Building the first draft of Paris in northern Virginia

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My conversation with Til Hazel took place, appropriately enough, in the parking lot of a brand new shopping center just off Highway 7 (the Harry Byrd Highway) in Loudoun County. I was there working on my column in this week’s Time about the staggering mass prosperity of Loudoun and neighboring Fairfax County, and while the column ended up focusing on the proximate source of that prosperity–your taxes–I was also very interested in just how the region had developed.

That’s partly because Mrs. Curious Capitalist is from the Fairfax County boomtown of Reston, but also because more than a decade ago I read a really great book, Joel Garreau‘s Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, that was all about how Fairfax and formerly suburban places like it around the country were becoming job centers to rival all but the biggest urban downtowns.

Garreau was (and is) a Washington Post reporter who had previously written The Nine Nations of North America. He was living on a farm in rural Fauquier County, Virginia, and noticing that it wasn’t so rural anymore. So he began investigating the horrible developers who were ruining the countryside.

“My plan was, quite seriously, to figure out who was doing this and send the bastards to jail,” Garreau said. That’s how he came to know John T. “Til” Hazel Jr., who as a lawyer for developers turned back the first wave of anti-growth activism in the region in the 1970s, then went on to great wealth and notoriety as a developer in his own right.

Garreau had expected Hazel to be the devil. “What he turned out to be was the last 19th century man–the last man standing who still believes change equals progress,” Garreau recalled. “What Til’s generation was doing was building the revenge for the Civil War. And they never wanted to be hungry again.”

So that’s why I was talking to Hazel. He was down in Florida on vacation; I was on my cell phone, sitting in a rented Ford Escape. “What has happened in our society, on both coasts, is that whenever there is prosperity there is an anti-people movement,” he said. “The last guy in doesn’t like the next guy coming in.”

What was different about northern Virginia was that it was, until World War II, mostly empty and far from prosperous. Post-Civil War enmity and the presence of a Potomac River that didn’t have many bridges across it meant that early suburban growth around the District of Columbia occurred almost entirely in Maryland.

Then came the war. The Pentagon was built in Arlington during it, and afterwards it became clear that Washington “was destined to be a world capital,” as Hazel put it, and needed room to grow. So it grew in Virginia. Within a couple of decades, some of the early suburban arrivals were fighting the sprawl, but Hazel shut them down with help from pro-growth state laws and a conservative judiciary.

“A lot of these suburbs want to stay suburbs,” Hazel said to me. “Our core group in Fairfax didn’t want to be thought of forever as a bedroom suburb to Washington.” In one sense, it no longer is: The week I visited northern Virginia, the Post ran a front-page story about a Labor Department report pointing out that Fairfax County had become a “job core” that rivals the District.

But Fairfax County certainly isn’t spoken of in the same tones as, say, Seattle or Denver–cities with about as much downtown office space as Tysons Corner, Fairfax’s main conglomeration of big buildings. And it shouldn’t be: It’s sprawling, it’s ugly, it has no significant cultural institutions other than Wolf Trap, it’s impossible to navigate without a car–and around rush hour it can seem impossible to navigate with a car.

Look at it as the first draft of a new kind of city, though, and it’s not so bad. “If I thought that this was the final version, I’d slash my throat,” said Garreau. In the plans for Tysons now are a Metrorail line, and much denser development. “There’s always a second building frenzy that’s quite different from the first one, with a whole new set of mistakes. About the seventh time you go through this boom and bust cycle, you end up with Paris or London.”

That wonderfully hopeful way of looking at things is one of the things that makes Garreau’s Edge City so compelling. I’m a Manhattan-dwelling urban snob, but ever since reading that book I’ve been a lot more understanding of why people end up in places like northern Virginia. The jobs are there, the housing is affordable, the schools are pretty good, and all that ugliness and chaos might just represent, in its own messy way, progress.