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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."

People who don't live like this aren't all miserable. Photo by cfinke.

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and Amy Gardner, confuse the two concepts as the article slides back and forth between news reporting and repeating outdated anti-urban cliches.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—a brick-lined plaza with a fountain and some benches centered between new apartment buildings.
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.

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"—an antiquated cliche from a bygone era if there ever was one—they actually describe neighborhoods that are far from actually walkable. Kings Park is just as full of single-family homes and no transit as other neighborhoods. I'm not very familiar with that neighborhood in particular, but it's many inner-ring suburban neighborhoods that have become run-down, not the walkable urban areas that are experiencing such a renaissance. And just because a few mothers who frequent the racquet club in Burke won't go somewhere doesn't mean it's actually a bad place.

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.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Your bit about the entitled whining journalist is wearing thin. I know we can all do better than an editor at the Washington Post, but at the end of the day they have their jobs and they are not going to listen to you.

The teardown of that article was priceless, though. What a waste of paper. Yes, Fairfax needs more money for its secondary roads. But "Fairfax as a city" is just a fantasy of a deranged Sharon Bulova's mind. What is broken in Fairfax is large landowners and developers realize they can't get any more money for their properties unless they build up, and they want $10 billion for things like the Silver line to do it. What is needed for transit in fairfax is better commuter rails, buses and commuter parking lots -- as well as better maintained secondary roads. Most of my friends in Burke take the commuter rail into DC and love it.

Of course, none of that exists in that mishmash of stereotypes.

by charlie on Jul 6, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

Excellent critique, David.

I read that Post article hoping to just learn why a Virginia county would want to become a city, and the article couldn't even deliver that most vital piece of information. The Post gave some vague references to taxes and road building, but failed to explain why, say, Arlington County didn't become a City decades ago if it were such a great idea.

It also would have been nice if the Post had interviewed a few people from the very real, very pre-existing City of Fairfax (est. 1961) and found out what those folks thought about their County neighbors' plans!

by tom veil on Jul 6, 2009 1:03 pm • linkreport

What a ridiculous article. The assumptions about blight being somehow the exclusive reserve of urban areas and dense development were particullarly aggravating.

I have to say that at this point new blight is a distinctly suburban problem. Thank you very much, but in DC our run-down areas have already reached full decay, and many are already turning the corner and getting better.

by Daniel on Jul 6, 2009 1:06 pm • linkreport

@charlie: I don't think a Fairfax city-county merger is a total figment of anyone's imagination. It's happened several times before in Virginia's history, most notably with the merger of Virginia Beach with Princess Anne County.

Of course, that was nearly fifty years ago, and much has changed since then, including a moratorium on city expansion. Although I don't know whether that moratorium is on particular jurisdictions or would apply to Fairfax as well. So I suppose we'll have to see if anything actually comes of it.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 6, 2009 1:51 pm • linkreport

So far, Fairfax has been fortunate to escape many of the downsides of urbanization.

What downsides of urbanization has Fairfax exactly escaped?

Congestion? Ever noticed that the congested parts of I-95, I-495, I-66, US-1, US-50, VA-267 and VA-7 are all in Fairfax County? (I'm sure I forgot a few)

Car dependency? Try getting from Burke to Downtown DC, or just Dulles without a car.

Neighborhoods cut through by highways? Got that.

Crime? It's not nearly SE yet, but it's going up, and gangs are expanding.

Massive house price drops? Nup, got that too.

Utterly wasted land? Got that too. Just check the US-1 corridor.

Ok, on the other hand, Fairfax does have things that other places don't. Presidential homes, a National Park, an large airport, a good amount of local, regional and state parks etc. But those are not related to urbanization.

by Jasper on Jul 6, 2009 2:06 pm • linkreport

Your critique is right on. I read that article yesterday and was absolutely disgusted with how they stereotype urban dwellers. If anything, I feel smarter to have one car that my wife and I share and barely drive, a bus route right in front of my house, a peaceful 30 minute commute on the red line to work, and a pool and city "country club" of my own right down the street. Who wants to live like pampered Burkians anyway!? How boring!

by Alex on Jul 6, 2009 2:07 pm • linkreport

The writers tried to compensate for their bias by tossing in a few mentions about plans to densify Tysons and other places, but it certainly fell flat in the objectivity department. These plans were presented less as opportunities, and more as something ominous on the horizon. "Many Policymakers and planners believe Fairfax has no choice but to ..." As if to warn the blissful suburbanites to brace themselves for a fight.

And you're right that no attempt was made whatsoever to connect the dots of cause and effect between congestion and driving.

by Another Daniel on Jul 6, 2009 2:10 pm • linkreport

Wow what complete and utter dreck.

When I read crap like that I always ask myself "are they looking at a different Northern Virginia than me?" The homes out there are the most fugly assortment of depressing POS vinyl-sided brick boxes. If you want to go on about the glories of living in some Philly Main Line suburb or a place like Wellesley, Mass., I'll at least grant that you've got a pretty attractive setting on your side. But Fairfax? Are you kidding me?

by Reid on Jul 6, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport

"Try getting from Burke to Downtown DC...without a car"

From Swim and Racquet Club in Burke, VA
Walk .5 miles to VRE 43min to L'Enfant Plaza

From Kings Park:
17L to Pentagon Station, 30min ride (via WMATA)

by RJ on Jul 6, 2009 2:47 pm • linkreport

I can see how some may consider sections of Richmond Highway (route 1) and parts of Route 7 near Alexandria as blighted. However these areas are far from urban and are more representative of suburban blight.

by Joshua Davis on Jul 6, 2009 3:05 pm • linkreport

More dinosaurs who don't get that it's not 1957 or '67 anymore. Just sad. Meanwhile, we've got 2009 problems that 1967 solutions will only make worse.

by Cavan on Jul 6, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

I can see how some may consider sections of Richmond Highway (route 1) and parts of Route 7 near Alexandria as blighted. However these areas are far from urban and are more representative of suburban blight.

I think you have a good point. Perhaps what they mean by "urban" is that no-man's-land of a FAR ratio of .3 to .8. Too dense for a drivable suburb, but not dense enough for a walkable urban village. A FAR smack in the middle of that range truly is blight.

It still reflects a sheltered suburban mindset to equate the worst form of suburbia (say, Bailey's Crossroad) with a city, but I think once you sweep away the dreck, we probably agree on some things.

by Reid on Jul 6, 2009 3:33 pm • linkreport

@Alex, I'm with you. I was especially struck by the article's mention of - horrors! - shopping and services actually built in to a development.

I mean, I live Del Ray, which is not the densest place by ANY stretch of the imagination. But here's the thing: I like the neighborhood with its cottages, local shops, big yards, etc. I realize it could easily hold many thousands more people than it does, and so there's a premium on the price of living there. I'm happy to pay it.

On the other hand, I'm in the biggest apt building in the neighborhood. What sold me? The fact that there's practically no reason to leave the place, except to work! 4 restaurants, a video store, a market, a dry-cleaner, etc. I catch the bus / Metro to my job near the Capitol, or I bike (to the Metro - my kingdom for infill station at P.Yard! - or all the way to the office). I use my bike or my feet to go to the grocery store, and patronize local businesses like the hardware store down the street, instead of going to Home Depot in the car. One surmises Somashekhar and Gardner would call all that convenience nothing but a blight.

So yes, I have a car, but it's rarely driven. On average, I'll use it a couple of times a month. I use it primarily to get to my parents' houses. One lives in rural New York (I pretty much have to drive there, there's no getting from the nearest train station to the house without a car), and the other lives in - you guessed it - Fairfax County! To be exact: one of those subdivisions on the western edge, from the 1980s. The family has not one, not two, not three, but FOUR automobiles! [/rant]

by ajw_93 on Jul 6, 2009 4:16 pm • linkreport

@ RJ: VRE and 17L only work if you travel between 5 and 8 am. And three times in the afternoon. And never in the weekend. That's not decent service.

@ ranters at suburban folks: It is not a hell out there. You may choose to live elsewhere, but not everybody is the same. You are ranting here against an article from people who think suburban and think it's morally superior over an urban setting. But at the same time, you are answering that poor view with the equally poor view that urban is always better than suburban. Something which is equally invalid.

Yes, the balance is currently way too far towards suburban, but that does not mean that in a perfect world everybody lives in a urban area. There is a need for both. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Let's stay respectful.

by Jasper on Jul 6, 2009 4:33 pm • linkreport

The Post is done, stick a fork in it. I get all my news from blogs now.

by John Mitchell on Jul 6, 2009 4:36 pm • linkreport


You asked the question and the answer is clearly yes you can get from these places to DC without a car. My bus stop at the Pentagon used to be next to 17L and it was very popular.

by RJ on Jul 6, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

It also would have been nice if the Post had interviewed a few people from the very real, very pre-existing City of Fairfax (est. 1961) and found out what those folks thought about their County neighbors' plans!

They did:

by Juanita de Talmas on Jul 6, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

I get the impression that blight is code for black.

by shy on Jul 6, 2009 4:56 pm • linkreport

Blight does have a legal definition in some places (probably a federal one too, but I can't recall) relating to economic underperformance. However, that's not what's here. The received image of blight is just griminess - and good heavens, Delores, graffiti! So, even if a crappy-looking neighborhood is actually humming along with social stability and decent economic growth, it can be called "blighted" by people who don't want to examine the particulars of a situation.

by цarьchitect on Jul 6, 2009 5:13 pm • linkreport

David, sorry to ruin your theory of my "windshield perspective," but I am a pedestrian through and through. The closest things I have to a windshield are the handlebars on my bicycle. I dash across Pennsylvania Avenue and Dupont/Washington/Logan Circle with the best of 'em. The lead, as with all of the WBJ's coverage, was geared toward our subscribers, most of whom drive.

by Sarah on Jul 6, 2009 5:25 pm • linkreport

Lost in all this talk is the observation that parts of Fairfax Co. + Falls Church are far more diverse, ethnically/nationally, than anywhere in DC proper. I like to refer to Fairfax/Falls Church as "the Queens of the D.C. metro area." And I mean that both as a compliment and as a pejorative.

by Simon on Jul 6, 2009 5:40 pm • linkreport

@Daniel M. Laenker; the ban is specially directed at Fairfax county. That is why this is all a fantasy of Ms. Bulova.

by chARlie on Jul 6, 2009 6:00 pm • linkreport

Oh? I was under the impression that it was directed at the City of Norfolk. Or the City of Richmond. Or [insert municipal entity here]. I've been told all of these things, and I'd like to be able to sort through what's what.

by Daniel M. Laenker on Jul 6, 2009 7:08 pm • linkreport

It's stunning to me that they could suggest that the new apartment buildings in Merrifield are anything close to "blight". I lived by Gallows Road for eight years and frequently traveled past where those apartment buildings now stand.

These lazy reporters fail to realize that what was there before consisted of a run-down repair ship and cleaners in one building and a run-down truck rental across from it, both surrounded by parking lots. They were unaesthetic and unsafe. They were the very definition of blight.

Now there are full sidewalks and landscaping around them and all the way through to the Multiplex Cinema, which used to be treacherous to reach along that side street (Strawberry Lane). Somashekhar and Gardner are morons if they can't see that a safer walkable area is progress.

by Craig on Jul 6, 2009 8:09 pm • linkreport

@Daniel M. Laenker;

Richmond is already a city. Most of Tidewater was turned from counties into cities back in the 50s or 60s. That didn't work out so well. Here is the code section:

When it was written, only Fairfax County had the densities. Now there may be others.

Also check out the provisions of elections; do you really think the county board of supervisions is going to vote itself out if their 100K a year jobs?

by charlie on Jul 6, 2009 8:17 pm • linkreport

Fantastic critique, David. The part about Sun-Belt cities is especially ludicrous. If places like Tysons don't get made over, places like Burke will not be able to remain what they are today.

by Dave Murphy on Jul 7, 2009 1:16 am • linkreport

Charlie: my read on the code is that it isn't a vote of the county board. It's a vote of the voters that determines whether to consolidate (or in some recent cases...Clifton Forge and South consolidate the other way: going from independent city back to a regular town within a county).

by Froggie on Jul 7, 2009 7:05 am • linkreport

If anything, Burke could use some new mixed-development where some of its poorly aging strip malls sit. The Shoppers on Old Keene Mill / Shiplett is in desperate need of an upgrade. With a bus commuter lot next to it, it would be the perfect location for something with greater density and revamped retail.

Contrary to some of the comments on here, Burke is a pretty friendly transportation area - two VRE train stations, bus commuter lots, metro bus service, only 10-15 minutes by car to Franconia-Springfield metro, etc. Sure, it is mostly one giant cul-de-sac, but if you compare it, traffic-wise, and overall sprawl-wise, it's far less of a mess than places like Chantilly or Centerville. I truly hope that one day Clifton allows VRE to open up the station that was meant to be there, and that the Manassas VRE line reaches its full potential.

by Jbakerman on Jul 7, 2009 8:30 am • linkreport

@ RJ: No you can't. You can a few times during rush hours, and a few times randomly spread throughout the day. That does not constitute a decent connection. Does the beltway get closed during non-rush hours? Then why do bus routes?

by Jasper on Jul 7, 2009 10:44 am • linkreport


You bring up a lot of fair critiques. The article could have noted there are plenty of nice urban areas in this metro area (although I must say I think it's a stretch to call Ballston-Rosslyn urban as opposed to denser suburbia). However, I think you know what the authors meant. They meant people do not want Fairfax County to end up like Shaw, Anacostia, LeDetroit Park, et al. You know, basically anything east of Rock Creek Park that is not Dupont, Foggy Bottom, the downtown business center, Logan Circle, and Adams Morgan. And to be frank, for many residents of Fairfax County, even those areas (Dupont-Adams Morgan et al) would be too urban with too many homeless asking you for money and horrible schools. Even our President passed on sending his kids to Francis (which is in the well to do West End.)

by dc resident on Jul 8, 2009 1:18 pm • linkreport

The writers failed to mention that Burke is a dreadful, dreadful place full of failing strip malls with commercial developments that all close by 9pm, townhouse-filled neghborhoods that are largely rented by GMU students and recent graduates, and approximately 8,200 roads that are laid out in a manner that many scholars refer to as "really inconvenient."

City. County. Doesn't matter. Let's make choose some scattered urban centers (why stop at Tysons? - we have dozens of road-dependent nightmares - let's start with Seven Corners), construct some transit between them so that we have a nice spiderweb happening, and, if you don't want to live at the junctions, don't.

by Cory on Aug 28, 2009 12:31 pm • linkreport

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