Symbols Matter: Fairfax City or Fairfax County
Photo by crazysanman.history.

Photo by crazysanman.history.

I wrote last week about Fairfax County’s renewed interest in becoming Fairfax City. But the Post gave it a lot of coverage over the weekend and I want to reiterate an important point. The Post had two big stories on the topic yesterday (and a little one on the City of Fairfax). One was a news article by Sandhya Somashekhar and Amy Gardner and one was a Robert McCartney column. Compare and contrast.

The lede from the staff article:

“Fairfax County has long been viewed as the ultimate burb, where Washington goes to walk the dog and water the lawn. But the more residents look around, the more they see what many have tried to avoid: high-rise offices, blight, crime and housing that’s more likely to have a balcony than a back yard.

That changing reality came into focus last week when County Executive Anthony H. Griffin raised the possibility of officially making Fairfax a city, prompting discussion among county supervisors about whether the community of more than 1 million residents should highlight its status as an enormous jobs center that is rapidly urbanizing or embrace its classic suburban nature.”

On the other hand, McCartney’s intro:

“Let’s get two things straight from the start about the proposal to officially convert Fairfax County into a city. First, as usual with Northern Virginia, the real issue is roads. Second, despite what some politicians are saying, the change only makes sense if it’s used to raise taxes to get more money for roads.”

Notice a difference?

One framing says that becoming a city would mean an embrace of urbanism—not necessarily traditional central-city style urbanism, but at the very least Sun Belt-style urbanism. The other argues that it’s all about the $$$.

McCartney is being pigheadedly technocratic here. He’s not wrong that the policy difference that will occur will be roads and taxes and that if only policy matters, you should look at how this will change roads and taxes.

But more than policy matters. Culture matters.

And the cultural significance of city versus suburb is a strong one. Look at one of Somashekar and Gardner’s quotes:

“I personally would hate to see any more of a city feel to Fairfax County,” Nancy Ohanian, 52, said while floating on foam noodles with her 9-year-old daughter. “We’re losing so many trees. And I sure don’t want to see my taxes go any higher.”

City calls up all kinds of meanings in Ohanian, as does suburb. Where these meanings come from is a question for a different day, as it would require a tour of American history from Thomas Jefferson to the FHA to the sitcom to General Electric’s advertising to segregation and on. But the building up of these symbols over 200+ years means that they are remarkably potent symbols.

The mayor of the largest city south of Philadelphia might want to put in the kinds of cultural institutions, whether art museums or pro sports teams, that signify having made it to the big leagues. The Board of Supervisors will not. Prospective residents will think about a built environment that is exactly the same very differently; perhaps Tyson’s Corner or Springfield will be seen as the norm rather than the exception if Fairfax becomes a city. If nothing else, Fairfax officials will start attending meetings put on by the National League of Cities rather than the National Association of Counties and will therefore start to think differently.

However it happens, though, the conscious choice to become a city will have major effects that ripple well beyond transportation and taxes. To state that the only difference is policy-related is simply blind.

UPDATE: While we’re talking about the Post article, you should definitely go read David Alpert on why the reporting was riddled with anti-urban stereotypes. It’s all true, but I think that those attitudes are held widely is precisely the reason becoming a city would be so important.

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