The Washington Post

Amazon location shortened to ‘Nala’

National Landing name for N.VA. headquarte­rs joins 2-syllable craze

- BY TEO ARMUS

At first, it showed up on freebie water bottles. Then it made its way onto rainbow shirts for Pride Month. In June, it popped up on Instagram as a hashtag, and in July, 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 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 once.

“Nala?” asked Mohsin Abuholo, sitting on a bench near a faux lifeguard shack advertisin­g the Nala Beach Club on a recent humid evening. “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 neighbor

hoods of 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 (North of Massachuse­tts Avenue) before that, the area appears to be trying on the kind of shorthand that, depending on whom you ask, is synonymous with either peak yuppiness or a new kind of urban cool.

Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, the executive director of the National Landing Business Improvemen­t District, 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 is Nala Fit, featuring outdoor fitness classes, and Nala Fridays at the Park, a weekly concert series featuring local musicians.

“It is more of a shorthand intended to be fun and punchy,” Sayegh Gabriel said. “There is no intention to introduce a new name for the neighborho­od at all.”

But some others have also adopted the abbreviati­on: A dental office in Old Town Alexandria, officially outside the bounds of National Landing, has changed its name to Nala Smiles, in part to attract some new Amazon workers as patients. “It was a better abbreviati­on on boards and signage, and it sounds better,” said owner Hisham Barakat.

And across social media, a 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 does not mean everyone else sees it the same way.

The logic behind “Nala” is nothing new in the Washington area or beyond. As long as there have been neighborho­ods, there have been portmantea­us meant to sell those neighborho­ods and their potential trendiness.

“It is 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,” he said. “It is very silly, but it is branding. It is boosterism.”

One of the earliest examples in the United States, he said, is Soho (South of Houston Street) in New York. Once a deteriorat­ing area, it was rebranded by city planners as they looked to rezone the neighborho­od for the artists taking over its spacious lofts. It did not hurt that the new name evoked a hip part of London, and copycat versions followed across Lower Manhattan with Tribeca and Fidi (Financial District).

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 downtown, some said it had gone too far. One lawmaker even proposed a bill that would punish brokers who used unofficial 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 rebranded “Noma,” with a stop on the Red Line to seal the deal. Other attempts withered amid the blowback. Neither SoNYA (South of New York Avenue), the GAP (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 home of the military) were thrust into urban superstard­om when Amazon announced in 2018 that it would be bringing its second headquarte­rs here.

But when officials celebrated the neighborho­od as National Landing, an umbrella term that also looped in part of Potomac Yard in Alexandria, the resounding reaction was: What? “Never heard of National Landing?” asked one local blog. “You’re not alone.”

Stephanie Landrum tells its origin story: When economic developmen­t officials in Northern Virginia came together in 2017 to submit a joint bid for the second Amazon 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 needed something, anything, more compelling to label it.

“We literally spent so much time word-smithing everything about a vibrant connected community,” said Landrum, 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 did not 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 long list of local 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 did not know we had created this moniker,” Landrum said.

Still, local economic officials and developer JBG Smith 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, 36, broke into a chuckle when asked about the two new monikers. “What is wrong with Crystal City?” asked Vainshtein, an Alexandria resident who commutes here for work. “It has 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 is a fan of the free bananas that Amazon has been handing out near the infamous undergroun­d mall in Crystal City, she noted, and the iced coffee the local business group gives out weekly at the installati­on a few yards away.

“They are doing nice things for the area. It is a very trendy thing to do,” Callahan pointed out. “Maybe Nala will catch on more than National Landing.” Vainshtein objected, “Yeah, but it’s made up.” Callahan asked, “Well, what isn’t made up?”

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