The Future is How Now?

What Northern Virginia can expect from the next 100 years (other than flying Metro cars and restaurant reservations for dogs, obviously).

What Northern Virginia can expect from the next 100 years (other than flying Metro cars and restaurant reservations for dogs, obviously).

By Susan Anspach
Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

For three cozy but relatively claustrophobia-free years, I worked a 9-to-5 job in the heart of Tysons Corner … a cold, metallic heart whose cockles pumped CO2 emissions, and the kind of despair uniquely inspired by rush hours that could outlast even an Energizer rabbit on ‘roids.

All the same, that heart was my bread and butter. So I knew it—valued it, even—like the back of my perspiring, nerve-rattled hand.

I knew just what time to split from my driveway to skid into my work garage at 8:55 a.m. on the nose. At the end of a long weekday, I could mentally conjure a grid of back roads to navigate past the slithering masses all mindlessly headed for the interstates. And, should I have happened to desire an after-hours aperitif, I maintained a mental Rolodex of bartenders who could get the job done in a timely, but tasteful manner (X axis: speediest; Y axis: yummiest).

All of that’s to say my familiarity with Tysons was a fine-tuned science.

So you can only imagine my despair when, recently passing through my old haunts, I found myself not only lost, but wholly wayward. Navigationally forlorn. Where were the familiar merge lanes, the old traffic patterns? What happened to the exit numbers I used to know? Now I was faced with sweeps of highway that lead nowhere, other than empty stretches of sky. Towers that supported nothing, other than their own tubby concrete midsections.

Northern Virginia, if our future is now, I’ve got to tell you: I was sort of hoping for an urban metropolis that doesn’t look like it got shoved off the back of the ugly bus.

But maybe I’m not being fair. In spite of Tysons looking, well, not herself these days, the Men in White Collars seem to be encouraging us to think of her reconstruction as we would invasive surgery: It won’t look pretty or feel nice, but ultimately, it’s for our own good. Not so long from now, we’ll have pedestrian access! A better economy! Livable community! (Roughly translated, in Tysons speak: crosswalk timers that last longer than the time it takes to pick your nose, lunch options beyond the six-inch sub, and a mall kiosk selling Galleria-grown produce. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for you, Fairfax.)

That being said, when it comes to individual jurisdictions, your hopes and dreams for the future are just that: your hopes and dreams. If Alexandria wakes up one morning and decides to supplant its waterfront with a permanent pirate cove installation, then I say power to Alexandria! Should Reston drain its lakes and offer up the remaining pit of dirt for all future Northern Virginia monster-truck rallies, then that’s Reston’s prerogative.

Hey, all I can tell you is, the future is coming. I never said anything about a guarantee of aesthetics.

Anyway, what I think we should collectively focus on is what this influx of future-oriented energy means for the big picture. The grand scale. The chief Kahuna that is Northern Virginia at large. As an aside, though, has anyone ever noticed it’ll take six months to patch up a pothole, but when they really put their minds to it, they can make Tysons an unrecognizable spaceship lair overnight? There’s got to be a distant relative of Murphy’s out there with a law—or at least some sort of half-baked hunch—on this kind of thing.

Back to the Kahuna. Most of us find ourselves on the side of resisting change. We’re skeptical because we’re human—and not only human, but humans with a history. Earlier this year, Manassas celebrated the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War—its own personal Civil War, if anyone from Manassas is to be believed. (Not that I’m suggesting otherwise, especially since more Confederate flags cropped up in Manassas that week than you could shake a stick at; and, frankly, I’d rather pick a fight with a pirate driving a monster truck.)

While we’re on the topic of territory, who here remembers back in the early ‘90s when Disney threatened to plop a theme park down in the middle of rural Haymarket? (They’d have known what they were in for if they’d seen the way folks around here all but tar and feather the committee behind every new Wal-Mart that threatens to lay roots anywhere close.) Walt Disney: Quite literally the largest media conglomerate in all of the world, and it didn’t stand a chance against Northern Virginians with a bone to pick—especially if that bone boils down to more highway congestion.

Still, whether we like it or not, change surely is on the way—and if Tysons’ past two years have taught us anything, it’s that somebody may have sprung to upgrade it to Acela.

So just what is Northern Virginia going to look like in, say, a hundred years? Evidence—ahem, Disney—has clearly shown no one guy’s vision is going to perfectly match another’s, but I’ll tell you what: If you take issue with my blueprint, come rustle me up a hundred years from now. We’ll talk.

I figure we can pretty much bank on the flying cars and clothing styles plucked straight out of the “The Jetsons.” The future’s not really now ‘til we’re all wearing Elroy-inspired antennae beenies, is it? But what about the changes at risk of opposition? What kind of stuff’s on our horizon that doesn’t necessarily stand to improve the view?

Well for starters, Metro will be a many-tentacled thing. Soaring trains, hologram conductors—and every rider will come stamped with his own in-skin Smartcard microchip. If you don’t like it, you can just take a hike … or an escalator. A hundred years from now, most of them still won’t be running.

Our region’s always been teeming with brainiacs, and brainiacs breeding still more brainiacs. So long as we play backyard to the nation’s capital, nothing’s ever going to change any of that—but it’s up to the schools to supply the demand and keep things from getting too cutthroat. Otherwise it’s not hard to imagine that a hundred years from now Baby Mozart will be for amateurs, and NoVA’s expectant masses will be popping pre-natal vitamins stamped—in the wee bittiest script you ever did see—with the complete unabridged works of Leo Tolstoy.

Naturally, it won’t take too long for the Northern Virginia pet society to loom larger and more mightily than it does now. Before you know it, we won’t be snickering at the idea of doggie happy hours—we’ll be confronted with the very grim reality of fancy doggy prix-fixe dinner menus.

And you want to know something? No Fido I know is above snapping up your supper reservation.

Finally, as far as electronics are concerned, much like the present, no NoVA techie worth his salt will be caught dead without his Apple product du jour. Except unlike the present, no techie will have to be. A hundred years from now, the company will be so devastatingly hip that all its gadgets will be colored “Shimmer,” or “Pure” … or some other clever corporate euphemism for “literally transparent”—bringing a fresh new dimension to the catchphrase “fake it ‘til you make it.”

If you don’t believe me, you don’t have to. After all, it doesn’t actually take a hundred years to notice sweeping change. My parents remember when they first moved to the region three decades ago, and Tysons was all but empty on weekends … especially Sunday mornings, when everyone was at church. (Apparently, now we worship at the altar of Hollandaise.) And who knows? It’s possible that I’m wrong on all counts. Maybe NoVA’s future will bring a return of gentler, less hectic, less congested days.

Yeah. And maybe there’s a pirate wielding a monster truck, right this instant, making the turn for Tysons behind the wheel of his four-by-four. Just for his sake, I hope it flies.

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(November 2011)