The Soulless City

When I find that four days pass between blog entries, it means either two things. It means either I am very sick, or I am very busy. Fortunately, in this case it was the latter.

I have returned from three days in the Soulless City. I did not need to take a bus or an airplane to get to this is a city. In fact, the Soulless City is less than ten miles from my house. It is a city without a real name, but it is a city nonetheless. Those of you who are Washingtonians probably know my destination. If you travel the Beltway around Washington, D.C., it is hard to miss. While it has no official name, it does have an unofficial one: Tyson’s Corner.

I understand that most towns and villages sprung up, quite literally, near the spring. They were built at the place in the river or stream where it became too shallow to navigate. Newer edge cities like Tyson’s Corner in Northern Virginia though owe their rise not to its proximity to water, but to its convenience to a number of prominent roads. The Capital Beltway was completed in 1964. It was not that long after that Mr. Tyson sold his considerable acreage near the intersection of Leesburg Pike (Route 7) and Chain Bridge Road (Route 123) to developers. This land, known informally as Mr. Tyson’s Corner, or Tyson’s Corner for short, just happened to be just off the new Capital Beltway.

Tyson’s Corner became a convenient location for one of the nation’s first large indoor shopping malls. By the late 1960s, Tyson’s Corner Mall had opened. It instantly became both a regional shopping Mecca and a neat place to visit, because back then any indoor mall was a novelty. Its convenience to the Capital Beltway meant that it had to be a place optimized for arrival and departure by car. It was also close to affordable bedroom communities. The shopping mall soon attracted other businesses. It was not too many years later, that Tyson’s Corner became noted as more of a convenient place for Beltway Bandits to set up shop rather than as a shopping destination. Tyson’s Corner Mall inspired numerous copies, not just in my region but nationwide. In time, one mall would not be enough for Tyson’s Corner. Around 1990, Tyson’s Galleria (also known as Tyson’s II) arose across Chain Bridge Road. While more upscale, it never enjoyed quite the success of the original Tyson’s Corner Mall, which itself has been thoroughly modernized and expanded.

I do my best to avoid Tyson’s Corner. I tend to avoid malls in general, but in particular, I avoid Tyson’s Corner. Its success has spawned a commuter’s nightmare, making it on any business day a time consuming hassle to get into or get out of. Although replete with many tall buildings, most of which are wholly uninteresting, it is also full of ugly wide boulevards with weedy and trash filled medians. On the sides of these roads are auto dealerships and many ordinary shopping centers. Routes 7 and 123 support six lanes of traffic each, plus ugly service roads and what feels like ten zillion traffic lights. It feels like each traffic light is engineered to ensure that you cannot get between any two points without encountering the next red light.

With a mailing address of McLean, Virginia, Tyson’s Corner it is actually an unincorporated edge city neither in McLean nor in Vienna, which straddles it to the south. I was there to attend three days of project management training. From my eighth floor window, I could look down on Leesburg Pike and grimace over the overwhelming view of aging office buildings, discount retailers, parking lots (and parking garages), asphalt and automobiles queued at traffic lights.

Tyson’s Corner is not a pedestrian friendly place. You would think with so many people working there that there would be plenty of dining options. Moreover, you would be right. Unfortunately, to get to most of them you have to get in your car, and thus get back in traffic. This in turn means waiting at red lights and creeping forward through the crush of traffic just to get to a McDonalds. If you are daring, you could walk to some of these dining destinations. I do not recommend it. For Tyson’s Corner is pedestrian hostile. It has the dubious notoriety of having the most dangerous pedestrian crosswalk in all of Fairfax County. You can try to walk across Chain Bridge Road at International Drive. If you are a praying type, you should say a prayer before doing so. You will have to cross nine lanes of traffic. Even a sprinter would have a hard time getting across the road before the crosswalk light changes. Do not expect drivers to be mindful of your presence.

Tyson’s Corner of course needs to be pedestrian friendly. Like most of Fairfax County, little thought was given to those without cars when it was developed. It was more important to bring in the growth than figure out sensible ways to manage the growth. You have to look hard to find anyone riding a bike around Tyson’s Corner. That would be even more dangerous than walking across International Drive. Since almost everyone commutes by car, the motorists are obsessed with getting in and out of Tyson’s Corner quickly. They will not cut a bicyclist any slack. Nevertheless, there is also the minor matter that there is no safe place to bike along the roads, and that includes the service roads, which are full of cars jockeying to get on the major roads. What sidewalks that do exist tend to appear and disappear rather suddenly.

There are actually people who live in Tyson’s Corner, but not very many. From its size you would think there would be hundreds of thousands of residents. Tyson’s Corner does not have residents as much as commuters. Approximately 20,000 people live in Tyson’s Corner and most of these live in townhouses on its outskirts, or in one of the few apartment or condominium communities.

There is some nightlife in Tyson’s Corner, if your idea of nightlife is going to the mall, or a Ruby Tuesday’s, or a movie theater. There are a few churches in the Tyson’s Corner area, but mostly they serve communities outside of it. Community theater? You are out of luck. Parks? There are a couple, but they are small and well hidden. Schools? Yes to day care centers and secretarial schools. It has exactly one public elementary school. A high school straddles its eastern edge. So accept what Tyson’s Corner actually is: a city where commercialism and the car is king. USA Today has its digs in Tyson’s Corner, along with many prominent software companies, many of whom pimp Uncle Sam to keep solvent. Parts of it try to be upscale yet even the upscale parts are typically surrounded by the garish and the mediocre.

There is talk of extending the Metrorail through Tyson’s Corner. To save money, planners want to put the Metro on elevated tracks. Tyson’s Corner is a logical destination so its arrival is long overdue. Many would prefer that the station be built underground. However, in this case, the federal government will not chip in; it would make their share too expensive. So likely if the Metrorail extension is actually built to Tysons, it will be placed on elevated tracks right through the center of this concrete metropolis. This, of course, will make the traffic in Tyson’s Corner for several years, already miserable, approach one of Dante’s lower levels of hell. It is the price or progress, or perhaps the price of insufficient land use planning by the Fairfax County government many years ago.

Three days in Tyson’s Corner was ample. I am glad to be free of it, and will have to work hard to wrest images of its congestion and ugliness from my mind. I pity those who work in Tyson’s Corner. I realize that job opportunities abound there, particularly if you are in the technology business. However, the place saps your soul. Maybe some day Tyson’s Corner will grow up and become a real city. Instead, it is more likely to remain just a destination for work and to buy stuff. It is a shame so little thought was given to properly managing its growth. It had the potential to be a real city.