“There’s nothing new in Reston,” Robert E. Simon used to say, which is a bit of a surprise, given that it was Simon who conjured the pioneering planned community out of his imagination and 7,000 acres of Fairfax County, Va., countryside — and named it after himself.
But Rebekah Wingert-Jabi says that’s how Simon felt. She’s the director of a new documentary, “Another Way of Living: The Story of Reston, VA,” screening Thursday at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival.
“It drove him crazy to hear the term ‘New Urbanism,’ ” Rebekah, 42, told me as we sat in a coffee shop in Reston Town Center. “[He’d say:] ‘There’s nothing new about it. We’ve had these great downtowns throughout America.’ ”
Simon’s family owned Carnegie Hall. After selling the New York City landmark, he chose to invest in a suburban community that wouldn’t look like a cookie-cutter Levittown. He was inspired by the Italian hill towns he’d visited in the 1930s after graduating from Harvard.
Key elements were what today we’d call “mixed use” — residences, businesses and cultural amenities close together — and the belief that a true community was more than a mere collection of houses. Reston was to have a communal mind-set that emphasized racial and financial inclusiveness. It was also to be a place where people could grow old.
Rebekah was in a good position to make the film. Her family moved to Reston in 1973 when she was 3 days old.
“My parents were very active in the civil rights movement,” she said. “They were part of a group in Philadelphia working and thinking about liberation theology.”
The whole group wanted to move to Reston to make a film about how Americans would react if Jesus came to the United States in the late 20th century.
That movie never panned out, but Rebekah’s family embraced the new town. Her mother was a social worker and then became active in the Reston Association. Her father worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Rebekah’s documentary does a good job of underscoring how weird many Virginians thought Reston would be. They anticipated — rightly — that the community would draw liberals into a relatively conservative area. Don’t forget that when Reston was founded, in 1964, interracial marriage was still against the law in Virginia.
“The [Reston] sales people talked about how other salespeople in the area would basically sell against Reston, because of its identity as an open community,” Rebekah said.
A common sales pitch for developments around Reston, she said, would be: You don’t know who your neighbor is in Reston. Here, you know exactly who your neighbor is.
“Restonians were called communists,” Rebekah said.
Such attitudes tended to bring Restonians together. “I think there was a sense that, ‘Yeah, we’re in an island in a way,’ but also there was a pride in that,” she said.
Of course, “Kumbaya” can take you only so far. Despite its utopian visions, marriages still ended in Reston, crime still accrued, teenagers still suffered from depression.
“There is reality here,” Rebekah said. “Even though it is suburbia, even though it is a planned community, it doesn’t eliminate human reality. That was almost reassuring to me, to consciously confront that. I am organic still. I may feel like Tupperware sometimes, but I’m actually organic.”
Robert Simon is the film’s central character. He was eventually pushed out of the project by investor Gulf Oil, but the development’s new owners kept pretty close to his master plan. And when Simon moved into a Reston high-rise in 1993, he was welcomed back as a visionary. Today’s Washingtonians can’t talk to the man who designed the capital city, Pierre L’Enfant, but until his death in September at 101, Restonians could chat with Simon during his daily ambles around Lake Anne.
When Rebekah was a teenager, her family moved to Oakton, Va., for what sounds like a very un-Restonian reason: so she could have a horse. (“I found it very depressing there,” she said. ) As an adult, she lived and worked on the West Bank, and her earlier films include one about unlikely allies in an East Jerusalem neighborhood. Now she’s back in Reston with her family, including 4-year-old daughter Hannah.
“She’s starting to live the Reston experience,” Rebekah said. That includes visiting Lake Anne, taking art classes and playing in the Town Center fountain.
“What I hope to tell her when she’s growing up is that we live in a place that has a history. I think that for me and my life, that’s been really important.”
“Another Way of Living: The Story of Reston, VA,” screens at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the National Building Museum as part of the D.C. Environmental Film Festival. The show is sold-out but there is walk in-registration based on availability. Tickets are $12. For information, visit dceff.org.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.