My Pleasant Suburb Is Going a Little Bit Crazy

From The Washingtonian:

A story of development, bickering, and a mayor who really, really cares about trees.

Allison Silberberg, the mayor of Alexandria, kicked off her reelection campaign one day this past February at Los Tios Grill, a restaurant in the city’s Del Ray neighborhood. Signs called her “The People’s Mayor,” and there was a long table with big piles of Fiestaware alongside quesadillas, guacamole, salsa, and plantains. There were also plenty of reminders of how national politics can melt on contact with local affairs. One guest pulled up in a car with a CHOOSE LIFE license plate. He made his way inside, where his fellow Silberberg supporters included a white guy wearing a BLACK LIVES MATTER pin.

Eventually, the room filled to the point where it became difficult to move around and not have a gigantic margarita spilled on you, and the mayor began—to emphatic applause—running down a list of the various fights she had fought during her three-year term. This would be ordinary reelection rhetoric but for one thing: She’d lost every one of those battles.

A new condo development at Potomac Yard: “I said no, that we could do better.” (The city council voted yes by a 6–1 margin; she was the lone no.) New houses on Seminary Hill: “You argued in favor of a new site plan to reposition the homes. I agreed and voted against the approval.” (6–1 again.) Allowing unlimited comments at council meetings, no matter how long it took to hear them out. (Also 6–1.) She kept going: Ethics reform. Lower taxes. How to fund the schools. Like stream water around a rock, the council had flowed past her on all these issues. Nonetheless, the crowd was thrilled. “Yes!” people shouted. “Allison!”

Silberberg, who is 55 and likes to punch up her conservative outfits with brightly colored scarves or polka-dot socks, eventually closed this strange rally in a conventional way. She asked everyone to vote her in for another term. “I’m the leader who will continue to be a champion for a livable Alexandria. Are you with me?” As one, they again shouted, “Yes!”

I’ve lived in Alexandria for 12 years and, like many people around Washington, have enjoyed paying roughly zero attention to local politics. When you live in a place where the schools are decent and the trash gets picked up, it’s just so easy to justify being a low-information voter—heck, it’s practically a local right. But early in 2016, city politics started invading my Facebook feed, mostly in the form of complaints about Allison Silberberg. She sounded unprepared, even daffy when she came to council meetings. She held up discussions about real-estate developments over picayune details, such as the color of bricks. Worst of all, she seemed to actually like Old Town. What was wrong with this woman?

At some point, my curiosity overwhelmed my carefully groomed apathy. Anyone who could upset so many uninterested residents of the most pleasant place I’ve ever lived seemed worth getting to know.

What I learned probably applies to any number of the inner suburbs around Washington. One day you realize that your little bedroom community with adequate restaurants and quirky shops has at some point in the last 20 years morphed into a full-fledged city with overpopulated schools, a housing shortage, and an arms race with the town next door over dog parks and rain gardens and Trader Joe’s. Inevitably, it leads to an identity crisis. Are you going to be the forward-looking Suburb 2.0 whose leaders embrace growth and behave, effectively, like big-city politicians? Or are you going to preserve the easy-does-it small-town life that prioritizes things like, well, the color of bricks?

These questions, frankly, can seem a bit grand for Alexandria. If you view the Washington area as a sentence, Alexandria is a comma, or at best one of the shorter conjunctions. Its 160,035 residents represent a little more than 2 percent of the area population. Its annual budget is roughly equivalent to what the District of Columbia spends on debt service. There’s a part of Fairfax that just calls itself Alexandria, and nobody can do anything about it. The cities of Falls Church and Takoma Park are the only nearby jurisdictions we could plausibly beat in a war.

But Alexandria’s roots go back nearly 300 years, when merchants began to congregate around tobacco warehouses and a deep-water port on the Potomac. The town got rich on human misery, with a bustling business in slavery. It has, over the years, been part of DC and Fairfax, owned Arlington, acceded to integration, and served as home to Robert E. Lee, Jim Morrison, and Dermot Mulroney. If anyone outside the region has heard of it, it’s likely due to either (1) the 2017 shooting of Congress members and staffers at a local baseball field, (2) a 2000 Walt Disney movie about the high-school football team, called Remember the Titans, or (3) the fact that in The Walking Dead the city is a walled-off zombie-free zone.

To Washingtonians, Alexandria amounts to a mostly prosperous and charming Old Town, with a Target on the north end where you see a lot of DC license plates. There’s a lot more to the place, of course, such as the strip malls and warehouses near Duke Street and leafy neighborhoods like Beverley Hills, perhaps the city’s most welcoming spot for Republicans (Sean Spicer lives there). Alexandria is racially diverse (51 percent white) and economically mixed: As Virginia’s seventh-largest city, it has more units of low-income housing than Fairfax County, which has seven times its population. It has a higher crime rate than Arlington, a lower median home value than Bethesda, and better bagels than the District. For a lot of people, it’s a perfectly nice place to live.

But that pleasantness has a price. Alexandria’s school system is adding the equivalent of an elementary school’s worth of students each year, and many of the physical plants are deteriorating—George Washington Middle School, where my older son goes, shut down for three days this winter after a water pipe burst. The sewer system is an environmental disaster—it currently shoots raw sewage into the Potomac when it rains—and is going to cost at least $356 million to remediate. The facilities department says it needs an extra $80 million just to keep city buildings at a grade of C. And the biggest swimming pool is too small for the swim team at the only high school, which means students have to practice in—oh, the shame—Fairfax.

Meanwhile, neighboring jurisdictions are suddenly a commercial threat. Right across the Potomac, National Harbor has drawn scads of out-of-town visitors since opening in 2008. Just up the river, Southwest DC’s brand-new Wharf development offers pretty much everything people like about Old Town but with better music, better food, and a shorter walk from Metro.

“We’re getting our lunch eaten by DC and Maryland waterfronts,” one real-estate agent tells me. “Right now, we have no plan for attracting people.” A proposal for promoting Old Town via a business-improvement district went down in a blaze of recrimination, and efforts to redevelop the city’s poky waterfront have become a war of attrition, spurring seismic battles over parking, views, and the prospect of chain stores moving in.

It’s not that there’s no action. A constellation of condo buildings and housing developments have sprung up to lure newcomers. While many residents are indifferent at best to this rapid development, a certain type of Alexandrian looks upon it with something approaching horror. It’s in this particular mental space that we start the story of how Allison Silberberg became mayor.

A handful of issues in national politics are metonyms for entire systems of belief. If you know someone’s position on, say, gun law, you’ll likely have a good read on how he or she votes. Local politics have few similar accelerants—as local politicians like to say, there are no Republican or Democratic approaches to potholes. But one topic reliably sorts people. I’m speaking, of course, about development.

Silberberg supporters will tell you with great alarm that Old Town Alexandria risks becoming another Tysons, or that there seemed to be “something fishy” going on between previous administrations and developers. These are the types of suspicions that have animated her entire political career.

As Silberberg tells it, she took up an interest in the city’s waterfront while serving on a local economic board. She was on her way to the gym one evening in 2011 when she stopped by a local meeting about development and, on something of whim, went inside, then stood up to speak. She recalls comparing Alexandria to Bedford Falls, the town in It’s a Wonderful Life, then saying that whatever went in on the waterfront should “fit into that space and be appropriate and be thoughtful.” She finished with “All of us are the temporary stewards of this national treasure called Alexandria” and remembers “a bit of a gasp” in the room.

The remarks quickly found their way into her messaging for a city-council bid the next year. She won, getting so many votes that the council, per tradition with its top vote-getter, named her vice mayor.

Three years later, she challenged long-time mayor Bill Euille in the Democratic primary and shocked the political establishment by defeating him, a feat she repeated in the general election when Euille ran against her as a write-in. The upset was notable, as the Washington Post wrote after the primary, because Silberberg’s time on the council had consisted of “few concrete achievements beyond questioning big development projects and listening to the little guy.”

As mayor, Silberberg began her term with an offbeat idea suggesting that concrete achievements might not be a top priority even after she won: She asked council members not to e-mail city employees between 7 pm and 9 am. It all sounded like good, decent thinking. Until you took into consideration that most council members have day jobs, meaning evenings were the only time to handle constituent business.

A month later, she performed a much more public faceplant. The council was debating how to replace some dilapidated public-housing units. After hours upon hours—seven, to be exact—of back-and-forth, Silberberg had proved incapable of leading them out of what one member called a “procedural thicket.” As word of a shitshow at City Hall spread, residents who otherwise had paid no attention to it were tuning in to the city’s website to watch video of the torturous meeting, then venting on Facebook.

Over the next months, Alexandria vice mayor Justin Wilson developed into Silberberg’s chief antagonist. “We’re not arborists. Why are we dictating this?” he said when Silberberg insisted that the city plant maple and oak trees along a bus corridor instead of the trees it was planning to use. Another time, the mayor directed city staff to petition the Republican-dominated Virginia legislature for permission to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier, and Wilson snapped: “We’re asking staff to ask a question we already know the answer to.”

After a while, any regular at council meetings could recognize that one of the things Silberberg loved about being mayor was hearing from the people. She reveled in public-comment periods, which began to occupy hours of the meetings. Small businesses with matters before the council complained that the freewheeling sessions were costing them a fortune in hourly lawyers’ fees. When the council finally voted 6–1 to limit speaking time, Silberberg called the move “anti-democratic.” Doing a better job managing meetings is the “definition of democracy,” Wilson snapped back.

To the surprise of approximately no one who follows city politics, he is now running against her. (The Democratic primary—for all intents and purposes, the election—is June 12.)

The job of Alexandria Mayor, which pays $30,500 a year, is supposed to be part-time, while a full-time city manager runs things day to day. It’s based on the “Virginia Way” philosophy that good government derives from legislators who spend most of their time doing other stuff. Silberberg does it full-time. One day this past February, I tagged along.

The day was an endurance course of meetings, and Silberberg sent most visitors off with a 13-by-19-inch poster displaying one of her proudest accomplishments as mayor: a statement on inclusiveness, printed in four languages, that the council had passed after Donald Trump’s election. “Somebody said this is just words,” she told me. “The Declaration of Independence is just words.”

Her first visitors were a delegation from the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, who wanted to go over their priorities for the year. “So we are booming,” Silberberg said to open the meeting. “There’s a lot going on in River City.” The officials didn’t disagree, but it was clear from the number of times they mentioned how crucial it was for the city to move ahead on opening a planned Metro station in Potomac Yard that they weren’t satisfied with the status quo. Potomac Yard is a fast-developing housing-and-retail hub that’s one of two sites Alexandria has offered Amazon for its second headquarters. Silberberg, though, kept talking about how the station might be designed.

“We want it to look nice,” she said.

“And we want it open by 2021,” the chamber’s CEO said quickly.

This preoccupation with appearances would surface frequently through the day. In the same conversation, Silberberg despaired about some of the overpasses on I-395 between Springfield and Arlington. “It looks like Arkansas up there,” she said. After the CEO again brought up Metro—a key amenity to big employers like Amazon—Silberberg quickly segued into what sort of restaurant might go into an office building under construction nearby. It could be something fun, she offered, like a Mexican restaurant. Of course, some people don’t think that’s healthy, she mused out loud, although, you know, “you can have a salad in a Mexican restaurant.”

Next was a meeting connecting staffers from a new assisted-living facility with representatives from the city’s senior services. Seniors are very important to Silberberg. She just got Alexandria designated as an age-friendly community, she has established a senior council, and somewhat against the current trend in urban development toward walkability, she fought hard to continue forcing developers of new buildings to provide a large number of parking spaces, because older folks tend to get around by car. (She lost that council vote, too.)

For a politician, Silberberg has a very eclectic résumé. She’s likely the only mayor in America who has written an episode of the 1980s sitcom Mama’s Family, for instance.

A Texan by birth, Silberberg interned for Senator Ted Kennedy as a student at American University; worked for Senator Lloyd Bentsen; got an MFA in theater writing at UCLA (hence the sitcom); returned to Washington and ran a “schmoozing event” called Film Biz Happy Hour; wrote a book about some of the people she met at those events; ran a nonprofit for DC teens called Lights, Camera, Action!; disbursed grants for the World Bank; and, in 2003, took a striking photo of Coretta Scott King that’s represented by Getty Images.

If you had to sum up Silberberg’s world­view on governing, it’s essentially that anyone who lives in Alexandria is already lucky—her job is to make sure she listens to residents’ concerns, connects them with services, and, whenever possible, knocks out problems with a phone call to the appropriate department head.

That grassroots approach often wins her fans. When she was on the council, for instance, she was reportedly the only member who reached out to a family whose child had been struck by a car on Russell Road. It can also confound, as when an opera singer was arrested for using amplified sound while busking in Old Town. Reports vary on what happened next, but what’s not in dispute is Silberberg’s unorthodox intervention in the case: She issued a public apology for the arrest and called for a review of the city’s noise ordinances.

Silberberg’s supporters say her constituent services are refreshing, maybe even a blow to the patriarchy. “Allison does have a different style and a different approach to things than former mayors did,” says Boyd Walker, a real-estate investor and onetime city-council candidate. “She broke up the male-dominated roles.”

Then there’s the opposing view, represented by the anonymous blogger Port City Publius. The mayor’s focus on details, s/he writes in a typically florid post, is a sign of her “proclivity to miss the forest for the trees (this being both a metaphor and a literal statement about her fixation with trees).” I asked Silberberg about that. “I’m devoted to our trees,” she replied without a trace of irony. But Alexandria has some big, scary metaphorical trees teetering on the horizon—its schools, its infrastructure.

And getting back to that point the Chamber of Commerce brass seemed to be trying to make, there’s also the more urgent question of what Alexandria’s economy should look like in a new millennium that the city hasn’t completely managed to join.

“The city doesn’t offer the attributes that the new economy is looking for,” says Stephen Fuller, the foremost economist on regional issues. The town has always made history its signature, he explains, but “history doesn’t drive economies anymore.” You can’t try to fix your old stuff, expand services for a growing population, and do it all with a tax base that puts most of the burden on homeowners, rather than sharing it equally with businesses—new, 21st-century businesses.

“They need a plan,” Fuller says of the city’s leadership, “and I don’t think they have one.”

Justin Wilson’s eyes light up when I mention Stephen Fuller: “He’s absolutely right. I mean, people call him the doomsday—but he’s right. Everything’s backed up by data.”

Wilson, a 39-year-old contracts manager for Amtrak with a slight build and thinning brown hair, is really into data, a member of the “proud nerd” school of governing. His campaign website says his “real hobby is reading the City and school budgets for fun.” Every month, he sends out a several-thousand-word e-mail with links, charts, and explainers about the city’s problems. He loves when constituents reply with explainers of their own.

“Alexandria is a community full of valedictorians,” Wilson says. As he does throughout our conversation, he follows this with a bit of self-deprecation: “Everyone here with the exception of me, basically, was highly successful growing up.” After I met him, I kept thinking that if Vox.com could run for mayor, it would take the form of Justin Wilson.

Like Silberberg, Wilson fell in love with politics young and volunteered at a polling precinct in Springfield as a ten-year-old. There he met auto dealer Don Beyer, at the time a candidate for lieutenant governor. Three years later, Beyer helped Wilson secure a page position in the Virginia Senate. It was a direct line from there to leading a Young Democrats club at Virginia Commonwealth University, to a citizens association and other boards, then to Alexandria City Council—although he did lose one reelection bid. (“I’m a political has-been at 30,” he joked at the time.) He’s now vice mayor.

Wilson declines to criticize Silberberg directly during our interview. (The closest she came to a direct criticism of Wilson was hitting him for a Twitter war with a state senator that helped lead to Virginia’s mandating that Alexandria finally fix its sewers.) His message, though, is notably darker and less concise than the mayor’s: Alexandria can no longer depend on the federal and contracting jobs that fueled the region’s remarkable economic growth.

“It’s not just a Donald Trump thing,” Wilson says. “This is a Barack Obama thing, this is a George W. Bush thing. This is slowing down. And it has been slowing down for over a decade now.”

If he’s elected, Wilson’s first act will be to get the council to vote on “some kind of emergency-action plan on the economy.” He believes that the city should look at other regions that lost their main industry (Detroit, Pittsburgh) for guidance. And at Amazon’s requirements for “HQ2,” which are practically a blueprint for everything that cities will need to stay competitive—first-rate transit and internet connectivity, a pool of well-educated workers, bike and pedestrian infrastructure. Win or lose Amazon, his argument goes, Alexandria will still need all of those things to attract the next big one. Not to mention keep up with next-door rivals like the much more forward-looking Arlington.

“Yes, we’re proud of our history,” Wilson says. “But there has to be something more than that. It cannot just be ‘We’re great, and everyone should come here because we think we’re great.’ ”

I began reporting this story pretty concerned about how it might affect things for me at home. Alexandria is a small place, and I have friends who support each candidate. I understood Wilson quickly—I’ve encountered a lot of people like him during my years covering local news. Good government, bike lanes, “tactical urbanism,” yadda yadda yadda. Silberberg was tougher for me to crack. The first time I asked her when she got into Alexandria politics, I spent 20 minutes listening to her account of the 1983 day that the US Senate passed legislation deeming Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday. We ran out of time before I could find out the answer to my question.

The argument we’re having is basically, on her side, that we live in a beautiful, historic place that needs to be preserved. On Wilson’s, it’s that those nice neighborhoods won’t mean squat when federal Washington shrinks. They’re both almost parodies of their viewpoints: Wilson is a caffeinated borderline-millennial who answers e-mails on his phone as he hurries to the bus each morning—versus Silberberg, whose latest innovation is opening her office for ten minutes to anyone who wants to talk, an idea she got from Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco from 1996 to 2004.

If, however, Stephen Fuller’s dark vision of Washington turning into Detroit comes true, it will land hardest on jurisdictions like Alexandria, whose current jewel is a neighborhood with too many aging shops and overpriced, mediocre restaurants. Old Town “doesn’t offer much to people who are under the age of 60,” says Fuller, who is 77, and it’s hard to disagree, particularly when its most notable restaurateur, Cathal Armstrong, recently announced he’ll likely close Restaurant Eve. (Guess where he may resurrect it—the Wharf.)

The problem with history as an economic-development strategy is that each generation experiences it differently. Mount Vernon, Fuller notes, has found some success by adding a distillery and teaching about the organic-farming methods George Washington used. It has also added an exhibition about how Washington owned enslaved people. Alexandria, by contrast, has made few attempts to translate its vaunted history in a way people under 40 might appreciate it, and beyond gestures such as removing Robert E. Lee’s portrait from City Hall, it has barely grappled with the not-so-quaint side of its legacy. (Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer likes the place so much he moved there last summer.)

No matter what happens in the primary, Alexandria’s schools will continue to be almost as good as Arlington’s. Maybe Amazon will set up shop next door in Crystal City and all our home values will skyrocket. Hey, we might even get a choice of broadband providers. But if nothing else, wouldn’t it be kind of great if, thanks to Allison Silberberg, a whole lot more people show up to vote in a local election?

This article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

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