BEFORE mid-November, Long Island City and Crystal City were never on the same page, much less uttered in the same sentence. Though both destinations are on the East Coast (New York and Virginia, respectively) and within shouting distance of a major metropolitan centre, they had little else in common.
Well, that’s no longer the case. After a competitive national search, Amazon chose the sites for its second headquarters, a coronation that will release up to 25,000 subjects into the cities’ boutique coffee shops, restaurants and dog parks. (Amazon founder and Chief Executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Visit both destinations and you will probably overhear conversations debating the pros and cons of Amazon, such as increased traffic and rent costs and a surge in development projects and millennials. Without question, the neighbourhoods will change, which is why we spent a few days before the holidays exploring the cities. Read on for a tale of two cities that you can’t buy on Amazon or watch on Amazon Prime.
Arlington’s Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard were originally part of Abingdon Plantation, and agriculture predominated until the railway arrived on the scene. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the area dabbled in gambling but later turned respectable with office buildings, residential developments and hotels. In the early 2000s, the Naval Air Systems Command and the Patent and Trademark Office relocated, causing the work-and-play population to drop. Amazon will occupy three buildings on 18th Street near the Crystal City Metro station, plus two new sites in Pentagon City that will bookend a Whole Foods, another Bezos company.
The city resembles an active ant colony, with bodies disappearing inside the malls and Metro station or marching home. People do gather for a midday coffee or happy hour before returning to their respective corners. Despite the transient nature, long-time residents still exist, including Freddie Lutz, owner of Freddie’s Beach Bar, who will happily take you on a nostalgic ride of Crystal City involving a drugstore soda fountain and a drive-in movie theatre.
Look past the tangle of highways at the sweeping panorama of Washington monuments and landmarks. For a 360-degree view, sit and spin in the rotating Skydome Restaurant, on the 15th floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.
Several A-list and TV-minted chefs have opened restaurants here, including Spike Mendelsohn (We, the Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery), José Andrés (Jaleo) and Morou Ouattara (Kora). Most of the chains are represented, but for a homier experience, stroll 23rd Street.
The dining spots act locally but cook globally: Indian, Italian, Ethiopian, Japanese, Thai and Greek. Late night, feed your insomnia at the 24-hour Kabob Palace or Bob and Edith’s Diner.
Caffeine and drinks
In past summers, Commonwealth Joe has mobilised its kegs-on-wheels army, serving nitro cold-brew coffee to the undercaffeinated people of Arlington. For four-seasons coffee drinkers, it brought its nitro taps, pour-overs and specialty drinks (one holiday offering smacks of oatmeal cookie) indoors at its Pentagon City shop, which holds free cupping (or tasting) sessions on Sundays.
Crystal City has about 5,400 rooms in 15 hotels, and all are chains with the exception of the Americana Hotel. On average, rates are about 25 per cent less than those in Washington, DC.
You will have to cross the Potomac for museums, but stay put for experimental theatre. Synetic Theater, a neighbourhood presence since 2010, leads the classics (Cyrano, Richard III) down an alternative path with dance, music, technology and the visual arts. A few galleries focussing on local painters, potters, jewellery makers and more appear in the underground arcade of the Crystal City Shops. Aboveground, a sprinkling of public art and murals add a touch of whimsy to the otherwise wan landscape of high-rises. For a walking tour, download a map. The Grounds, a repurposed parking lot in Pentagon City, hosts public events and art installations, including a recent assemblage of seesaws that radiated light and sound when see-ed and saw-ed.
Malls, malls, malls. The one surprise: Vintage Dress Company, which opened on 23rd Street a few months ago. Owner Darlene Bakke scours estate sales, charity shops and thrift stores for threads and accessories from the 1950s through the 1990s. Some of her timeless finds include a pair of Jordache jeans, a Rudolph-red snowsuit and a Donna Reed-era yellow cardigan with pearls. She plans to add a wedding dress salon for brides who want to give gowns a second chance at love and marriage.
LONG ISLAND CITY
Long Island City (LIC) was a real Long Island city with its own mayor and police force until 1898, when the five boroughs consolidated and LIC became a member of the Queens court. In the early years, the area was farmland, and Manhattan was accessible only by ferry. In the mid-20th Century, the city experienced an industrial boom with 1,400 factories, including many – oil refineries, glass works, ship building, iron foundries – that left a dark smudge on the riverside landscape. Several kinder commodities, such as bread, spaghetti, shoes and film studios, also flourished, and a few survived the mass closings in 1970s and early ‘80s. Over the years, LIC has staged a comeback, as more businesses and residents flee the rising costs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Amazon will reside in Anable Basin, a 19th-Century man-made inlet on the East River that once supported Old (cough, cough) Industry.
LIC still has grit under its fingernails. The subway rumbles overhead, and warehouses sit abandoned on forlorn streets. On a misty night, I half-expected Humphrey Bogart to appear out of the shadows. During the day, the city is frenetic, but you can always find a quiet place along the river or under an idled crane. Unlike other boroughs, you don’t need to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans and cultivate a beard to fit in. Wear what you want and, if you say hello to an LICer, you might receive an even grander salutation in return: During a Big Apple Greeter tour, a resident in the Hunters Point Historic District invited us into his home to ogle his property and play with his one-eyed dog.
If LIC had the pitching arm of Mariano Rivera, it could play catch with Midtown, which sits directly across the East River. (The landmass between the two shores is Roosevelt Island, which is accessible by tramway from Manhattan and ferry from LIC.)
For a river-level view, grab an Adirondacks chair in the 12-acre Gantry Plaza State Park and shout out the names of the buildings across the way: United Nations Headquarters, Empire State Building, Chrysler. Nearby, Long Island City Community Boathouseat Anable Basin leads free paddles during the summer. Higher up, on the Z Hotel’s 12th-floor rooftop, watch the Manhattan skyline twinkle against the night sky like a not-so-distant planet.
Queens is a centre of diversity, and LIC reflects the immigrant story with a culinary map covered in pins. Diners can dig into Japanese noodles (Mu Ramen, Takumen), Indian (Adda Indian Canteen), Peruvian (Jora), Kansas City-style barbecue (John Brown Smokehouse) and Mexican at Casa Enrique, the only Queens eatery to earn a Michelin star.
There is no shortage of Italian restaurants, but only one – Manducatis – comes with Tony Bennett’s seal of approval. (Hmmm. Does the fountain of youth run on pasta and broccoli rabe?) M Wells Steakhouse is unapologetic: Order the bone marrow escargot tonight and atone with avocado toast the next day at M Wells Dinette, inside the MoMA PS1 museum.
Choose among 3,200 rooms in 33 hotels, with several dozen more properties on the way. Rates are significantly cheaper than Manhattan properties, and room size is generous.
Example A: the Paper Factory, a quirky boutique hotel that honours its 100-year-old industrial history. A superior queen starts at USD129 and measures 181 to 298 square feet. Example B: the Boro, where a 250-square-foot king or queen room starts at USD122. Visitors with tighter budgets and no stranger danger can book a shared dorm at the Local or Q4 hostels for less than USD40 a night.
Enjoy a modern art moment at MoMA PS1, an affiliate of the larger institution in Manhattan. The museum, which occupies Long Island City’s first school, showcases several long-term art installations plus exhibits with a shorter shelf life. The museum also holds free live performances (music, lectures, etc) through its VW Sunday Sessions series.
SculptureCenter goes large – in magnitude and concepts – with experimental artworks that fit comfortably inside a former trolley repair shop. Each year, it introduces one or two shows by midcareer artists and several exhibits by solo and group artists.
Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi didn’t have to travel far to check up on his Noguchi Museum, which opened three years before his death in 1988; his studio sat across the street from the Zen repository of stone works and Akari light sculptures. More than 60 artists from 14 countries lent a hand – or spray can – to the Top to Bottom mural project, which covers all four sides of a three-storey warehouse.
LIC is thin on retail. MoMA PS1 and the Noguchi Museum have well-curated gift shops, of course. More than a year ago, Book Culture, an independent bookseller with three Manhattan outposts, expanded into Queens.
The two-level store sells more than just reading material: Pick up a Frida Kahlo paper doll, backpack by Sweden’s Fjallraven Kanken or dachshund-print notecards. Freed of London, the dance shoemaker, dresses the feet of Washington Ballet performers and appeared on the big screen with Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
The English company’s sole United States store resides in LIC and stocks items by Japan’s Chacott, too. The attire is suitable for anyone who frequently bends their knees, even if it’s just to pick up a dropped M&M.
Slovak-Czech Varieties specialises in toys (homemade wooden animals and trucks), edibles (three kinds of flour, chocolate galore) and glassware made in the homeland.
Matted blurs the line between high and low art by combining a gallery (the current show features photos developed from vintage negatives) with anti-Kondo baubles, such as sequined stuffed animals and duct tape art kits. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post