Once dubbed National Landing, Arlington’s Amazon tries “NaLa”

Once dubbed National Landing, Arlington’s Amazon tries “NaLa”

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It first appeared on Freebie water bottles. Then it was on its way Rainbow T Shirts for Pride month.

It popped up as a hashtag on Instagram in June, and this month it was suddenly pasted onto the surfboard and silver Airstream that was set up in a grassy patch of Arlington. They told the commuters, dog walkers, and joggers who strutted by that their neighborhood deserved a brand new nickname: NaLa.

Yes, “national landing” — the term local economic development officials invented four years ago to lure Amazon to Northern Virginia — is being shortened and SoHo-ized, reduced to a two-syllable abbreviation that says everything and nothing once.

“Well La?” asked Mohsin Abuholo, who sat on a bench near a man-made lifeguard hut promoting the NaLa Beach Club on a sweltering evening this week. “I guess it’s a woman’s name. Like Anala?”

“There must be something new they’re doing?” wondered Allison Gaul, 38, an attorney who walked nearby with her 10-year-old Dalmatian, Dotty. “I don’t know what the hell ‘NaLa’ means.”

“I had to try to find out. I mean, sure, I think,” said Johnathan Edwards, 40, who returned to the area a year ago for his job at Amazon. “I’m not a big fan of that, to be honest.”

National Landing, the combined umbrella name for these Northern Virginia boroughs — Crystal City, Pentagon City, and Potomac Yard — caused a great deal of confusion when it debuted in 2018, as many longtime residents refused to embrace a label they saw fit a corporate creation for Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)

Well, much like AdMo (Adams Morgan) and CoHi (Columbia Heights) before it, or NoMa before it, the area seems to be trying its hand at shorthand that, depending on who you ask, is synonymous with top-notch yuppiness or a new kind urban cool.

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Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, executive director of the National Landing Business Improvement District (BID), clarified that “NaLa” is nothing more than a series of events her organization is hosting this summer.

In addition to the beach club, which invites neighbors to “close your eyes and enjoy this summer vacation with your toes in the sand,” there’s NaLa Fit, with an outdoor barre, HIIT and yoga classes, and NaLa Fridays at the Park, a weekly one Concert series with local musicians.

“It’s more of an abbreviation meant to be fun and expressive,” Sayegh Gabriel said. “There is absolutely no intention of introducing a new name for the area.”

But a few others have also adopted the acronym unsolicited: A dental practice in Old Town Alexandria — officially outside of National Landing’s borders — 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 plaques and signs, and it sounds better,” said Hisham Barakat, the office’s owner.)

and above Social mediasome 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 business relocations.

“We have a lot of community pride and justice and social capital in the names that we have. So we’re really committed to ensuring that Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard, along with the umbrella name National Landing, are used regularly,” added Sayegh Gabriel. “It’s the goal we build.”

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

“A Cultural Shortcut”

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

“It’s kind of a cultural shorthand,” said Jeffrey Parker, an urban sociologist at the University of New Orleans. “Places with that kind of name, that kind of nomenclature, are associated with certain kinds of amenities 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 is SoHo in New York, he said. Once a decaying, light-industrial area, it was renamed by city planners trying to redesign the neighborhood for the artists who are taking over its spacious lofts.

It didn’t hurt that the new name was reminiscent of a hip part of London, and copycat versions followed throughout lower Manhattan: Tribeca. Nomad. FiDi.

But more than half a century later, when New York real estate agents tried to sell names like “SoHa” (South Harlem) and “SoBro” (South Bronx) far outside of downtown, some said it had gone too far: one lawmaker struck even proposed a bill that would penalize realtors who used made-up names when selling real estate.

The trend – and the bunch that followed it – made it into 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 attempts failed in reverse: neither SoNYA (south of New York Avenue), the GaP (between Georgia Avenue and Petworth) nor SoMo (south of Adams Morgan) seemed to hold up.

“It’s something that’s really easy to poke fun at,” said Parker, the urban sociologist, but “people see that something works and they stick with it.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the two-syllable craze has reached South Arlington, where this fast-changing neighborhood has spent the last four years trying to sort out its identity — and what it should be called.

After decades of knowing the Crystal City (named after a chandelier in the lobby of a local building) and Pentagon City (after the nearby US military headquarters) neighborhood as a sort of soulless concrete labyrinth, became an instant urban superstar when Amazon announced in November 2018 that it would be moving its second headquarters here.

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

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

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

She and her colleagues put together a 285-page brochure extolling the virtues of this booming region to send to Amazon, only to find just before printing that they were missing something — anything — to label it.

“We’ve literally spent so much time spelling out everything about a vibrant, connected community,” said Landrum, the president and chief executive officer of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, “that we were at the last day and had to make a decision.”

crystal city? That was just a neighborhood. Potomac Landing? That didn’t last. Landrum said she texted her counterpart in Arlington, each with a celebratory glass of wine, as they settled on “National Landing.”

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

When they finally made the announcement, “we sort of forgot that the rest of the world didn’t know we created that moniker,” Landrum said.

Still, both the BID and developer JBG Smith embraced it and began using the name more and more as the neighborhood began a physical and cultural transformation: alongside Amazon’s offices, the area now houses Boeing’s new headquarters and soon the new graduate campus by Virginia Tech. There will be a new Yellow Line station at Potomac Yard (PoYa?), the first addition station to be added to the metro system in decades, and a pedestrian bridge linking 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, broke into a chuckle when asked about the neighborhood’s two new nicknames.

“What’s wrong with ‘Crystal City’?” asked Vainshtein, 36, an Alexandria resident who commutes here for work. “It’s always been ‘Crystal City.’ I don’t think people will understand that right away.”

To him, Lauren Callahan, 27, said “NaLa,” let alone “National Landing,” hasn’t clicked for her either. But the changes that come with these names hardly bother.

She’s a fan of the free bananas Amazon has been giving out near Crystal City’s infamous underground mall, she noted, and the iced coffee BID gives out weekly at the facility a few yards away.

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

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

“Well,” she asked, “what isn’t made up?”