Exploring an Underground City: the Crystal Underground

I took my camera (alright my cell phone) and hit the underground today to explore (and later blog) about the underground city of Crystal City (Virginia), colloquially known as the “Underground”. In this post I’ll narrate my impressions of this space while providing some pictures for context. For what it is, an attempt to get pedestrians off the streets and into an area to shop and dine, it functions beautifully. But there’s only limited spaces to congregate, further, there’s just something about being underground that just doesn’t quite sit well with me yet. Granted I haven’t grabbed a book and sat down there (even my phrasing doesn’t suggest that I want to do it; “down there”), but I did grab a coffee this afternoon (and yes, it was Starbucks).

Wikipedia relates a bit of history about the place. The Underground opened in 1976, which meant that planning was underway from the 1950s or 1960s (I’m guessing), when the era of the automobile was still shiny and promising. As the wikipedia article explains “the layout of Crystal City was considered avant-garde at the time of construction, with superblocks bounded by arterial and circulating roads, and with pedestrian traffic and the businesses serving it relocated from the streets to the pedestrian tunnels.” Ironically, (and this is coming from the wikipedia article on “superblocks”), urban planner Clarence Perry (1872-1944) argued for the use of superblocks as part a “neighborhood unit” plan to provide spaces more pedestrian-friendly with spaces to congregate and socialize. The superblocks, in this conception, included areas set further back from primary arteries with interior paths and smaller cul-de-sac streets (so residents can get out and come in but people won’t try to cut through).

What Crystal City got were the superblocks, or at least the arterial streets, with the pedestrian relegated to the Underground. Its not all bad though, in a future post I’ll post photos of my explorations above-ground.

The first photo is the one I find most ironic. We’re underground yet here is a fountain painted on the wall, its an idyllic scene to be sure, but strange. I suppose they had to put something there but I wouldn’t want to draw people’s attention to the fact that they’re underground and its things like this that they’re probably missing (and they are, in fact). I still think this is a nice space, the chairs and tables provide a good place to sit, relax, and chat. Unfortunately this is one of only a few places to do so that aren’t in a restaurant or bar. That’s a problem.

the "fountain" space, 2013 (via ME!)

the “fountain” space, 2013 (via ME!)

The next photo, compared to the first, shows off the better light in that space (hence why there’s people). Its an overcast day but it still gets a bit of light. Light + Underground = People! And the chairs and tables, again, allow people to come in, take a sit down, enjoy a beverage, work a laptop, read a book, or people watch. But, again, this is the second, of three, spaces I’ve found for this sort of congregating. You can’t build a sense of community and place without having spaces for people to congregate freely, without pressure from having to buy something.

the "light" space, 2013 (via ME!)

the “light” space, 2013 (via ME!)

This photo is from that congregating area and highlights all of the places to spend your money in the Underground. In the background you can see the neon lights of a shop. Now, I understand that the city of Arlington wants tax revenue, but to scrimp on free spaces to load up on shops isn’t the way to go. Creating a space where people *want* to hang out, socialize, and chat will mean more people are going to that area and, by volume, are more likely to spend more money. On the other hand, keeping congregating spaces to a minimum and loading up on shops is bad for business (and taxes). When I walk through now I’m speeding to get home or wherever I’m going. But if I slowed down, sat down, head a coffee I would actually take some of my surroundings in and realize, “crap! I forgot I need to get milk from the local delicatessen!”

spaces to spend money, 2013 (via ME!)

spaces to spend money, 2013 (via ME!)

This photo links the two congregating spaces, I’m standing at the well-lit one (interesting that I sat at that one and not the “fountain”) looking down the “tunnel”. You can see the fountain space to the right (chairs and tables). But there’s tons of shops. I do like that it is well lit however.

the tunnel of shops, 2013 (via ME!)

the tunnel of shops, 2013 (via ME!)

This photo is of a gargantuan space, it would be perfect for congregating, chatting, having community-fun night. But it belongs to a restaurant and so, like the time this picture was taken, it sits somewhat empty. On the weekend its usually packed (live music + food) and I suppose this makes great business sense: privatize the biggest space in the Underground and encourage people to buy food or drink in order to use it.

not so open space, 2013 (via ME!)

not so open space, 2013 (via ME!)

The more I think about it, the more I think Crystal City needs an enduring social space. One that isn’t tied to a business. When I do the post on the aboveground you’ll see my hopes are pinned on the Water Park (currently under construction). While I appreciate the limited areas that are provided for people to sit around casually, relax, and be community members, I think Arlington city would do well to rethink the Underground’s plan. I think that, as a society, Americans are becoming immune to store fronts and adverts (to some degree) we’re bombarded with it. The outcome of this is that we simply keep walking (and driving), usually faster. But fast-walking pedestrians don’t earn tax dollars and it certainly doesn’t build a community.

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2 thoughts on “Exploring an Underground City: the Crystal Underground

  1. This is great. I tried my best to avoid Crystal City for various reasons when I lived in DC, but I dated someone who lived across the street from this for a little while. I thought of this as a clever conduit from the Metro to the hotel upstairs, but certain corners of it (particularly that giant seating area/restaurant) always felt desolate. It served a much better function for commuters passing through in the morning than just locals who were looking for a place to hang out. The gigantic mall in Pentagon City filled that void.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Tyler! It is true it can be desolate, but I’m trying to avoid all the teens at Pentagon City as well. Pick my poison I suppose!

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