The development of a changing and global northern Virginia

Alongside the rise of Washington, D.C. as an American center, the suburbs of northern Virginia have expanded and evolved:

One such non-DC-centered book was published in 2013 by the scholar Andrew Friedman. “Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia” stands out as a serious application of academic history and landscape studies about the Dulles Corridor. It just may be the first 21st-century attempt to mold a critical perspective on Northern Virginia…

The book is built on Friedman’s understanding that “there is no American place that’s not also a global place.” He establishes a dichotomy between the “Overt Capital” of Washington, where the Capitol dome represents the public sphere, and the “Covert Capital” of the Dulles Corridor, where the CIA and Pentagon manage their operations in relative privacy. As Friedman examines how foreign policy and foreign interventions shaped the domestic landscape, he locates the cross-border flows of material and people that have made our region what it is today…

For Friedman, the history of the Dulles Corridor begins with the construction of the Pentagon in the 1940s, followed a decade later by the CIA headquarters. These buildings took advantage of car-oriented development to gain a new kind of hiddenness, obscured behind forests and parking lots. A drive through Langley can reveal nothing about what takes place behind the agency’s doors.

Friedman sees the seven years since his book was published as the beginning of a “third generation” in the development of the Dulles Corridor. It’s no longer characterized by leisurely semi-rural landscapes nor by McMansions, but by “lifestyle centers” and “placemaking,” as in the Mosaic District or The Boro. These centers, Friedman says, are in danger of becoming “fortified cells… reinventing the ‘urban’ into subdivisions, compartmentalized, buy-in-based.” Rather than creating an inclusive environment, he worries that lifestyle centers will only create a new form of “landscapes of denial.”

On one hand, this like the development of Sunbelt suburbs after World War Two. With defense spending, the spread of highways, and sprawling suburbs, this could describe any number of regions from D.C. to southern California. Over time, communities developed and became part of a global system: new immigration flows starting in the late 1960s brought new people, multiple generations of people lived in the new communities, and suburbs began to differentiate themselves. On the other hand, few places have the CIA and Pentagon – defense spending in suburbs could run the gamut from aircraft plants to military bases to government offices. And individual communities and regions have their own particular histories that affect local development character.

More broadly, looking at regional development – not just at cities – is a worthwhile endeavor. Major cities, like Washington, D.C., cannot be separated from their suburbs and vice versa. Considering the variation within a region versus connections between particular parts of the region and other parts of the United States is fun. Tyson’s Corner, cited above would be a good example: is it more like edge cities or northern Virginia. And what lessons could northern Virginia provide for the rest of the country about what to do or not to do?

Cantor’s victorious opponent, an economics professor, to face off against Democrat sociologist professor

The academic disciplines of sociology and economics don’t always get along so it will be interesting to watch an economics and sociology professor square off in Virginia’s 7th district:

In sociology, education is often championed as the best path to a vibrant society—an idea Trammell clearly subscribes to. He is running on a platform of college access, student-loan forgiveness, and special-education reform. In 2012, Trammell published a book, The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. (More recently, he has planned to write a vampire novel.) Trammell’s ancestor, Thomas Trammell, was an indentured servant when he arrived in Fairfax in 1671.

Brat joined the faculty at Randolph-Macon in 1996 after receiving his Ph.D. in economics at American University. Since then, he’s taught classes on micro- and macroeconomics, public finance, and business ethics. And he coauthored a paper titled, “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand”. Back in January, Brat told the National Review that while he doesn’t consider himself a Randian, “he has been influenced by Atlas Shrugged and appreciates Rand’s case for human freedom and free markets.”…

The idea of a Republican economics professor facing off against a Democratic sociology professor presents a near-perfect microcosm of American political thought. What matters most in governance—the good of the market or the good of society? Should government serve to keep the free market as uninhibited as possible, or to impose checks on the market to protect citizens? Is education or entrepreneurship a more important path to individual and collective success? These are questions ripe for a Poli-Sci 101 discussion.

Perhaps a bit overstated (the next, and last, paragraph of the story goes on to tell who has the highest score at RateMyProfessor.com) but it sounds like the two have different perspectives on the world.  Given their disciplines, it could be easy to caricature the two sides without seeing what exactly the points of agreement and disagreement are between the two candidates. Is it easy to argue its education versus free markets or would voters generally support both? It is not immediately clear how much voters care much about this academic food fight –  both candidates are PhDs after all.

If you are curious, here are the demographics of Virginia’s 7th House District which skews Republican and more white, educated, and wealthy than American averages.

According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2010 data for the 111th Congress, the total population of the district is 757,917. Median age for the district is 39.2 years. 74.3% of the district is White, 17.1% Black, 3.9% Asian, 0.3% Native American or Alaskan, and 2.1% some other race with 4.9% Hispanic or Latino. Owner-occupied housing is 72.0% and renter-occupied housing is 28.0%. The median value of single-family owner-occupied homes is $188,400. 88.1% of the district population has at least a high school diploma, 36.7% at least a bachelor’s degree or higher. 9.9% of the district are civilian veterans. 12.7% are foreign born and 20.1% speak a language other than English at home. 9.9% are of disability status. 68.2% of the district is in the labor force, which consists of those 16 years and older. Mean travel time to work is 26.2 minutes. Median household income is $64,751. Per capita income is $33,628. 5.3% of the population account for families living below the poverty level, and 7.6% of individuals live below the poverty level.

So perhaps the sociologist, compared to an economist, starts at a disadvantage.

Lorton, Virginia illustrates the growing diversity across the US

The Washington Post takes a closer look at Lorton, Virginia, recently named as one of the most diverse communities in the United States, and discusses how Lorton illustrates broader trends:

Non-whites no longer stick out in a crowd. Lorton is one of the most diverse places in the entire country, according to a new study of census data by two sociologists from Pennsylvania State University. The 19,000 residents are roughly a third white and a third black, and there are significant numbers of Asians, Hispanics and multiracial residents…

What’s happened in Lorton is typical of a demographic sea change that is transforming the Washington area and much of the country. Non-Hispanic whites are a minority in a growing number of metropolitan areas, including Washington. Predominantly white neighborhoods are a relic of the past. New developments that appeal to young families are among the most diverse, drawing Hispanics and Asians who, on average, are much younger than the whites.

Although metropolitan areas are the most diverse, small towns and the countryside are also attracting more minorities. The Penn State researchers found that whites are the predominant group in barely one-third of all places of 1,000 residents or more, compared with two-thirds in 1980.

“Racial and ethnic diversity is no longer a vicarious experience for Americans,” said Barrett A. Lee, one of the study’s authors. “It used to be something that was recognized and debated at the national level. But now even residents of small towns and rural areas are coming face to face with people of different races or ethnicity in their daily lives, not just on the evening news.”

This is part of everyday life in many communities across the United States.

Would wealthy homeowners rather live in or next to a McMansion or modernist house?

A short look at a Great Falls, Virginia modernist house got me thinking: would the typical wealthy homeowner rather live next to a McMansion or a modernist home? Here is how this house is described on Curbed (and there are lots of pictures as well):

A wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C., Great Falls, Va. is better known for it’s sprawling McMansions than its modernist masterpieces, but this glassy new construction in the woods is adding to the town’s architectural street cred. Distinguished by stark white walls and huge expanses of glass, the sleek home was designed by architect David Jameson and won the 2011 Washington DC AIA Award of Excellence. Thanks to the broad swaths of glass, the modern house achieves a connection to nature that would evade one of NoVa’s typical Italianate McMansions. Worthy of special note is the courtyard, which utilizes a frameless glass railing.

So what makes this modernist house more attractive than a McMansion? Several reasons are given here:

1. It has “architectural street cred.” Namely, it was designed by a known architect and won an award.

2. It is better connected to nature than McMansions.

3. It is not an Italianate facsimile of which the articles suggests there are too many. This house is unique.

But I would be interested in knowing how many suburban residents would choose to live in or live near this modernist house versus choosing a McMansion. The modernist style is not common in the suburbs; unless this house is in a unique neighborhood or has a really big lot, it may stick out from surrounding houses. For the average suburbanite, do the looks of this structure really invoke feelings of home? Might this be of architectural interest but not somewhere people could imagine living?

A narrative about McMansions at the heart of the economic crisis

With an ongoing economic crisis and housing slump, there are plenty of stories about who has been hit the hardest. But one writer suggests that perhaps we can’t just simply say that those who were excessive in their consumption and purchased McMansions are the only ones affected:

With an ongoing economic crisis and housing slump, one target of blame is McMansion buyers. But one writer suggests the economic crisis affects more people than just those who consumed beyond their means:

The nation’s lingering housing foreclosure mess is too often about folks with McMansion-size aspirations and duplex paychecks, granite counter appetites and laminate budgets.

And when we hear that one of the nation’s hot spots for foreclosures is Prince William County, we nod knowingly, thinking of the vast tracts of huge new homes and the dreamers who drowned in them.

But the other day, I met some of the folks who lost their homes or are fighting with banks to try to keep them. And McMansion isn’t what comes to mind.

The rest of the story goes on to describe the stories of a few people who lived more modest lifestyles and yet have still fallen into housing issues.

I would be interested in seeing some figures about what kinds of homes or types of owners are those who have experienced the most foreclosures or mortgage difficulties. Is it really McMansion owners or others? We hear quite a bit about regional differences, such as high vacancy rates in Florida and high foreclosure rates in certain states or cities, but less about other factors.

In reading this one particular story, I wonder why people might be quick to jump on people like those who live in Prince William County (a wealthy county – this Wikipedia list has it as the 14th highest county in the country in terms of median household income). How much of this is a moral judgment leveled against McMansion owners and houses more broadly? With this housing crisis, it now looks like McMansions are also a bad economic deal, adding to the other issues that critics say McMansions have.

The problems in one of the best American communities, Falls Church, VA

Newspaper editorials or commentary that discuss how wonderful a particular community is can be interesting. I recall one humorous article about Naperville from the early 2000s that defended the community for “wanting the best.”

This editorial about Church Falls, VA moves from the positives to things that still need to change:

With the release of data by the U.S. Census Bureau, it is now official. As we reported in last week’s edition, the City of Falls Church is officially Number One in the entire U.S. of A. in the categories of median household income, and percentage of the adult population with college and post-graduate degrees.

These statistics don’t lie, although some could argue that degrees in political science and sociology aren’t of the same gravitas as physics or biology. But still, given that it’s lawful that political majors are more prominent here, given our proximity to the nation’s capital where almost everyone works, the puzzle is all the more pronounced.

It’s this: How can the smartest, most politically savvy, best-off people in the nation turn out barely a quarter of its registered adult population to vote in local elections?…

Then there is the issue of affordable housing and a serious commitment to diversifying the community, economically and socially. Clearly, being “well off” financially does not correlate with generosity. This City’s leadership has permitted embarrassing repudiations of these principles, in practice, and no one seems to mind.

Of course, the school system in Falls Church is second to none, but not without a ferocious struggle by administrators, teachers and staff to maintain it in the face of recent years’ funding scale backs, and if that process continues, something is going to give fairly soon.

Even as the schools’ quality is above reproach, however, the issue of the well-being of the students in it, operating as they do under enormous pressure to perform at a high level in academics, athletics and everything else…

If that’s the case, then it may be that a lot of people in Falls Church should be reassessing their priorities in life.

From the outside, it looks like a town filled with self-indulgent people who care for nothing but their home values, on the one hand, and their kids’ SAT and other test scores, on the other. And this, ladies and gentlemen, this is the crème de la crème of America.

Several quick thoughts about this editorial:

1. This editorial comes off as fairly negative. Do the majority of Falls Church residents agree with this assessment about things that need to change? Or is this newspaper arguing for more than the community would be willing to tackle?

2. Is the concern over these issues the mark of a well-educated, wealthy community? If these are the primary concerns and things like a lack of jobs, bad schools, crime, high taxes, and stretched local budgets are not really an issue, then this community is indeed in good shape.

3. The quip that “political science and sociology aren’t of the same gravitas as physics or biology” is intriguing. What exactly do they mean? People take biologists and physicists more seriously? They are seen to be doing “real science” versus interpretation or commentary? They make more money and therefore deserve more respect? And this comes from a newspaper that admits that political science degrees are more prominent due to its location near Washington, D.C.