like “SoHa” (South Harlem) and “SoBro” (the South Bronx) well outside downtown, some said it had gone too far. One lawmaker even proposed a bill that would punish brokers who used unofficial names to sell property.

The trend and the ensuing pile-on made it inside the Beltway not long after. “North of Massachusetts Avenue” was successfully rebranded “NoMa,” with a stop on the Red Line to seal the deal. Other attempts withered amid the blowback. Neither SoNYA (South of New York Avenue), the GaP (Georgia Avenue and Petworth), nor SoMo (Southern Adams Morgan) seemed to stick.

“This is something really easy to make fun of,” said Parker, the urban sociologist, but “people see something work once, and they latch onto it.”

A new identity

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the two-syllable craze has reached South Arlington, where this rapidly changing neighborhood has for the past four years been trying to sort out its identity and what it should be called.

After decades of being known as a kind of soulless concrete maze, the neighborhoods of Crystal City (named for a chandelier in the lobby of a local building) and Pentagon City (after the home of the military) were thrust into urban superstardom when Amazon announced in 2018 that it would be bringing its second headquarters here.

But when officials celebrated the neighborhood as National Landing, an umbrella term that also looped in part of Potomac Yard in Alexandria, the resounding reaction was: What? “Never heard of National Landing?” asked one local blog. “You’re not alone.”

Stephanie Landrum, who helped coin the term, tells its origin story: When economic development officials in Northern Virginia came together in 2017 to submit a joint bid for the second Amazon headquarters sweepstakes, the proposal was known as “Alexandria-Arlington.”

She and her colleagues put together a 285-page booklet extolling the virtues of this booming region to send to Amazon. Just before printing, they realized they needed something — anything — more compelling to label it.

“We literally spent so much time word-smithing everything about a vibrant connected community,” said Landrum, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, “that we kind of got to the last day and needed to make a decision.”

Crystal City? That was just one neighborhood. Potomac Landing? That did not stick. Landrum said she was texting her counterpart in Arlington, each with a celebratory glass of wine in hand, when they settled on National Landing.

The name, meant to evoke Reagan National Airport nearby as well as the long list of local transportation options, quickly became ubiquitous in the respective offices as they engaged in secret talks with Amazon over the following year. When they finally made the announcement, “we sort of forgot that the rest of the world did not know we had created this moniker,” Landrum said.

Still, local economic officials and developer JBG Smith embraced it, using the name more and more as the neighborhood began a physical and cultural transformation. Besides Amazon’s offices, the area is now home to Boeing’s new headquarters and, soon, Virginia Tech’s new graduate campus. There will be a new Yellow Line station in Potomac Yard (PoYa?), the first infill stop added to the Metro system in decades, and a pedestrian bridge connecting the airport with the rest of the neighborhood.

Sitting on a picnic table near the NaLa Beach Club, Robert Vainshtein, 36, broke into a chuckle when asked about the two new monikers.

“What is wrong with Crystal City?” asked Vainshtein, an Alexandria resident who commutes here for work. “It has been Crystal City forever. I don’t think people are going to get that off the bat.”

Across the table from him, Lauren Callahan, 27, said NaLa, let alone National Landing, has not clicked for her yet, either.

But the changes that have come with these names are hardly a bother. She is a fan of the free bananas that Amazon has been handing out near the infamous underground mall in Crystal City, she noted, and the iced coffee the local business group gives out weekly at the installation a few yards away.

“They are doing nice things for the area. It is a very trendy thing to do,” Callahan pointed out. “Maybe NaLa will catch on more than National Landing.”

“Yeah," Vainshtein objected, “but it’s made up."

“Well,” she asked, “what isn’t made up?”

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