Arlington County and community-city-neighborhood-urban soul
"Heart Full of Soul" by The Yardbirds
Arlington is a suburb and a county, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. It's about 26 square miles--pretty small--and has about 220,000 residents and a bunch of conurbations, some somewhat "soulless" like Crystal City and Rosslyn, the national heralded smart growth example of the"Wilson Boulevard corridor" anchored by four Metrorail stations over a two mile length, many interesting neighborhoods, a well-run innovative government, and an engaged and active population.
Arlington and the City of Alexandria that abuts it were once part of the original 100 square mile "District of Columbia," but were retroceded back to Virginia in 1846 (too bad, if they hadn't , DC would have 1 million residents and we would be a lot less concerned about commercial and residential leakage to the suburbs).
Arlington is home to National Airport, the Pentagon and a lot of government agencies, centered around two major office districts--Crystal City and Rosslyn--convenient to DC and marketed that way against DC.
The Wilson Boulevard corridor is memorable because of how the county decided to locate the Metrorail there, underground, rather than within the media of I-66, and the decision to intensify development in the corridor to complement and leverage the subway service, while simultaneously preserving the residential districts just outside, and north and south of the corridor.
Arlington called "soulless." A couple weeks ago, Senator Kristin Gillabrand caused some controversy when she wrote in her memoir that she moved from Arlington County, Virginia to DC because it lacks soul. Ben Adler piled on ("Kirsten Gillibrand shouldn’t apologize. Arlington really is ‘soulless’," Post; "How to give a community a soul," Grist Magazine), agreeing that by comparison to DC neighborhoods like Georgetown, it's true, DC has ineffable qualities of "soul" and "character" while Arlington doesn't.
I think that's an ill-considered argument on a number of dimensions.
1. There is no question that places like the Rosslyn and Crystal City office districts are uncongenial, but Arlington as a place to live and a place to engage is much more than the bad architecture and superblocks of those districts.
2. Yes, many DC neighborhoods are older and have "better architecture" and aren't focused on automobility, although architectural superiority is a matter of opinion for people who prefer the Colonial Revival style that typifies much of Arlington.
DC's Bloomingdale neighborhood, 1st St. NW.
There is no question that DC has many more distinct and older neighborhoods than Arlington, and great swathes of historic rowhouse architecture that Arlington, unlike Alexandria, doesn't realliy have.
3. Community is the sum of architecture, people and connections and organizations. There is no question that DC's rowhouse building stock gives the city a very particular visual identity, but if "community" or "soul" is the nexus of the built environment and the people who inhabit it, Arlington is more than the content of its architecture and arguably, DC may add up to less than the content of its architecture and people.
Architectural character isn't enough to build "soul" and DC is losing a great deal of its soul or community as the city de-emphasizes the importance of neighborhood elementary schools--which are the basic building block of neighborhood identity and cause neighbors to meet--and as new residents move into the city in large part out of the attraction to historic architecture but with limited commitment to participation in neighborhood and civic affairs and community building activities.
Civic society and participation can be pretty weak in DC, although neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, Georgetown, and Takoma (although more the Maryland side) stick out for the variety of neighborhood-serving organizations, activities, and sense of community. Neighborhood elementary schools are an essential building block in most of these places.
By contrast, the Arlington County Fair is also a place where most of the county's government agencies exhibit, and even the County Manager spends some time in County Manager booth, talking with residents and answering their questions.
4. Both Arlington and DC have some cool commercial districts and night-time destinations, and while the scale of places might be different between the two communities, Arlington holds its own with establishments like Clarendon Ballroom, Iota Cafe, Whitlows, Continental Pool Lounge and the Lost Dog Cafe.
Frankly, I'd rather have a branch of Lost Dog Cafe in Takoma than Republic, the ostensibly seafood restaurant from Jeff Black.
There is incredible vitality and street energy in the Wilson Boulevard corridor, and many great neighborhoods across the count
5. Not only does Arlington have some awesome neighborhoods, it is also small enough so that many residents get involved in civic activities and pushing forward innovative practices, such as the County's focus on sustainability and energy planning, and a great deal of civic engagement.
For example, I have always been struck by how Arlington County Board members do things like lead community walks, and how the Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment community group leads environmental initiatives and helps push the county forward towards enacting and achieving a more progressive environmental agenda than surrounding jurisdictions.
Conclusion. There's plenty of reasons to consider living in Arlington--other than the fact that the State of Virginia has some wacked politics and that the political structure is set up to advantage the rural areas over urban areas like Northern Virginia.