Suburban stereotypes pollute Post, WBJ reporting
Journalists writing "news" stories strive to make their articles impartial, but hidden biases about suburbs, cities, traffic and transportation often creep in. The Washington Business Journal, for example, reported on the Eastern Market Metro Plaza proposals, and explained the options in a straightforward manner. Yet the first sentence reads, "In case Dupont, Washington, and Logan Circles don't have you in enough of a driving tizzy, Eastern Market may add yet another traffic roundabout to D.C.'s mix."
Why are "you" necessarily driving through the area? This is a classic example of Entitled Driving Journalist Syndrome, where a reporter most likely drives from place to place, and sees issues from a "windshield perspective." Why doesn't the lede read, "If dashing across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Eastern Market Metro station has you in a enough of a walking tizzy ..."?
This week's grand prize for most knee-jerk anti-urban writing goes to the Washington Post, for Sunday's article on Fairfax County considering incorporating as a city. That plan would only change the county's legal status and relationship with Richmond, not any land-use policies. But the reporters, Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner, confuse the two concepts as the article slides back and forth between news reporting and repeating outdated anti-urban cliches.
The bias creeps in right at the start, which juxtaposes suburbs "where Washington goes to walk the dog and water the lawn" with something "many have tried to avoid: high-rise offices, blight, crime and housing that's more likely to have a balcony than a back yard." Most of our urban places, especially in Fairfax, are far from "blighted." And since when does all of "Washington" go to suburbs to walk the dog? Do Somashekhar and Gardner not consider the dog-owners with balconies part of Washington? Like the Business Journal article, this piece hinges on the unspoken assumption that suburban, car-oriented life is "real" living, and those people in Capitol Hill or Arlington are outliers.
A few paragraphs later, the reporters launch into another bout of rhetorical question editorializing: "What does Fairfax want to be? A giant urban expanse like many new Sun Belt cities? Or more of a residential suburb, with a handful of urbanized pockets sprinkled in?" Sun Belt cities are about the farthest thing from "a giant urban expanse." They're more like, well, Fairfax.
The article goes on to mention how more "Arlington County-style urban villages" are "quickly claiming the skylines," adding that "The Route 1 corridor and other pockets are increasingly marked by blight," though the reporters don't bother to define or explain this blight. Perhaps they consider any building taller than two stories to be "blight": in the next paragraph, they refer to "Fairfax's still-shining suburban glory," at a Swim and Racquet Club in Burke, VA, where a mother decries the loss of trees and her rising taxes.
While calling Tysons a "behemoth," Somashekhar and Gardner don't seem to realize that the growth in these denser pockets is largely what's keeping the Burke mother's taxes low, just as Arlington's strategy of concentrating development along commercial corridors allowed the county to increase its tax base significantly without developing many single-family neighborhoods. Also, as in Arlington, there's no reason that density in Merrifield and Route 1 means that suddenly Burke will turn into some kind of "blighted" "behemoth" itself. There are no plans to bulldoze the racquet clubs in Burke's "suburban bliss."
This is the fundamental error of the article, and much criticism of development; as with transit vs. driving, it's not black-and-white. Not all places in the county must look the same. If some people like Burke, Fairfax can and will continue to have places like Burke. But it can also have urban, walkable places too for those who like them. From their writing, it appears Somashekhar and Gardner can't conceive that people might be happy in a dense environment.
Holden and others probably would be quite unhappy if they ventured about 10 miles north to Merrifield. There, two sleek new five-story apartment buildings rise from a weedy parking lot. The bottom floor of one building is taken up by restaurants, a jewelry store and a tailor. The sound of nearby traffic roars as workers in scrubs from the nearby hospital brush past women with strollers and groups of young men. It was in Merrifield that county leaders celebrated their newest "park" last month—What's with the "scare quotes" around "park"? A public space can't be a park if it has some benches between apartment buildings? Somashekhar and Gardner fill their description with loaded language, like calling the parking lot "weed-filled" and talking about traffic "roaring" past. Even the retail "takes up" the ground floors of the buildings, as though places to eat and get clothes altered were somehow spoiling the place.
a brick-lined plaza with a fountain and some benches centered between new apartment buildings.
The reporters do interview one area resident, who unsurprisingly is very pleased with the "awesome, vibrant" nature of the area, and quote an expert who argues that on its current course, Fairfax will only face more sprawl and more traffic. But then, they mistakenly tie these very hazards not to the low-density land use patterns of Fairfax's past, but the denser plans of Tysons.
Politicians, planners and nervous neighbors are acutely aware of the perils of building up: more traffic if commuting patterns don't change; higher taxes to pay for the massive foundation of infrastructure that must be built; and, eventually, blight if Fairfax's new urban spaces or overall economy don't thrive. So far, Fairfax has been fortunate to escape many of the downsides of urbanization.Ah, that "blight" again, which continues to have no context, and that not-so-subtle insinuation that urbanization is mostly downsides. Actually, building a denser Tysons has the best chance to reduce traffic, by adding opportunities for people to live near their jobs instead of driving long distances, or to ride Metro. And they've got the infrastructure issue exactly backwards. Infrastructure in a dense area is cheaper, not more expensive.
The one typically urban issue Fairfax is grappling with is neighborhood blight. Old neighborhoods such as Kings Park along Braddock Road or Huntington along Route 1 have been struggling with decline. Unkempt rented homes and falling property values dot these landscapes. Some areas, such as the partly vacant mall in downtown Springfield, have developed such an unsavory reputation that several of the mothers in Burke said they do not allow their teenage children to go there.Finally, Somashekhar and Gardner get around to talking about blight, though, except for calling it a "typically urban issue"—
As we're seeing from Detroit and so many other Rust Belt cities, it's our nation's overbuilding of single-family homes, far outstripping demand, that's causing high vacancy rates in many areas. It's also a consequence of national policies that pushed families to buy houses they couldn't afford. And finally, press "articles" that romanticize the picket-fence suburb while pooh-poohing urban neighborhoods only feed the problem.
The high rents in walkable parts of Arlington prove that many people do want to live in such areas. The only obstacle isn't crime or "blight," but the black-and-white mindset of people like Somashekhar and Gardner, who refer near the end of the article to "the stereotype of the gritty metropolis."
Merriam-Webster calls a stereotype "a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment." It's too bad that Somashekhar and Gardner can call something a stereotype, but write 1,300 words about the topic without ever examining their own prejudices, and have that bias completely sail over the head of their editor.
- Think you know Metro? It's whichWMATA week 61
- Help us rebrand and relaunch our website with a short survey
- Metro's inefficient info displays worsen crowding
- Prince George's County could move its government closer to more residents
- What we hope to do on housing
- Lousiana Avenue could get a protected bikeway
- This map shows which parts of the DC area are really "urban" and "suburban"