Editor’s note: Remember that SACRPH 2019, the organization’s 18th conference, is in Northern Virginia (NOVA or NoVa) this October/November from October 31 – November 3, the deadline for the CFP, which you can view here, is March 15. With this in mind, we begin our focus on NoVa as our Metro of the Month. Submit your panels everyone!
In the 1987 thriller, No Way Out (NWO), Navy Commander Scott Farrell, played by the allegedly dreamy, inexplicable leading man of the era, Kevin Costner, finds himself embroiled in a murderous love triangle featuring a nefarious Secretary of Defense, David Brice (Gene Hackman) and a dizzy D.C. courtier, Susan Atwell (Sean Young). Being the late 1980s, healthy dollops of Cold War espionage are also mixed into plot, as are a few regrettable homophobic and misogynistic tropes.
Yet, when one watches it today, the architecture of the capital and Northern Virginia stand out as much as the film’s dated social mores and loopy military/spy thriller vibe. NWO’s opening shot slowly trawls across the NOVA/DC landscape, capturing the usual suspects – The Pentagon, the Mount Vernon bike trail along the river, the Library of Congress, the Washington Monument, and so forth – before settling on the Arlington side of the river, staring, with an impending sense of foreboding, at the capital across the water.
Even a notorious sex scene in the film (scandalous for 1987 but pedestrian for 2019) functions as a tour of the city’s monuments as much as it is a testament to the button down freakiness of Washington D.C. diplomats, advisors and lobbyists. After all, who doesn’t gaze at the Lincoln Memorial and imagine limousine-aided carnal relations?
Despite the familiarity of the Washington Mall, Congress, and other D.C. federal institutions, the architecture of the security state located largely in Northern Virginia defines the movie’s conspiratorial narrative. All the Presidents Men (1976) schemed to achieve something similar; Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evoked a similar sentiment more recently, albeit aided by a great deal of CGI.
In NWO, the Pentagon casts its imperial shadow across the metropolitan region while its workers, many from the NOVA suburbs, scurry about in its endless regimented corridors. The CIA’s Langley Headquarters surveys the intellectual community hidden amidst a sea of green. When trying to thwart actions by a rival in the government, Farrell speeds down Georgetown’s Whitehurst Freeway with the Key Bridge and the Key Bridge Marriot in the background, the latter located just across the river in Arlington where according to historian Andrew Friedman, author of Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Virginia, C.I.A. agents clandestinely rendezvoused, eating and drinking their fill all while planning various covert actions abroad.
Granted, it never reaches the level of California noir, but the idea and reality of clandestine meetings between elites and operatives was planted in the NOVA soil during the region’s post-World War II development. During the 1950s, Eleanor Dulles’s Maclean, VA bungalow served as a modern day foreign policy salon, “a kind of Round Table for Cold War Washington,” where elites like Allen and John Foster Dulles among numerous others lazed about the pool, drank martinis, and played games of touch football while endeavoring to covertly remake the world in America’s interest. Later, as the nation began wading into Southeast Asia, Edward G. Landsdale (think Alden Pyle from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American), a famed CIA operative in Vietnam, held “hootenannies” at his NOVA home in an effort to create cultural and personal bonds between Washington and Vietnamese elites.
For Friedman, the expansion of the intelligence community in Northern Virginia transformed its human geography from rural farmers and large landholders to suburban CIA agents plying their trade amidst a cartography of pleasantly bland intrigue: a “covert capital” “hidden in plain sight,” which more accurately embodied “U.S. imperial management on the ground” in places like Vietnam, Iran, and Central America. Transnational relationships between agents abroad and elites in these places later led to resettlement in the region, further altering NOVA’s demographics, though not every group that gravitated to the region found new footholds on equal terms.
The Vietnamese endured the residue of the Jim Crow South and U.S. resentment over military failure in Southeast Asia. Iranians, often better off and with ties to higher ranking intelligence officers, reestablished themselves in upper middle class suburbs. El Salvadorians, victims of America’s secret wars in Central America, arrived as almost invisible specters, working some of the hardest manual labor jobs in the region and ultimately existing in a “zone of illegality” often viewed as undocumented despite residing in the U.S. legally.
Each cast a cultural influence. Eden Center in Falls Church recreates the markets of Ho Chi Minh City while El Salvadorians transformed neighborhoods such as Alexandria’s Chirilagua neighborhood. Many Iranians slid easily into real estate development and other management positions, thereby contributing to the region’s physical transformation. And NOVA’s diversity extends beyond these examples. By the early 1990s, an observer traversing the halls of its public schools would hear nearly 50 languages spoken, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese.
Agents too brought remnants of their experiences abroad back with them, whether artifacts from Asia and Latin America as interior design or the imperial built environment they imported and embedded into the landscape. “The ephemeral newness and just-add-water domesticities frequently associated with the post-World War II suburbs, for transnational CIA families,” asserts Friedman, “became functional necessities, just as the neocolonial architecture seen as indigenous to these suburbs often played the double role of importing the comfort and style of colonial bungalows they inhabited abroad into their home environment.”
Yet, while the intelligence community undoubtedly shaped NOVA, so too did the vast military industrial complex that ballooned in the post World War II period. In part under the leadership of Vannevar Bush, operations research (OR)—or to oversimplify, scientific applications used to align weapons systems and other armaments in the field—became the economic coin of the realm. RAND might have pioneered efforts in OR from its Santa Monica location but as Paul Ceruzzi notes, “the armed services wanted scientists nearby, and they established counterparts to RAND located in the Washington region.”
It helped that after World War II worries that the concentration of military/intelligence agencies in cities would leave national security vulnerable to nuclear attack led Truman to embrace “industrial dispersion,” a “quiet effort that operated largely below the political radar screen,” as historian Margaret O’Mara writes. Dispersion resulted in the militarization of suburbia and the suburbanization of science and coincided with mass suburbanization. Dispersion along with the government’s increasing support of science as a form of economic development transformed the federal government into an extremely powerful consumer of industry while simultaneously increasing its interest in locating contractors in metropolitan areas outside of densely populated cities.
Highway construction followed nationally, and more specifically, in Northern Virginia. Of numerous plans in circulation, only the infamous Beltway was ever fully realized. Its completion laid the groundwork for the growth of Reston, Dulles Airport and the Dulles Corridor. Tysons Corner, positioned at Beltway interchanges for routes 123 and 7, made it a prime location for housing, retail complexes, and corporate offices. Other destinations also benefitted, such as Annandale, but none to the extent of Tysons Corner. Indeed, over the past several decades Tysons Corner has grown exponentially and today even has a silver line metro stop, though the station sits in the middle of two large thoroughfares and the “edge city’s” walkability remains marginal at best.
As the Cold War ramped up, the federal government created the National Science Foundation (NSF) and promoted the idea of science and tech research as economic development, or as O’Mara puts it, “city building.” The result has been the sort of “edge city” or “urbanized suburb” idealized by Joel Garrea, which has come to typify Northern Virginia.
Obvious parallels between Silicon Valley, Southern California’s aerospace industries, and NOVA exist. Today, Silicon Valley is seen as at the vanguard of the consumer electronics industry and social media, but it made its bones on federal contracts. Early on, Stanford’s Fredrick Terman, one of the individuals credited with laying the groundwork for today’s Silicon Valley, recognized that federal funds “served as seed money for industrial innovation.” Despite its long history of skepticism toward government and its promotion of free markets, Stanford (and others who established tech businesses in the Valley) quickly lined up at the trough of federal defense spending.
Not to be outdone, Southern California, which historian Lisa McGirr argues is the birthplace of modern conservatism, also welcomed federal dollars for its aerospace industries, many of which relocated to or established offices in NOVA during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s: Computer Science Corporation (CSC), Science Applications International Corporations (SAIC), California Analysis Center Incorporated (CACI), DynCorp, and RAND, among others. Reagan’s SDI program brought these industries to a fever pitch by the mid 1980s, only to be consolidated under a handful of corporations later during the 1990s and 2000s.
Though not completely analogous, Silicon Valley had Stanford and the Stanford Research Park, while NOVA has George Mason University—which, behind the leadership of George Johnson in the late 1970s and early 1980s, oriented many of its programs toward OR and systems analysis. However, unlike Stanford, which pioneered this sort or relationship and created the model, GMU reacted to local firms, or, as Ceruzzi writes, “it is an effect, not a cause of the booming economy.”
For all its benefits, NOVA also lacks the kind of entrepreneurial venture capitalists that scour its Northern California counterpart. For better or worse, the government remains the primary consumer of the kinds of products and services produced by NOVA firms. Finally, building an industry around military policy makers, in which they serve as the conduit for development, results in a much different working culture. In Silicon Valley, “it is always the engineer, the programmer, even the computer hacker, who ranks at the top, even if he or she may not be the CEO of the company or necessarily have gotten rich from his or her efforts,” notes Ceruzzi. Admittedly, in the decade since Ceruzzi published Internet Alley: High Technology in Tyson’s Corner, 1945-2005, figures like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey have dominated the narrative around the Valley in a fashion that seems more hierarchical than he asserts in his 2008 work, but his point remains salient.
Of course, the growth of defense industry companies such as Raytheon and the government’s emphasis on science research only partially explains the region’s development. If not for John “Til” Hazel and his partner Milton Peterson, Northern Virginia might look very different.
Described by journalist Joel Garreau in his flawed but influential work Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, Hazel was both “legal sledgehammer” and “John the Baptist of Development.” According to Garreau, only Pierre L’Enfant, the French designer of the capital, had “done more to shape the Washington area.” Hazel rejected affordable housing, depicted environmentalists as irrational, and viewed unfettered development as the holy grail of suburbanization. “If he brought no little arrogance to his vision, it was because he was creating no less than a new world,” writes Garraeu, “He was bringing civilization to the ‘howling wilderness’ … He was bringing it the benefits of modernity….”
Opponents like Audrey Moore and the slow growth movement she represented blunted some of Hazel’s efforts, but the Northern Virginia developer rode roughshod over the region for decades until his efforts to transform the Civil War battlefield site of Bull Run into a suburban shopping mall ran into a buzzsaw of well positioned resistance. Ironically the military’s history and not the development of its future capabilities was what ultimately blunted NOVA’s suburbanization.
What has all this meant for the state of Virginia? By 1999, Fairfax County contained 14 percent of the state’s population and provided nearly a quarter of its tax revenue. Depending on the study consulted, and whether Arlington County and the City of Alexandria are included in the equation, the percentage of revenue to the state climbs to nearly 50 percent. In 2008, NOVA accounted for one third of the state’s nearly 22 million residents, half of its economic development, and nearly the same in tax revenue, but only received back between 25 and 40 percent in cash and state services. “They treat us like the Bank of Fairfax,” said one county official at the time. Politically, over the course of the past two decades NOVA single-handedly transformed Virginia from red state to purple to blue. During the 2008 presidential campaign an advisor to the late John McCain told MSNBC that NOVA wasn’t “real Virginia.” The cognitive dissonance between Northern Virginia and its southern counterparts in Richmond led to a Washingtonian article that same year titled simply, “Will Northern Virginia become the 51st State?”
With changes afoot related to the arrival of half of Amazon’s HQ2 project, Northern Virginia remains far from static. Jeff Bezos’ online behemoth promises that the region’s growth will continue apace, perhaps in ways less dependent on the government—though contractors across the region whisper conspiratorially about the company’s alleged foray into federal contracting. Not exactly the stuff of late-1980s Kevin Costner spy thrillers, but, for good and for ill, compelling nonetheless.
Below you’ll find our usual attempts to craft a bibliography on the region. We’d like to extend special thanks to Krystyn Moon, Tommy Hill, and Lindsey Bestebreurtje for their expertise in building the bibliography; their efforts were immensely helpful. As always, we know we’ve probably missed something. If so, let us know in the comments!
Banham, Russ. The Fight for Fairfax: A Struggle for a Great American County. Virginia: GMU Presses, 2009.
Baker, Andrew. “Metropolitan Growth Along the Nation’s River: Power, Waste, and Environmental Politics in a Northern Virginia County, 1943-1971.” Journal of Urban History, 23, No. 5 (2015): 703-119.
Bestebreurtje, Lindsey. “Built By the People Themselves: African American Community Development in Arlington, Virginia from Civil War to Civil Rights.” PhD Diss., George Mason University, 2017.
Bestebreurtje, Lindsey. “A View from Hall’s Hill: African-American Community Development in Arlington.” Arlington Historical Magazine 15, No. 3 (Oct. 2015): 19-34.
Bunch-Lyone, Beverly and Nakeina Douglas. “The Falls Church Colored Citizens Protective League and the Establishment of Virginia’s First Rural Branch of the NAACP.” In Verney, et. al. Long is the Way and Hard: One Hundred Years of the NAACP. Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 2009.
Ceruzzi, Paul E. Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008.
Chacko, Elizabeth, and Ivan Cheung. “The Formation of Contemporary Ethnic Enclaves: Little Ethiopia in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.” In Race, Ethnicity, and Place in a Changing America, 2nd ed., edited by John W. Frazier, Eugene L. Tettey-Fio, and Norah F. Henry, 129-41. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006.
Chacko, Elizabeth. “Ethiopian Ethos and the Making of Ethnic Places in the Washington Metropolitan Area.” Journal of Cultural Geography 20, no. 2 (Spring-Summer 2003): 21-42.
———. “Identity and Assimilation among Young Ethiopian Immigrants in Metropolitan Washington.” Geographical Review 93, no. 4 (October 2003): 491-506.
———. “Washington, D.C.: From Biracial City to Multiethnic Gateway.” In Migrants to the Metropolis: The Rise of Immigrant Gateway Cities, edited by Marie Price and Lisa Benton-Short, 203-25. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2008.
———. “Ethiopian Taxicab Drivers: Forming an Occupational Niche in the US Capital.” African and Black Diaspora: An Internal Journal 9, no. 2 (July 2016): 200-13.
Friedman, Andrew. Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
Friedman, Samantha, Audrey Singer, Marie Price, and Ivan Cheung. “Race, Immigrants, and Residence: A New Racial Geography of Washington, D.C.” Geographical Review 95, no. 2 (April 2005): 210-30.
Gordon, Douglas. “Arlington Rebuilds a Community and its Roots.” Architecture + Design in the Mid-Atlantic 23, no. 4 (2012):18-28.
Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995.
Hill, Thomas. “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and the State in the Pentagon’s Backyard.” Journal of Urban History 41, no. 1: 75-92.
Kaye, Anthony E. Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
Meyers, Jessica. “Pho and Apple Pie: Eden Center as a Representation of Vietnamese American Ethnic Identity in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area, 1975-2005.” Journal of Asian American Studies 9, no. 1 (2006): 55-85.
Moon, Krystyn R. “The African American Housing Crisis in Alexandria, Virginia, 1930s-1960s.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 124, no. 1: 28-68
———. “The Alexandria YWCA, Race, and Urban (and Ethnic) Revival: The Scottish Christmas Walk, 1960s-1970s,” Journal of American Ethnic History 35, no. 4 (Summer 2016): 59-92.
Morris, James McGrath. “A Chink in the Armor: The Black-Led Struggle for School Desegregation in Arlington, Virginia, and the End of Massive Resistance.” Journal of Policy History 13, no. 3 (2001): 329-366.
Perry, Nancy. “The Influence of Geography on the Lives of African American Residents of Arlington County, Virginia, during Segregation.” PhD diss., 2013.
Nancy, Perry. “Everybody was Looking for a Good Government Job”: Occupational Choice during Segregation in Arlington, Virginia.” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 4 (March 2014): 719-741.
Perry, Nancy, Spencer Crew, Nigel M. Waters. “‘We didn’t have any other place to live’: Residential Patterns in Segregated Arlington County, Virginia.” Southern Geographer 53, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 403-427
Petrozziello, Allison J. “Feminised Financial Flowers: How Gender Affects Remittances in Honduran-US Transnational Families.” Gender and Development 19, no. 1 (2011): 53-67.
Posey, Zakia L. “Oromo Transnationalism in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area: An Examination of the Development, Challenge, and Prospects of Gaining an Institutional Footing.” PhD diss., Michigan State University, 2014.
Price, Marie. “Placing Transnational Migration: The Sociospatial Networks of Bolivians in the United States,” 209-219. Race, Ethnicity, and Place in a Changing America. Edited by John Frazier. Binghamton University Publishing, 2006.
Price, Marie and Elizabeth Chacko. “Mixed Embeddedness of Ethnic Entrepreneurs in a New Immigrant Way.” Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies 7, no.3 (2009): 328-346.
Repak, Terry A. Waiting on Washington: Central American Workers in the Nation’s Capital. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
Reston Town Center: Downtown for the 21st Century. Ed. Alan Ward, 1st edition. Washington, D.C.: Academy Press, 2006.
Schrag, Zachary M. “The Freeway Fight in Washington D.C.: The Three Sisters Bridge in Three Administrations.” Journal of Urban History 30, no. 5 (2004): 648-673.
———. The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Vogel, Steve. The Pentagon: A History – The Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon, and to Restore it Sixty Years Later. New York: Random House, 2007.
Wilson, Jill H., and Shelly Habecker. “The Lure of the Capital City: An Anthro-Geographical Analysis of Recent African Immigration to Washington, DC.” Population Space & Place 14, no. 5 (September-October 2008): 433-48.
Wood, Joseph. “Vietnamese American Place Making in Northern Virginia.” Geographical Review 87, no. 1 (January 1, 1997): 58–72.
Primary Sources (oral histories, online exhibits, etc)
Bearinger, David. “From Bolivia to Virginia: Interview with Emma Violand-Sanchez.” Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Accessed December 14, 2016 (http://virginiahumanities.org/2013/06/from-bolivia-to-virginia/).
Lindsey Bestebreurtje, “Built By the People Themselves.” (http://lindseybestebreurtje.org/arlingtonhistory/)
“Echos of Little Saigon.” (https://littlesaigonclarendon.com)
“The Gray: Isaac Schwarz.” Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City. Accessed November 14, 2015. http://www.jhsgw.org/exhibitions/online/lincolns-city/exhibits/show/mr-lincolns-city/blue-gray/isaac-schwarz.
Iacobelli, Amanda. “German and German-Jewish Immigrants: Michael German, Lewis Baar, David Bendheim, Max Pretzfelder, J.H Gerhard, and Henry and Isaac Schwarz”http://alexandriava.gov/uploadedFiles/historic/info/archaeology/AR500BlockGerman.pdf (2006).
Immigrant Alexandra Oral History Project. (https://www.alexandriava.gov/historic/info/default.aspx?id=86067) .
“Life Across the River.” Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City, Accessed November 14, 2015. http://www.jhsgw.org/exhibitions/online/lincolns-city/exhibits/show/mr-lincolns-city/life-across-the-river.
Featured image (at top): Panorama aerial of Northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
 Friedman, Covert Capital, 35-38, 150-152.
 Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 32.
 Joel Garreau, Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, (New York: Random House, 1991), 353.
 Friedman, Covert Capital, 90
 Paul E. Ceruzzi, Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 23.
 Margaret O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge: Cold War Science and the Search for the Next Silicon Valley, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 29, 34.
 Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 63.
 O’Mara, Cities of Knowledge, 109.
 Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 123-125, 15-16.
 Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 92, 15
 Joel Garreau, Edge City, 382.
 Garreau, Edge City, 351, 383
 Joel Garreau, Edge City, 351, 390-391, 396, 404.
 Ceruzzi, Internet Alley, 119-120.