A Love Letter to the Suburbs
The short, deliberate history of Reston, VA
Not long ago I got a quick, driven tour of “Town Center,” in Reston, Virginia. I was with my wife, her parents (who live in Reston), and her brother (who, like us, was visiting). I marveled at how thoroughly the area has been developed since my first visit, in the mid 1990s.
Reston Town Center isn’t an informal designation, but the specific name of a mixed-use development, laid out in familiar inner-city grid fashion. Office and residential buildings rise 10, 15, 18 stories; the street level is crowded with retail (Apple Store through Williams-Sonoma), and restaurants and watering holes with names like Il Fornaio, McCormick & Schmick’s, Uncle Julio’s, and World of Beer — mostly chains. That night, Town Center was bustling like a real … town center. As we tooled through these city-esque streets after an enjoyable Thai dinner, I asked from the back seat:
“So … where are the slums?”
This borderline-insolent remark was received, properly, with chuckles. But while I was merely making a joke, part of what makes this “town center” feel slightly uncanny is what’s not going to be found here. I was thinking about the reaction of a Manhattan-based colleague when I mentioned I’d be spending the weekend in Reston: “Enjoy the suburbs,” he replied. I got the point of this crack and so do you: From a Manhattanite’s point of view, there’s nothing remotely enjoyable about this category of place — precisely because there’s just something fake and incomplete about it.
But here’s the thing. Among those who take a dim view of the “suburbs” idea are … the people who founded and have shaped Reston, VA. This is something I learned about only recently. It changed the way I look at Reston, and my knee-jerk thinking about what the idea of “the suburbs” means.
The fact is, I do enjoy the suburbs. Or, at least, I am fascinated by them, because I am a suburb alien. I grew up in a very rural area. Then, at 18, I moved into a dorm at the University of Texas, in central Austin. I’ve lived in traditional urban settings ever since: mixed-use, mixed-income, highly walkable, Jane Jacobs-style serendipity-filled neighborhoods in Dallas, Brooklyn, Manhattan, New Orleans, Jersey City, and now Savannah, GA.
Obviously I’ve been to the suburbs. And although I get my colleague’s suburb-dismissing joke, I am aware that lots of people live in the burbs by choice, and report that they enjoy it. So I’m always curious to try to understand these places — as if I’m some kind of reverse tourist, pondering the most ubiquitous aspects of the lived American landscape as if they were exotic territory. Single-family homes on identical lots, clumps of chain restaurants and big-box stores with immense parking lots: fascinating!
But this is an idle pastime, and it wasn’t until this most recent visit to Reston that I understood that the place was not conceived as a “suburb” in the pop-culture sense of that word. In fact the intent was something like the opposite — a planned community, built from scratch on farmland west of Washington, D.C., that was meant to be almost a rebuke to the suburban idea.
How well that’s all worked out may be a matter of taste. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?
We choose to live where we live because of what we like, but also what we don’t like. So what is it I think I don’t like about Reston?
The cultural rap against the suburbs is familiar enough. But to quickly recap: Same-looking houses made of ticky-tacky, arranged on escapist tracts of cul-de-sac conformity, sprawling and wasteful white-flight redoubts where characters from Cheever or The Ice Storm (or any number of other examples) lead vacant and hypocritical lives, alienated from neighbors and civic society, experiencing “culture” only by way of the watered-down ethnic restaurant chains and whatever is showing at the omniplex. Let’s call this critique The Banality of New Canaan — something the sensitive soul must overcome, and escape.
It’s a comfortable cliché … and it’s a bit much.
Yet it’s easy to see where it comes from. Reston Town Center is not the “town center” in the usual way this phrase occurs. To me a town center (rural or urban) suggests the place where a community began to take shape, and from which it subsequently radiated outward. And while this town center was clearly meant to look like that, it was actually tacked on a couple of decades after Reston’s founding. It feels contrived because it is contrived.
I’m starting to sound like a Reston-hater. I’m not. My wife’s parents live in a lovely house on a woody lot (which hosted a family of foxes not so long ago); they’re a short walk from a public lake and recreation area, and a short drive from a cluster of restaurants, and even a used-book store. (And for the record: They’re engaged and well-read people, nothing like the characters depicted by the Banality of New Canaan school.)
Moreover, it will not be news to students of urban planning that Reston is actually known as one of the most ambitious experiments in “planned community” of its time. But it was news to me until just recently. I’ve had to give the place a complete re-think after watching a rough cut of Another Way of Living: The Story of Reston, VA, a documentary by Rebekah Wingert-Jabi.
Wingert-Jabi — whose previous projects include a Peabody-winning documentary called Sheikh Jarrah, My Neighbourhood, about a contested section of East Jerusalem — is still editing the film, but showed a cut to locals this past April (that’s how I got wind of it) and generously let me watch the in-progress version.
It’s an affectionate, even touching, portrait of the place and its history. The version I saw opens with a Margaret Mead quote, reacting to cookie-cutter suburbanization and calling for new experimentation with community development. A montage of newspaper clippings from the era heralds Reston as a “New Town,” designed to challenge what we think of when we think of a suburb. Post-urbanism expert Joel Kotkin appears and pronounces Reston “an archetype of how we can build communities in the 21st century.”
The film informs us that in 1961, New York developer Robert Simon bought 6,750 acres of farmland in Fairfax County, Virginia. He evidently grew up in uptown Manhattan, and was heavily influenced by its balance of classic city life with the epic green space of Central Park. Supposedly modeled on Italian towns, the Reston he envisioned would be 70 percent townhouses, arranged in a manner to encourage neighbor-to-neighbor communication while pushing back against sprawl.
Crucial elements included an unusual amount of open space, and a network of walking paths meant to help create city-like human connection within natural-world tranquility. By the mid-1960s, this “planned living” scheme started to take shape.
Before Reston Town Center, there was another town center: Lake Anne, a conglomeration of townhouse-style dwellings and ground-level businesses, punctuated by a single high-rise, arranged around a (to me, vaguely brutalist) public space that includes open water and accessible sculpture. Another Way of Living includes some home-movie footage from its early days:
“We were not just creating a new town but doing it in an empty place,” the owner of this footage, Robert Webb, told me via email. “It’s hard to understand how isolated we were … Reston had no institutional structure and we few hundreds had to create it, much as long-ago settlers created their own new towns as they moved west. Our grand adventure is beyond comprehension today.”
And indeed, as Another Way of Living makes clear, Reston was not an immediate success. The actual housing on offer was “not meeting the market,” as one interviewee puts it — meaning, in my reading, that at least in part there weren’t enough of the single-family, detached homes that remained wildly popular, ticky-tacky critiques notwithstanding. Reston seemed “dead in the water” at one point. Simon was fired. The new owners stuck with the master plan, but adjusted the market offerings — and the message of the place.
Reston had made headlines and magazine covers as a kind of experiment in new-world living, but post-Simon, its controlling developers sought to demystify it. That meant “new product” for the housing market, and an emphasis on amenities like tennis courts. It also meant flat-out describing the place as “a suburban neighborhood.”
Simon, as the film demonstrates, remained committed to his dream, ultimately moving back to Reston and continuing to this day (he is now 100 years old) to do his best to influence the community’s future along the lines he envisioned.
Wingert-Jabi laughed knowingly when I passed along that “Enjoy the suburbs” crack. It turns out she grew up in Reston, and as a young person was aware that it was a “planned community,” with a specific founder who was something like a local hero. “That was kind of a Big Brother feeling,” she recalls, laughing again. “To what extent is someone else planning my life?”
Then her family moved to another part of Fairfax County. There was far less interaction with neighbors; there was little civic energy. She realized that she missed Reston. And while her career took her here and there, Reston is the place she returned to — and eventually got interested in examining.
My wife, E, and her brother were in high school when their family moved to Reston from the Detroit area. That’s a tough age to be in a new place, and neither of them seems to miss it. They remember Lake Anne plaza as the place to go to see if something might happen. Nothing ever happened.
Wingert-Jabi laughs at this, too. Growing up, she says, to go “downtown” meant going to D.C. Town Center was always part of the Reston master plan, but has taken shape gradually since the 1980s — serving as “Suburbia’s first ‘downtown,’” as one headline in the film puts it. When it arose in stages from what had been a grove of trees, it “felt a little awkward,” Wingert-Jabi remembers. “It didn’t feel organic.” She still has limited interest in the chain-restaurant night life, but on a recent daytime visit to the area’s more public space (there’s an ice rink, for instance) she says she felt the “energy and vibrancy” the planners envisioned.
In short, Wingert-Jabi clearly understands why people like me are skeptical of Reston. But her film is an unapologetic love letter to the place — not just its ideals, but the practical results.
In a quarter-century or so of life in classic urban neighborhoods I’ve witnessed more than a half-dozen arrests; a broad-daylight mugging; multiple fights, at least one quite serious; many obvious prostitutes, male and female; one dead body; countless homeless people sleeping on sidewalks; many instances of public urination; and a sex act (paid, I assume) in our driveway. I’ve been solicited by many drug dealers, some specifying that they had cocaine or hash on offer. I have been endlessly hit up for cigarettes or money, sometimes aggressively; heard proximate gunfire more than once; experienced five apartment or car break-ins; and on one memorable occasion been screamingly called a “fucking faggot” for smiling at some guy’s young son.
Could be worse. But let’s face it: None of this is desirable. And particularly in the years since I’ve been an urban property owner, I would prefer never to experience any of the above again.
Is this the price to be paid for the “authenticity” I find lacking in Town Center? Or is this the authenticity itself?
E offered the more thoughtful theory that what a place like Town Center, or maybe Reston in general, lacks, is a sense of history — or maybe more precisely, a direct connection to the deep past.
You can design a space that mimics downtown Boston or Savannah. But you cannot design into existence sites of legend or nostalgia or mystery stretching back generations. Those things can only arise by accident, over time. I think there is a connection between this and the unpleasant dysfunctions I’ve just listed: They are both, intrinsically, unplanned.
It’s tempting to imagine some absurd, fanciful strategy for injecting city-style authenticity into a place like Town Center. Perhaps a subsidized program that would give a certain percentage of the real estate to the kind of idiosyncratic and hard-to-explain businesses that persist in long-lived communities: the multigenerational diner that isn’t very good but persists anyway, the fortune-teller with a hand-painted sign, the inexplicable combination car-wash/barbecue joint. Perhaps graffiti writers could be commissioned to despoil some pre-selected percentage of public surfaces. A few spaces could be designated for planned abandonment, creating a beautiful ruin or two. Possibly a formula could be arrived at for determining exactly how many and what sort of manifestations of the underclass might be deployed to add the proper frisson of thrilling risk? Or maybe just go full Disney and hire actors to portray such characters?
Ridiculous, of course. But let’s also face this: One of the things any planned community, or suburb, is explicitly designed to do is eliminate the blemishes of actual city life. That’s not a side effect. It’s a goal.
But I now see my mistake has been to think of it as the only, or even principle, goal. When I smirkily asked, “Where are the slums?,” I thought I was (joking aside) cutting to the heart of the matter. What I learned from Another Way of Living is that much of what I took for cynicism was, in reality, optimism: This place I’d shrugged off has an authenticity of its own. And my own theory of where to live and why has a huge flaw. We cannot accommodate an expanding population by building more 200-year-old cities.
Even here in Savannah, what I would think of as our “town center” (geographically, a northernmost point on the city map) was once upon a time a rigorously planned place: Modern tourists riding buses through the downtown historic district are giving appreciative witness to the highly specific vision of James Oglethorpe, who laid out our famously square-laced grid in the 18th century. They might also notice the occasional blighted property, panhandler, daylight crime, or other rough edge that comes with the passage of time.
I now admire the planning, the thought, the design, that has gone into Reston. I think E is right that — Apple stores and Thai restaurants aside — there’s a missing sense of what I’d think of as genuine historic character. But that’s because those things simply can’t be planned. Time has to pass. Plans have to go astray, or even awry. Designed visions have to be foiled by the way we really live.
But what learning about Reston’s history taught me is that there’s another truth behind such easy judgments.
The fact is, you’ve got to start somewhere.
Cover: Reston Town Center. From Another Way of Living, courtesy of Storycatcher Productions