To the legions of motorists who pass by every day on their way to Washington and beyond, Crystal City is a thicket of high-rises that look about as inviting as rows of oversized filing cabinets.
The neighborhood’s best known shopping center? Stowed underground.
“There is no there there,” author Gertrude Stein once wrote of Oakland, Calif. But she could have been describing Amazon.com’s newest neighborhood in Northern Virginia, a labyrinth of soaring concrete and wide boulevards, a place where the phrase “pedestrian friendly” — not to mention pedestrians — is largely alien to the culture.
“It has some things, beautiful areas to hang out, even though there’s no one hanging out,” Reid Brown, 28, a mechanical engineer in his pajamas and sandals, said as he walked his mutt Molly on Tuesday. “You have to bring your own people.”
Across from Reagan National Airport, Crystal City is a short drive to downtown Washington, a place designed in the 1960s for legions of government bureaucrats and contractors.
“D-E-A-D” was how one Crystal City resident described the neighborhood’s nightlife to a reporter in 1969.
Not much has changed.
Indeed, the neighborhood’s reputation is sufficiently anemic that Amazon announced it is rebranding the area where it will build its hub “National Landing,” a change that aroused next to no protests from most local proprietors.
“Whatever Jeff Bezos wants is fine with me,” said Billy Bayne, owner of the Crystal City Restaurant Gentlemen’s Club, referring to Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos, who owns The Washington Post. “I’m just happy he’s here.”
Bayne was sipping coffee at the bar of the strip club his father opened in 1963, smiling as if he had just won the lottery.
“People have been calling all morning congratulating me,” he said. “This is huge for Crystal City.”
The area’s name was inspired by Robert Smith, the developer who built Crystal House, the neighborhood’s first apartment tower, and installed a crystal chandelier in the lobby. The flourish helped lead to future property names such as Crystal Plaza and Crystal Square, as well as prominent neighborhood boulevard Crystal Drive.
But any hint of majesty suggested by that brand far exceeded what was built, a collection of behemoths that are the visual equivalent of an earsplitting monotone.
“I always told my students, the only architectural theory that is eternally valid is ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time,’ ” said Roger K. Lewis, an architect and Washington Post columnist.
Many of Crystal City’s buildings, he said, were designed at a time when architects thought “buildings should express their function” and nothing more.
Style? Splendor? Grandeur?
“It represents a disregard for the public realm and the pedestrian environment,” Lewis said of Crystal City. “It was a place you didn’t see people walking around. It was a place almost no one went. Ask me to name a building in Crystal City that’s distinguished, and I couldn’t do it.”
Ben Tribbett, a political consultant who grew up in Northern Virginia, is more forgiving of the neighborhood, a place where he says he once even went on a date.
“I like the underground!” he said of the shopping center, recounting the happy meals he ate at Hamburger Hamlet, a restaurant that closed in 2014.
“It may not be a ‘crystal city’ — you think of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ — and it’s a bit underwhelming,” he said. But he added: “It’s underrated. It’s not as bad as it appears when you get there.”
Once known as “Jackson City,” a community named for President Andrew Jackson, the area became home to two Civil War forts before becoming a red-light district at the start of the 20th century. That ended when a freelancing morals squad known as the “Good Citizens League” burned it all to the ground.
An industrial wasteland replaced the brothels and gambling halls and remained until after the Cold War, when the Smith family set out to build offices for government agencies and apartments for bureaucrats. Until recently, the U.S. Patent Office was a major tenant.
Sam Gass, 60, grew up in the neighborhood and can remember his father, the owner of a construction company, hunting for deer on land where office towers now stand. “It was all fields and woods and, as kids, we were on our minibikes,” he said while drinking coffee at the Gentlemen’s Club.
It was midmorning — a bit before the dancing girls would start to perform — and he and restaurant owner Bayne, a childhood friend, were marveling at the changes they have witnessed in their hometown.
“You never like to see rural go to urban, but there are good things that go along with it, too,” Gass said.
Gass said his father’s company prospered from work it got building the roads and infrastructure that were required with Crystal City’s transformation in the 1960s and beyond. With Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) forcing agencies to leave Crystal City in recent years, the two friends are hoping that Amazon rejuvenates the neighborhood.
“Crystal City has been devastated,” Bayne said. “I used to be filled up during the day. No more. Maybe those days will come back.”
In recent years, Crystal City’s business leaders have sought to rebrand the area as a hip destination, hoping to draw young professionals priced out of the District and other areas.
Brown, the mechanical engineer, was among those who recently migrated to the area, not because of anything native to Crystal City but for its proximity to downtown Washington.
“It’s soulless, and there’s no nightlife,” he said. “But it’s a good launching pad, and you can get a nice place for reasonable money. They’re really trying to make it appealing to young people, saying there are so many cool things, even though there’s nothing.”
At the underground shopping center, Jack Levonian, 75, who has owned a photography store there since 1972, said he welcomes Amazon but would prefer that the company not tamper with the community’s identity.
“People say they live in ‘Crystal City’ — you know what they’re talking about,” he said. “Would they change the name ‘Rome?’ ”