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Business

Once called National Landing, Amazon’s Arlington area tries on ‘NaLa’




Comment

First it appeared on free water bottles. Then it moved on rainbow T-shirts for Pride month.

In June it appeared on Instagram as a hashtag, and this month it was suddenly plastered on the surfboard and silver Airstream set up on a grassy lot in Arlington, and declared to commuters, dog walkers and joggers strutting by that their neighborhood had acquired a brand new nickname: NaLa.

Yes, “National Landing” — the term coined by local economic development officials to lure Amazon to Northern Virginia four years ago — is being shortened and SoHo-ized, reduced to a two-syllable acronym that says everything, and nothing, all at once.

“NaLa?” asked Mohsin Abuholo, sitting on a bench near a fake lifeguard shack advertising the NaLa Beach Club on a humid evening this week. “I suppose it’s a name for a woman. Like Anala?”

“It must be a new thing they’re doing?” wondered Allison Gaul, 38, a lawyer walking her 10-year-old Dalmatian, Dotty, nearby. “I don’t know what the hell ‘NaLa’ means.”

“I had to try and figure it out. I mean, yeah, I guess,” said Johnathan Edwards, 40, who moved back to the area a year ago for his job at Amazon. “I’m not a big fan of it, to be honest.”

National Landing, the combined umbrella name for this set of Northern Virginia neighborhoods — Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard — was the subject of much confusion when it first debuted in 2018, with many longtime residents refusing to adopt a brand they said felt as a business creation for Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Now, much like AdMo (Adams Morgan) and CoHi (Columbia Heights) before that, or NoMa before that, the area seems to be trying the kind of shorthand that, depending on who you ask, is synonymous with either peak yuppness or a new kind of urban cool.

Rebranding Amazon’s HQ2 site: Alpacas, mocktails and flower crowns for dogs

Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, executive director of the National Landing Business Improvement District (BID), made it clear that “NaLa” was nothing more than a series of events her organization put on this summer.

Besides the beach club — which invites neighbors to “close your eyes and enjoy this summer escape with your toes in the sand” — there’s NaLa Fit, with outdoor barre, HIIT and yoga classes, and NaLa Fridays at the Park, a weekly concert series featuring local musicians.

“It’s more of a shorthand that’s meant to be fun and punchy,” Sayegh Gabriel said. “There is no intention to introduce a new name for the neighborhood at all.”

But some others have also adopted the acronym, unsolicited: A dental office in Old Town Alexandria — officially outside the borders of National Landing — recently changed its name to NaLa Smiles, in part to attract some of Amazon’s new customers as patients. (“It was a better abbreviation on boards and signage, and it sounds better,” said Hisham Barakat, the office’s owner.)

And across social mediaa few residents and small businesses have also begun using the shorthand for a rapidly changing area that is already seeing an influx of new apartment buildings, restaurants and corporate relocations.

“We have a lot of community pride and equity and social capital in the names that we have. So we’re really committed to keeping ‘Crystal City,’ ‘Pentagon City,’ and ‘Potomac Yard’ in regular use, along with the umbrella name of ‘National Landing,’ ” added Sayegh Gabriel. “That’s the destination we’re building.”

That doesn’t mean everyone else sees it the same way.

“A Cultural Shorthand”

The logic behind “NaLa” is nothing new in the DC area or beyond. For as long as there have been neighborhoods, there have been portmanteaus meant to sell those neighborhoods and their potential trendiness.

“It’s a kind of cultural shorthand,” said Jeffrey Parker, an urban sociologist at the University of New Orleans. “Places with these kinds of names, this kind of nomenclature are associated with certain kinds of facilities and certain kinds of commerce. … It’s very silly, but it’s branding. It’s boosterism.”

One of the earliest examples in the United States, he said, is New York’s SoHo. Once a rundown, light-industrial area, it was renamed by city planners as they looked to rezone the neighborhood for the artists who took over the spacious lofts.

It didn’t hurt that the new name evoked a hip part of London, and copycat versions followed across Lower Manhattan: Tribeca. NoMad. FiDi.

But more than half a century later, as New York realtors tried to negotiate monikers like “SoHa” (South Harlem) and “SoBro” (South Bronx) well outside the city’s center, some said it had gone too far: A lawmaker proposed even a bill that would penalize brokers who used fictitious names to sell real estate.

The trend — and the subsequent pile-on — made it inside the Beltway not long after. “North of Massachusetts Avenue” was successfully renamed “NoMa”, with a stop on the metro’s Red Line to seal the deal. Other efforts wilted under the backlash: Neither SoNYA (south of New York Avenue), GaP (between Georgia Avenue and Petworth) nor SoMo (south Adams Morgan) seemed to hold up.

“This is something very easy to make fun of,” said Parker, the urban sociologist, but “people see something work once and they stick with it.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the two-syllable craze has reached South Arlington, where this rapidly changing neighborhood has spent the past four years trying to figure out its identity — and what to call it.

After decades of being known as a kind of soulless concrete maze, the neighborhoods Crystal City (named after a chandelier in the lobby of a local building) and Pentagon City (after the nearby home of the US military) was immediately catapulted into urban superstardom when Amazon announced in November 2018 that it would bring its second headquarters here.

But when officials celebrated the company’s new neighborhood as “National Landing,” an umbrella term that also ran in part of Alexandria’s Potomac Yard, the resounding reaction was: What?

“Never heard of National Landing?” asked a local blog. “You are not alone.”

Stephanie Landrum tells its origin story: When Northern Virginia economic development officials came together in 2017 to submit a joint bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, the proposal became known as “Alexandria-Arlington.”

She and her colleagues put together a 285-page booklet extolling the virtues of this thriving region to send to Amazon, and just before printing they realized they were missing something – anything — More convincing to notice.

“We literally spent so much time sorting out everything about a vibrant, connected community,” said Landrum, the president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, “that we kind of got to the last day and had to make a decision. .”

Crystal City? It was just one neighborhood. Potomac Landing? It didn’t last. Landrum said she was texting her counterpart in Arlington, each with a celebratory glass of wine in hand, as they settled on “National Landing.”

The name, meant to evoke nearby Reagan National Airport as well as the area’s long list of transportation options, quickly became ubiquitous in the respective offices as they entered secret talks with Amazon the following year.

When they finally made the announcement, “we kind of forgot that the rest of the world didn’t know we had created this designation,” Landrum said.

Still, both the BID and developer JBG Smith embraced it, using the name more and more as the neighborhood began a physical and cultural transformation: Besides Amazon’s offices, the area is now home to Boeing’s new headquarters and soon Virginia Tech’s new graduate campus. There will be a new Yellow Line station in Potomac Yard (PoYa?), the first infill stop added to the subway system in decades, and a pedestrian bridge connecting the airport to the rest of the neighborhood.

Sitting on a picnic table near the NaLa Beach Club, Robert Vainshtein, a 36-year-old federal employee, burst into laughter when asked about the neighborhood’s two new names.

“What’s wrong with ‘Crystal City’?” asked Vainshtein, 36, an Alexandria resident who commutes here for work. “It’s been ‘Crystal City’ forever. I don’t think people are going to get it.”

Across the table, Lauren Callahan, 27, said “NaLa,” let alone “National Landing,” hasn’t clicked for her yet, either. But the changes that have come with these names are hardly a nuisance.

She’s a fan of the free bananas Amazon has been handing out near Crystal City’s infamous underground mall, she noted, and the iced coffee BID hands out weekly at the installation a few feet away.

“They do nice things for the area. It’s a very trendy thing to do,” Callahan pointed out. “Who knows? Maybe ‘NaLa’ will catch on more than ‘National Landing.'”

“Yes,” objected Vainshtein, “but it’s made up.”

“Well,” she asked, “what isn’t invented?”





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