When I lived in the Washington, DC area, Arlington’s Crystal City was not a place where I’d spend my free time. After all, the thin strip of corporate offices and street side eateries offered very little by way of the “authentic” experience in DC. Crystal City was a place near the airport, where the hotel chains lined the main drag, the restaurants were a sampling of every place USA, and the apartments housed Senators and Representatives who’d bed there just to keep close enough to the airport so they could dash off. Crystal City was a company town–housing Department of Defense and other governmental offices, providing a labyrythine underground to keep denizens connected from office to shops to apartment. Some people could go days without ever leaving the stale air of sealed towers, tunnels and throughways.
Yet in the past few years, as housing becomes more and more expensive in the DC area, the once waystation convention land has become a bit more vibrant since my last visit. While you won’t strain to find the Green Mermaid or a “Chik’in” sandwich from the national chains, you will also find local restauranteurs have opened sister stores on this side of the Potomac, offering some of the best and trendiest DC dinner places to Northern Virginia.
My most recent trip back to the region found me snowed into my hotel, unable to meet with my company and clients due to another “polar vortex.” I found myself stranded in Crystal City, and reliant upon whatever good cheer I could find. And of all the times in the areas recent history, to be stuck in Crystal City in 2014 was not the worst thing that could happen to me.
The area is one of many “unincorporated” business districts found in Arlington, Virginia–the expansive corporate answer to Greco-Roman Washington’s gallery of temples. Arlington is the business end of the nation’s capital, where contracting firms have snuggled up against the edges of the Pentagon for warmth and fat federal contracts. (Bureaucrats call these folks “Beltway Bandits.” They prefer to be called “Parkway Patriots.”). Crystal City was developed to be a “downtown” of sorts for the area, on the Metrorail system, near National Airport and the Pentagon.
Planned utopia aside, The very name of “Crystal City” is enigmatic. In a town of marble and limestone, having a corner of glass and steel seems refreshingly 20th century. While the creators of Crystal City claimed to have come up with the name in their own right, DC history buffs will know that it was Frank Lloyd Wright who proposed building a “Crystal City” north of DuPont Circle in 1940. His concept included a vast hotel/residential/commercial expanse that would have had commanding views of downtown DC, but was never realized. (The Hilton in DuPont now sits where FLLW wanted to put his shining city on a hill). What came after Wright’s vision was in name only, as Crystal City would rise out of the abandoned rail yards along the Potomac, far from the iconic DC buildings, and far less grand in design.
What spawned this revival was not goodwill and a sense of civic altruism. The Congressional “Base Realignment and Closure Commission,” or BRAC, was charged with reducing the Department of Defense presence in communities around the country, to reflect the change in warfare and preparedness from the old fort system of WWII to the modern military. And so, Crystal City lost its largest occupant, the Department of Defense. Faced with a glut of empty office space, the Crystal City owners got creative, and called for a grand plan to make Crystal City a residential community with complete redevelopment. Local pundits panned the proposal as “Crystal Pity”–an impossible dream. Yet two years on, Crystal City is renewing, and well.
The recent business improvements to the Crystal City core have attracted a gallery of some of my favorite DC eats–Gallery Place’s Jaleo for Spanish tapas, Spike Mendelsohn’s “Good Stuff Eatery” and “We the Pizza.” Upscale chains, like Bar Louie and Ted’s Steakhouse sit alongside smaller fare, like BW-3’s. And, if you tire of Starbucks, there is an Illy coffeehouse in the new Renaissance hotel. Culture through the Synetic Theatre brings modern spin to Shakespeare’s classics. These businesses arrived not to cater to the conventioneer or business road warrior–who traditionally crave the foods and hotels they know. The arrival of foodie favorites in the region proves that Crystal City has moved from being the banal everyconventioncenterland to a growing community. Over six thousand people call this area home now, and over 60,000 work there. It is a a small town that’s developing a culture against the granite and glass boxes that define its space.
Now, I do not recommend spending three nights in Crystal City if you are new to DC. However, if you are looking for safe launching pad mere moments from downtown, and a refuge from the weather and bustle, Crystal City can shelter you.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crystal City Photo Credit: http://mopostal.tumblr.com/post/387653168/crystal-heights-mixed-use-development-proposal