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Whitehall needs to be more than new homes, there needs to be a “there” there.

This article was written by Kaid Benfield 

In the 1930s, Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California, “there is no ‘there’ there.”  Was she saying that Oakland had no anchor, no soul, no raison d’etre, no identity?  Stein, who was around 60 when she wrote the well-known sentence, had grown up in Oakland, when the city was much smaller.  Scholars today insist that she was referring to the loss of places she had known as a child, as in not having a “there” to return to, rather than rendering a general dismissal of the city.

Nonetheless, the phrase has stuck to refer to places that lack character and distinctiveness.  (For the record, I do not find the Oakland of today to be one of them.)

We all know such places, unfortunately.  In the new suburbs of America, in particular, every place looks like every other place, or so it seems:  wide arterial roads, chain retail and scattered office buildings, subdivisions with near-identical houses, a regional shopping mall here and there that looks more or less like all the others, inside and out.  If I drive out of Washington on Virginia Route 123, I quite literally do not know where I am for about ten miles.  Am I still leaving McLean?  Am I in Vienna?  Oakton?  I forget, which one comes first?  Am I approaching Fairfax?  The locations may have different names, but not different identities (until you get to the historic core of Fairfax).  The truth is that, because of their equivalence, it doesn’t really matter where I am, except as a reference point for how close I am getting to my destination.

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