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

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


At first, it showed up on freebie water bottles. Then it made its way onto rainbow T-shirts for Pride month.

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

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

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

“That 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 to figure that one out. I mean, sure, 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 subject to plenty of confusion when it first debuted in 2018, with many longtime residents refusing to adopt a label they said felt like a corporate creation for Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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

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Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, the executive director of the National Landing Business Improvement District (BID), made it clear that “NaLa” was nothing more than an event series her organization was putting 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, featuring 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 intended to be fun and punchy,” Sayegh Gabriel said. “There’s no intention to introduce a new name for the neighborhood at all.”

But some others have also adopted the abbreviation, unprompted: A dentist’s office in Old Town Alexandria — officially outside the bounds 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,’ ” Sayegh Gabriel added. “It is the destination we are 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. As long as there have been neighborhoods, there have been portmanteaus meant to sell those neighborhoods and their potential trendiness.

“It’s sort of a cultural shorthand,” said Jeffrey Parker, an urban sociologist at the University of New Orleans. “Places with this kind of name, this kind of nomenclature are associated with certain types of amenities and certain types of commerce. … It is 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 deteriorating, light-industrial area, it was rebranded by city planners as they looked to rezone the neighborhood for the artists taking over its spacious lofts.

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

But more than half a century later, as New York real estate agents tried to peddle monikers like “SoHa” (South Harlem) and “SoBro” (the South Bronx) well outside the city’s downtown core, some said it had gone too far: One lawmaker even proposed a bill that would punish brokers who used made-up names to sell property.

The trend — and the ensuing pile-on — made it inside the Beltway not long after. “North of Massachusetts Avenue” was successfully re-christened “NoMa,” with a stop on the Metro’s Red Line to seal the deal. Other attempts withered amid the blowback: Neither SoNYA (South of New York Avenue), the GaP (between Georgia Avenue and Petworth), nor SoMo (southern Adams Morgan) seemed to stick.

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

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the two-syllable craze has reached South Arlington, where this rapidly changing neighborhood has for the past four years been trying to sort out its identity — and what it should be called.

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

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

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

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

She and her colleagues put together a 285-page booklet extolling the virtues of this booming region to send to Amazon, and just before printing, realized they were lacking something — anything — more compelling to label it.

“We literally spent so much time word-smithing everything about a vibrant, connected community,” said Landrum, the president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, “that we kind of got to the last day and needed to make a decision .”

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

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

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

Still, the BID and developer JBG Smith both 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 Metro system in decades, and a pedestrian bridge connecting the airport with 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 monikers.

“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 that off the bat.”

Across the table from him, Lauren Callahan, 27, said “NaLa,” let alone “National Landing,” has not clicked for her yet, either. But the changes that have come with these names are hardly a bother.

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

“They’re doing 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.’ ”

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

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

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