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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Six secrets that make Annandale #1

Green Spring Gardens - the home, the plants, the legend. [Photos by James Albright]
By James Albright, from his Living Life in 4D blog

Annandale gets no respect. Most of this lack of respect comes from, as far as I can tell, disgruntled Annandalians; our PR impact is almost infinitely small in the Interwebs. As a matter of TV principle, Annandale escapes almost any national attention except when TV shows set in Northern Virginia have scenes that “take place” in one of our residential neighborhoods, with the mountains of British Columbia prominently in the background.

For all its lack of presence, Annandale does get its own residents riled up and breathing fire. What gives? Why so sore? 

Randomly selected restaurant which turns out to have been a delicious stop.
True confession: I don’t know if I live in Annandale. Like any good, self-respecting amoeba, Annandale has fluid boundaries. As a child, when I lived briefly on the far side of town – over there on the ritzy side, you know who you are – Annandale was an amorphous beast of a retail district whose very name tarnished the reputation of householders closer to Fairfax. 

There is a post office that serves a large zip code – 22003 – but Annandale seems to expand and contract with whoever is describing it. Its heart is the intersection of Route 236 (see my earlier essay) and Columbia Pike; on the map, it radiates with spokes about a mile in any direction. Going east toward Alexandria it bumps into Lincolnia, a similar no-place. In that fluid boundary area, I find my home for the last third of a century. I can claim as my town Alexandria (my post office), Lincolnia (also my post office), or Annandale, the gravitational core of the region. Now as an adult (but barely) I have a better understanding of some of the unstated positive truths about my hometown.

The moon rising over the verdant pastures and pathways of the eastern end of Annandale.
Grievances about Annandale are many but diffuse. People, of course, complain. Herewith a list: 
  • Too many Korean restaurants, not enough “Western” restaurants. 
  • Can’t read the store signs because they are in some other language. 
  • Disorganized street pattern, not enough paving. 
  • I miss that old store that used to be there. 
  • Too many immigrants that don’t look like me. 
  • Not taken care of as much as I would like it to be. 
  • Taxes too high, not enough services. 
  • Looks like the South Bronx – Should be more like Tysons, Alexandria, Mosaic, the Wharf, central London. 
  • Schools are different from when I went to school. 
  • Zoning violations are not enforced, zoning rules are too strict. 
This list of a veritable Festivus of concerns can be culled from NextDoor, Facebook, Twitter, and our own inimitable news source, the Annandale Blog. There is, of course, a theme in all of this, a sense that what was here is now gone and I sure don’t like it. Also, immigrants = bad. There are a stalwart few that push back on social media – our heroes – but all of us have day jobs, too. (well, I don’t, thus my blog). 

Lots of these mid-century buildings give Annandale some class.
I happen to love Annandale – all of it – and sometimes I wish I could sit these curmudgeonly types down and go point by point through their curmudgeon and show them that, rather than misery, they are living in a unique, special, and kind of fabulous place. Since I can’t do that, let me share my list of fabulosity with you. 

(1) Annandale represents an old, blue-collar suburb that transitioned from mostly White to a melange of communities – but still retains that same blue-collar panache missing in most of Fairfax. People here have always done the hard work – and they still do! Ride a bus, swing through the 7-11, just busy people of all cultures heading off to their day jobs. 

(2) Annandale’s downtown, “Koreatown” to many, has an inordinate amount of Korean restaurants. This conglomeration is known throughout the region and even way over there in Korea. What do we get for this influx? Virtually every storefront or retail spot has been renovated over the last 30 years – these owners are some of the hardest working folks you can know. I cannot think of more than one or two buildings that have not been rebuilt, filled with new businesses, and then managed to capacity. What more can you want from a business district? Have you been to downtown McLean or Springfield? 

And the food. The food! Annandale has an exquisite supply of barbeque, seafood, tofu, grills, buffets, fine-dining, and workaday dining places – almost all of them worth visiting a time or two. If I were to do a blog about differing Korean restaurants, I would be at it for 100 weeks or so. This list does not include the Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Arab, Indian, Peruvian, Salvadoran, and yes, even American restaurants in the mix. There are restaurants here that are internationally known. And we have the gall to complain that they fixed up their buildings. 

(3) Annandale is a small-town place with a small-town feel. This is an advantage, folks, in an increasingly big-town kind of city. There are no Metrorail stops, no super mega-blocks of mixed-use, no eight-lane roadways, no drive-through Wegmans. Annandale is not that. All of those things can be found about 10 minutes outside of our core area – a world-class hospital, the capital of the nation, multiple international airports, high-end cultural establishments. But we get to have all of those and not lose our sense of place. 

Small retail buildings, restaurants squeezed in among a bewildering array of banks and grocery stores, confusing parking lots – all of this means we are not stuck with the American sameness found everywhere else. Who needs ’em? There is charm in being unique, being complicated, being different. Annandale has that charm in bucketfuls. 

(4) Annandale is the home to an amazing mix of people and home types. There are multimillion-dollar homes squirreled away in Annandale, and neighborhoods as inexpensive as any in Northern Virginia. We are home to cabinet members, electricians, famous generals, Washington’s bureaucratic class, chefs, university professors, custodians, schoolteachers, members of the NSO, artists, businesspeople, nail technicians, politicians, veterans, and among them immigrants from every corner of the world. Except for the complainers, Annandale is amazingly receptive. 

My wife and I purchased our home here years ago specifically because it was a diverse community. Our schools are fascinating laboratories of creativity and ingenuity, cultural heritages that span our globe, and the young, truly American leaders of tomorrow. Is Annandale always as tidy as a Hilton Head retirement community? Nope. But the endless sameness of the American residential landscape is deadening, and I am glad we don’t have it here. 

(5) Annandale is a bit hidden here, side-lined by the roaring growth that characterizes the rest of the Northern Virginia region. But let’s follow the logic. Other areas of the county and region throw up huge buildings, tear down neighborhoods for large retail developments – in essence, exchange character for growth. Here in Annandale our overwhelmingly residential and small-retail community benefits from all that growth – but we get to live how we were before! 

County tax coffers are funded by growth and we get the benefits without forsaking our community. Sure, we would always love to see more in the way of goodies for the area, but that is a function of geography and history. Our roads are the oldest in the county, our parks are hemmed in by our earliest developments. We are a small place with a creaky infrastructure. But have you seen how western Fairfax looks these days? Cold, sterile, open, built up…I rush back to Annandale every time I drive through there. Our quirkyness brings distinct advantages. 

Sal’s in the heart of the business district.
(6) Finally, take advantage of the place we have now, not wait for it to become something else. Go to our own traditional teahouse (Soricha) and catch a performance. Visit one of our several Buddhist temples and chat with a monk. Take lunch at the Block, our little Asian street market, drop in for coffee and cakes at the three bakeries, dine at a different restaurant every night for a month and never eat the same thing twice. Parking is free, everything is close, and everyone, except the complainers, is friendly and cheerful. Rock on, Annandale…we got. your back!

[There is one more thing that makes Annandale special, but you’ll have to read James Albright’s original article to find out what it is.]


  1. This is a wonderful article my dude, I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you for taking the time to write such a great piece, I dig your sense of humor.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, you did a great job of highlighting the awesome parts of Annandale that aren't the downtown.

    But unfortunately, downtown Annandale is primarily how most people experience Annandale, and downtown Annandale is an amalgamation of every crappy suburban development trend from the past 40 years.

    Most of downtown is one-story strip malls and gigantic parking lots and no open space. As modern suburban development has evolved, mixed-us buildings, that are taller with commercial on ground floor, and residential/office above and multi-level parking means more space can be open, and that's what gives a community its signature.

    Not blaming residents, or even government, but Annandale isn't getting the sweet redevelopment opportunities of Mosiac (yet), but that's the type of thing it needs to really shed its reputation.

    1. I think you missed the point. I’m sure it’s a matter of personal opinion but James argued that the mixed use development you see elsewhere is sterile and manufactured personality. He would argue Annandale is unique because of the absence of this corporate engineered experience and we shouldn’t shed what makes the area special.

    2. Annandale is unique because it is full of section 8 housing, korean barbeque and a high crime rate.

    3. Don’t forget the curmudgeons, speaking of...

    4. Haha, I wonder if all of these troll "anonymous" posts come from just one troll trying to make ti seem like it's many.

      Amazing article James A., you captured exactly how I feel about Annandale in one well-written piece. I was born and raised here, and I didn't appreciate it as much as I do now. I'm also traveled quite a bit to many other cities around the globe, and appreciate what we have here. Lots of diverse cultures, food, character, and not cookie cutter like many other places around here. The development around NoVA/MD is nice but they just come off as too cookie cutter. I love the character that Annandale brings and it's easy to visit other areas when you want to.

    5. Anonymous troll must be tired. He forgot "DoESn'T eVERyOnE HaTE penNY GrosS!!"

    6. Alex M., I like that you are a proponent of mixed use development. You are completely right in that it is the future of redevelopment and probably should be. However, it may not be right for Annandale at this time and it is unfortunate that we have paved the landscape for traffic hell long ago by not extending/creating/improving public transit in Annandale and NOVA at-large. This type of development is conducive to transit-oriented design. Your example Mosaic has close access to Dunn Loring Metro Station. Like the vast majority of NOVA's landscape, Annandale is pretty much only accessible by car (unless you want to use the incredibly inefficient bus services). If we want to make mixed-use development work in Annandale, we need the accessibility required to make it useful. This requires restructuring our landscape which will never happen.

      Second point here was made by Adam Goldbarg and is a very valid point. Part of "downtown" Annandale's charm is that is doesn't feel manufactured. I can't help but visit Mosaic and feel like it was conceptualized in a boardroom. While ugly to some, the organic nature of Annandale is what gives it soul. We should be careful about what type of future we want visually for Annandale. We should consider the consequences of cheap, drab structures that performed well in focus groups.

  3. Excellent article that conveys what is truly remarkable about Annandale- we are arguably one of the most diverse towns in the commonwealth/country with something for everyone, regardless of who you are and where you came from. I <3 Actiondale

  4. James A this is the best article I read it’s very detailed and has good information Have a good day James A.and Adam G.

  5. Great article! I've never been to downtown Springfield. I didn't know Springfield had a downtown.

  6. Thank you for this gem. I have often thought being a "small town" was the appeal here. While I understand "economic development" I think we should try to hold on to that feel.

  7. I love Annandale (yes Actiondale!!) I think it's a small, overlooked blip on the map of Northern Virginia. We are conveniently located and you can do a lot without having to leave 22003. Our parks are as wonderful as our people. Thank you for such a lovely article!

  8. Very nice post, it make forgotten Annandale unforgettably wonderful......thank you for this delightful article.

  9. I have been here for 25 years now and I enjoy living in Annandale.Very well written article.

  10. Don't forget the thrift stores as well

    1. And the nail salons.

    2. And ancient people driving their new-from-the-dealer-back-in-1998 Acura's 20mph on a 35mph roads,
      blocking right turn on red lights and gives you a look when you try to pass them.


  11. Can't believe i just read this 500word passage on absolutely nothing.

    TLDR - I live in Annandale, i am bored, here is a list of all the boring places i visit in my boring routine.

    For god's sake, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the same guy from the democratic party paintings.