From Reston to Culpeper

(published – in a horribly censored version – in the Culpeper News, 22 June 00; also published – in what form I don’t know – in the Fairfax Journal in July 2000.)

I grew up in Reston during the years in which it most resembled its founder’s original conception. Reston was a planned community with loads of recreational facilities, walking paths, tunnels and bridges, lakes and local shops, a mix of income levels, and untouched woods and fields. Robert E. Simon, whose initials created the name RESton, and many others abandoned that vision in the early 1990s in favor of one that places a priority on land use (meaning every last scrap of land ought to be used for something).

Since leaving Reston at 17 in 1987, I’ve lived in smaller and larger towns and no towns at all in this country and abroad. I’ve arrived at certain preferences in places to live. Although I came to the Culpeper area (specifically Orange where my wife and I could afford a house) primarily for a job, I find many other reasons to be glad I’ve ended up here.

What I still prefer about Northern Virginia could exist in Culpeper with very little effort. What I prefer about Culpeper will never more be found in Northern Virginia.

I like about Reston that it is closer to or has in it more, better and a greater variety of libraries, museums, art galleries, movie theaters and stages, book stores, immigrant communities, restaurants, recreational facilities, stores, schools and education level. It has less hunting, less fishing, less religion, less entanglement of church and state, less racism and less country music. Northern Virginia doesn’t dump its sewage sludge on its own land, but pays to have it shipped to Culpeper.

I dislike about Reston that it has a level of automobile traffic that creates frustration, anger, waste, noise, air pollution and devastation of a landscape that once resembled Culpeper’s. A fraction of a blink of an eye ago in terms of the age of the land, Reston was an undifferentiated section of a continent completely lacking in Wal-Marts, Texacos and shopping-cart racks. Now it is again undifferentiated from the surrounding towns into which it seemlessly blends. It will never be wild, rural or urban. Reston has no downtown to compare to Davis Street, no center to compare to downtown Culpeper, no history or architecture to put beside Culpeper Court House or St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

I like about Culpeper that it still has woods and that it still has agriculture. This beautiful landscape is steadily praised, but – as I see it – simply cannot be properly appreciated by anyone who devotes efforts to reducing it. To my mind, leaving Culpeper exactly as it is would be far preferable to bringing in new shopping centers and apartments (except through downtown restoration) even if it meant a new art gallery. So much of culture can now be – in some measure – obtained over the internet that the beauty rather than the activities available in a physical location take on a somewhat higher value. Culpeper has less traffic (for the moment), and Culpeper has trains (with more planned). It has history, and it has a small-town community, an area in which people walk, in which they know the other people passing by, and in which some of them know who walked here in generations past.

I dislike about Culpeper the underfunded schools and recreation services and the absence of a few cultural amenities. But I dislike even more and find misplaced the inferiority complex in relation to Northern Virginia. Most newcomers to Culpeper tell me they came for things Northern Virginia lacks, things which Culpeper could lose if it’s not careful: the landscape, the local agriculture, the small-town community.

A movie theater is being completed. Former Delegate Butch Davies is selling town officials on the idea of a bandshell in Yowell Meadow Park. Three coffeeshops are opening. Passenger trains are on the way. A few more items like that, and I for one will be ready to say “Stop. It’s perfect. Let’s enjoy it. Let’s let someplace else grow its economy and expand its tax base.”

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