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New Amazon headquarters a tale of 2 very different cities |

New Amazon headquarters a tale of 2 very different cities

Andrea Sachs
| Tuesday, January 15, 2019 8:58 a.m
Andrea Sachs/Washington Post
Otis & Finn Barbershop lights up its Queens pride in Long Island City, one of two locations that Amazon chose for its new headquarters. Crystal City in Arlington was the second site.
Andrea Sachs/Washington Post
Arlington artists display their works at an art gallery in the Crystal City Shops.
Andrea Sachs/Washington Post
Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City offers unobstructed views of Midtown Manhattan.

Before mid-November, Long Island City and Crystal City were never on the same page, much less uttered in the same sentence. Though both destinations are on the East Coast (New York and Virginia, respectively) and within shouting distance of a major metropolitan center, they had little else in common.

Well, that’s no longer the case. After a competitive national search, Amazon chose the sites for its second headquarters, a coronation that will release up to 25,000 subjects into the cities’ boutique coffee shops, craft cocktail bars and dog parks.

Visit both destinations and you will probably overhear conversations debating the pros and cons of Amazon, such as increased traffic and rent costs and a surge in development projects and millennials. Read on for a tale of two cities that you can’t buy on Amazon or watch on Amazon Prime.


Fast facts: Arlington’s Crystal City, Pentagon City and Potomac Yard were originally part of Abingdon Plantation, and agriculture predominated until the railway arrived on the scene. In the latter half of the 19th century, the area dabbled in gambling but later turned respectable with office buildings, residential developments and hotels.

In the early 2000s, the Naval Air Systems Command and the Patent and Trademark Office relocated, causing the work-and-play population to drop. Amazon will occupy three buildings on 18th Street near the Crystal City Metro station, plus two new sites in Pentagon City.

The vibe: The city resembles an active ant colony, with bodies disappearing inside the malls and Metro station or marching home. People do gather for a midday coffee or happy hour before returning to their respective corners. Despite the transient nature, longtime residents still exist.

The view: Look past the tangle of highways at the sweeping panorama of Washington monuments and landmarks. For a 360-degree view, sit and spin in the rotating Skydome Restaurant, on the 15th floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel.

Foodstuff: Several A-list and TV-minted chefs have opened restaurants here, including Spike Mendelsohn (We, the Pizza and Good Stuff Eatery), José Andrés (Jaleo) and Morou Ouattara (Kora). Most of the chains are represented, but for a homier experience, stroll 23rd Street. The dining spots act locally but cook globally: Indian, Italian, Ethiopian, Japanese, Thai and Greek. Late night, feed your insomnia at the 24-hour Kebab King or Bob and Edith’s Diner.

Culture fix: You will have to cross the Potomac for museums, but stay put for experimental theater. Synetic Theater, a neighborhood presence since 2010, leads the classics (“Cyrano,” “Richard III”) down an alternative path with dance, music, technology and the visual arts.

A few galleries focusing on local painters, potters, jewelry makers and more appear in the underground arcade of the Crystal City Shops. Aboveground, a sprinkling of public art and murals add a touch of whimsy to the otherwise wan landscape of high-rises. For a walking tour, download a map.

The Grounds, a repurposed parking lot in Pentagon City, hosts public events and art installations, including a recent assemblage of seesaws that radiated light and sound when see-ed and saw-ed.

Shop hop: Malls, malls, malls. The one surprise: Vintage Dress Co., which opened on 23rd Street a few months ago. Owner Darlene Bakke scours estate sales, charity shops and thrift stores for threads and accessories from the 1950s through the 1990s. Some of her timeless finds include a pair of Jordache jeans, a Rudolph-red snowsuit and a Donna Reed-era yellow cardigan with pearls.


Fast facts: In the early years, the area was farmland, and Manhattan was accessible only by ferry. In the mid-20th century, the city experienced an industrial boom with 1,400 factories, including oil refineries, glass works, ship building and iron foundries. Others, such as bread, spaghetti, shoes and film studios, also flourished, and a few survived the mass closings in 1970s and early ’80s.

Over the years, LIC has staged a comeback, as more businesses and residents flee the rising costs of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Amazon will reside in Anable Basin, a 19th-century man-made inlet on the East River.

The vibe: LIC still has grit under its fingernails. The subway rumbles overhead, and warehouses sit abandoned on forlorn streets. During the day, the city is frenetic, but you can always find a quiet place along the river or under an idled crane. Unlike other boroughs, you don’t need to squeeze into a pair of skinny jeans and cultivate a beard to fit in.

The view: If Long Island City had the pitching arm of Mariano Rivera, it could play catch with Midtown, which sits directly across the East River. For a river-level view, grab an Adirondacks chair in the 12-acre Gantry Plaza State Park and shout out the names of the buildings across the way: United Nations Headquarters, Empire State Building, Chrysler. Higher up, on the Z Hotel’s 12th-floor rooftop, watch the Manhattan skyline twinkle against the night sky like a not-so-distant planet.

Foodstuff: LIC reflects the immigrant story with a culinary map covered in pins. Diners can dig into Japanese noodles (Mu Ramen, Takumen), Indian (Adda Indian Canteen), Peruvian (Jora), Kansas City-style barbecue (John Brown Smokehouse) and Mexican at Casa Enrique, the only Queens eatery to earn a Michelin star. There is no shortage of Italian restaurants, but only one, Manducatis, comes with Tony Bennett’s seal of approval. M. Wells Steakhouse is unapologetic: Order the bone marrow escargot and pig’s head tonight and atone with avocado toast the next day at M. Wells Dinette, inside the MoMA PS1 museum. If you crave an all-American burger and craft beer, with a side of female muse, the Baroness names all of its patties after women.

Culture fix: Enjoy a modern art moment at MoMA PS1, an affiliate of the larger institution in Manhattan. The museum showcases several long-term art installations plus exhibits with a shorter shelf life. The museum also holds free live performances through its VW Sunday Sessions series. SculptureCenter goes large — in magnitude and concepts — with experimental artworks that fit comfortably inside a former trolley repair shop. Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi didn’t have to travel far to check up on his Noguchi Museum, which opened three years before his death in 1988; his studio sat across the street from the Zen repository of stone works and Akari light sculptures.

Shop hop: Long Island City is thin on retail. MoMA PS1 and the Noguchi Museum have well-curated gift shops, of course. More than a year ago, Book Culture, an independent bookseller with three Manhattan outposts, expanded into Queens. Freed of London, the dance shoemaker, dresses the feet of Washington Ballet performers and appeared on the big screen with Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.” Slovak-Czech Varieties specializes in toys (homemade wooden animals and trucks), edibles (three kinds of flour, chocolate galore) and glassware made in the homeland. Matted blurs the line between high and low art by combining a gallery with anti-Kondo baubles, such as sequined stuffed animals and duct tape art kits.

Andrea Sachs is a Washington Post writer.

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