City Desk

Welcome to Arlington, D.C.

Some 165 years ago this month, residents of what are now Arlington and Alexandria voted to exit the District of Columbia and rejoin the State of Virginia. The retrocession came after years of gripes—some of which would sound familiar today (residents resented Congressional budget meddling), while other would sound quite odd (the retroceders wanted out of D.C. because they worried that Uncle Sam would ban the capital’s slave trade). When Virginia left the union a few years later, the formerly D.C. areas went with it.

But what if the original, 100-square-mile federal district had never been split up in the first place? Today’s Washington would feature splendid suburban shopping at the Pentagon City mall in Southwest. It’d already have a Walmart—also in Southwest. Based on the city’s current political divisions, it’d likely elect D.C. councilmembers from 12 wards. Those pols could rake in money by levying real estate taxes on the skyscrapers of Lynne Street NW, in the Rosslyn neighborhood. The undivided city would have a population of nearly one million, almost enough for two Congressional districts.

Would representatives from those constituencies get to vote? That, alas, we’ll never know.

Some stats on the original D.C.:

Illustrations by Jandos Rothstein

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Native American JD

    Take it back from VA!

  • Jim

    Now why don't DC residents wise up and petition to re-join Maryland? Problem solved.

    Statehood is unlikely to happen, so why not take most efficient route? Maybe DC is populated with too many Cleveland natives that just love punishing themselves.

  • Staci

    The retrocession of Alexandria was not constitutional. Virginia & Maryland gave their land to the US government for perpetuity. For Virginia to ask for the land back was a violation of the constitution. See the Contract Clause.

  • Dingus

    I thought WDC was going to become a part of Utah.

  • UH

    Yes I'm sure Maryland and its taxpayers would love to add DC, because Baltimore's issues really aren't enough.

  • Peter

    @Staci Contracts can be changed with the agreement of all parties. In this case, Virginia and Congress both agreed to give Virginia back the land. Constitutional and legal.

  • Cara ANC6D

    @Jim -- I chose to live in DC for a large number of reasons including lack of a death penalty (Maryland has one), rights for LGBT citizens (Maryland defeated marriage equality), and a deep and abiding love for this city. None of those would be served by becoming part of Maryland. Annapolis wouldn't like it for political reasons, either.

    It's far more sensible for us to seek our own representation in the Capitol. And most of my neighbors, some of whom can trace their families in the District to before retroceding Virginia, agree.

  • Guest

    There still would be no high rises in D.C., wouldnt the law still be in effect for the whole city? Not just the portion on this side of the Potomac?

  • Me

    What a bizarre supposition you have made - you fail to acknowledge that it is the Old Dominions management of those areas in the last 160 years which have made them the great places they are today!

    I for one am glad that we in VA have a river between us and the horrible mismanagement of the DC shitty council. Had Congress actually exercised their constitutionally mandated oversight of DC, and properly incorporated the second amendment against the district, they wouldn't have half the problems they have today.

    Everyone knows NoVA is cleaner, safer, and has better per capita income and education than DC. Not to mention that the AIDS epidemic is still ravaging the District.

    We're lucky the rats in residence can't swim across the potomac. I'll be glad when the toll booths go up on 95 and keep the MD'ers out as well. Nothing annoys me more than spending a day in Alexandria only to notice all of the trash thats coming across the bridge from MD because of the lack of quality retail establishments.

  • Brandon C

    I'm not sure where you get the Wal-Mart idea... the only Walmart near Alexandria is in Kingstowne which is the Fairfax County side of Alexandria and not the part that was part that was ever part of DC.

  • D

    @Me - Your view is outdated. A lot of people these days find much of NoVA to be a boring, soulless wasteland of highways and underwater McMansions. Meanwhile, the quality of life in DC seems to get better every day. You're not wrong about the Council though.

  • Drez

    Fun post.

  • Matthew

    As a DC resident, I have long thought that the simplest solution (as mentioned above by Jim) would be to revert the residential portions of DC to Maryland and make the governmental properties possessions of the US Federal Government. You'd still have a "DC" which would be the Federal bits, and then the city of Washington would be part of MD. Plenty of places around the world have used similarly complex solutions to issues of governance quite successfully.

    And "Me" is welcome to the delusionary Eden that is NoVa. Other than friends who live there, I find little to draw me across the Potomac that I cannot get in either DC or MD. And without the bigoted, narrow-minded, and frankly boorish attitude. Come over to DC and call us rats in person, "Me."

  • Adam L


    That's not exactly the case. First off, there were four parties bound by the contracts that created the District of Columbia: Congress, Maryland, Virginia, and the landowners within the new district. All the contracts included the stipulation that the District would be 100 miles square and include the lands donated by Virginia. Some have argued that in effect, Virginia's contract was not just with the federal government but with the state of Maryland and the individual landowners themselves. However, neither Maryland nor the landowners were ever consulted about (let alone agreed to) the Virginia retrocession and may be unconstitutional under the contracts clause.

  • Terry in Silver Spring

    "What a bizarre supposition you have made - you fail to acknowledge that it is the Old Dominions management of those areas in the last 160 years which have made them the great places they are today! "

    You don't drive around NoVa much do you? NoVa also, through bad land management practices, was running out of drinking water and had to take Maryland all the way to the Supreme Court to break an arrangement regarding the Potomac River estalished by the King of England in the 1600's. So, yeah, some things are very nice in NoVa, but other things are pre not. Jjust like anywhere else.

  • Arlingtonian

    Not yours

  • Alex

    This is really confusing. Why are we counting a Walmart that is not located within the former boundaries of DC? Do the other stats only reflect the inclusion of what is currently Arlington or are the parts of Alexandria City that were also once part of DC, like Old Town and Del Ray etc, included as well?

  • Rambler

    Adam L
    My understanding is that the retrocession was initiated BY the landowners. The landowners were unhappy that the Virginia side of DC was being ignored and not developed. So they convinvced the Va. commonwealth to work with Congress to get the land back. I'm sure, but would have to look up sources, that Maryland had zero opposition to the retrocession.
    Hence I believe all 4 parties as you list them were in agreement.

  • Arlington resident

    Interesting, but as Me noted, it fails to take into account the fact that the "Virginia part" of DC would likely be a very different place if it were still part of DC.

    Not to say I agree with him. I happen to think that Arlington is just right - not too deep into the city and its problems, but not the outer suburban hellhole that is the rest of Northern Virginia. It has the best of both worlds (and is deliberately building on that with smart growth rather than stagnating). It's alot like upper Northwest in that regard.

  • Arlington resident

    @Alex - good correction. There is no Walmart in Arlington or Alexandria.

    Perhaps Micheal and Mike made the common mistake of counting the Alexandria section of Fairfax County as part of the city, without actually looking at a map.

  • Arlington resident


    A big part of the desire of the Virginia siders to go back to Va was the slave trade was thriving in Alexandria and they feared the federal government would ban it in DC, which it did soon after.


    Honestly I would have only one problem with Arlington becoming a part of the District and that strictly lies with no no voting representative in the Congress while at the same time having to pay Federal taxes. If those issues were fixed I'd have no problem with it.

  • Alex

    @Arlington Resident,

    That is absolutely true, but one reason why Alexandria became more and more dependent on the slave trade was that almost all other trade shifted to the other side of the Potomac. Before the founding of DC, Alexandria had been the more successful of the two port cities (the other being Georgetown), because it had a deeper port and was closer to the bay. But after DC was founded, Georgetown became the more successful port and Alexandria fell into economic decline. Not an excuse for slave trading, of course, but just some historic context.

  • Arlingtron

    This story makes for an interesting notion but I would say that Arlington and Alexandria would look and feel more like DC had they not parted. There would be no skyscrapers in Rosslyn since the height limits would still apply on both sides of the river. The disease of governmental mismanagement peaking at the Barry administration would have infected the western areas of the city too. I shudder at what my excellent community would be like if this were in the District of Columbia. The article implies that the Virginia portion would raise the value of the District but I say the opposite would be true. I say living in Arlington is like living in DC without having to live in DC.

    Residents of DC do have a bum deal. Congress still meddles too much and they do need full Federal representation. Retroceeding to Maryland is one solution but I understand the state is not interested in adopting a problem child.

  • Arlington resident

    Thanks Alex. I wonder if the canal from Alexandria to Georgetown helped push commerce further upstream too.

  • Alex

    @ Arlington resident

    You are absolutely right. Alexandria built a connection to the canal that was finished in the 1840s, but it was too little, too late.

  • Chris

    As a number of commenters have mentioned there is no Walmart in Arlington (yet) or the city of Alexandria. As a matter of fact, the only Walmart inside the Beltway is in Landover Hills, MD.

    Also, I think the word "odd" is a poor way of describing one of the reasons VA wanted out of DC. To white slave owners of the day this would have been a major threat to their way of life and something they were ultimately willing to wage war over (thought Alexandria was occupied by the Union almost from the start). Yes, their reasoning was fundamentally wrong but for the times it was hardly odd.

  • Ben

    I have to wonder if those making statements such as "living in Arlington is like living in DC without having to live in DC" actually spend anytime *in* DC? First of all, no, living in Arlington is not like living in DC. Living in Arlington is like living in a semi-urban suburb directly adjacent to a major city. Arlington might approximate upper NW's commercial corridors, but it does a pretty bad impression of DC's more urban neighborhoods. Secondly, my recollection is that large chunks of Arlington weren't exactly blissful havens or urban utopia during the "bad old days". Those Rosslyn skyscrapers and trendy Clarendon eateries are a product of recent history, not something that "always was." And, those developments have been going on at the same time that numerous central DC neighborhoods have undergone a complete renaissance as well.

    Don't get me wrong: Arlington's a nice place and all. I'd happily live there. But let's maintain some perspective here.

  • Adam L


    It was actually merchants in the City of Alexandria (not landowners) who lead the fight for retrocession. The landowners in the County of Alexandria (what later became Arlington) actually voted against the retrocession while the city residents voted in favor... this became a very touchy subject and the Virginia legislature debated the issue for six months before finally agreeing to accept the land's return. As for the state of Maryland and the landowners on the other side of the river, I couldn't find anything to suggest that they actively agreed/supported the Virginia retrocession; one would have to argue that a lack of opposition constituted formal approval.

    There was a great piece in the NYU Journal of Law and Public Policy on all these points. It's worth a read if you're interested in the subject:

  • MeToo

    @AdamL - That article looks like a great read. Looking forward to sitting down with it later today.

  • Sarah

    DC will probably never be a state -- it lacks the broad economic base of most other states which allow them to support relatively service-intensive areas like cities with the tax base of less service-intensive areas like suburbs and rural areas. (DC tries to do this where some wards, particularly 2 and 3, provide a higher revenue/needs ratio than, say wards 7 and 8, which have a highly inverse ratio. Given the constant cries for more DC revenues, and the general dissatisfaction with the level of municipal services, one can see how great the existing model is workin' out for us.) So if you want statehood, retrocission to Maryland is about the best option. As for voting representation in Congress, DC will not get full voting rights until it reduces the "clowns-to-Council" ratio and, in particular, until Marion Barry is long gone.

  • Ben

    @Sarah, you have a point about DC lacking the diversified economy of larger states, but a diversified economy isn't a qualification or requirement for statehood.

  • m

    DC doesn't want to go back to MD because we don't want Annapolis making our decisions the way Richmond makes NoVa's. Although Annapolis making our choices would be better than the Feds.

  • Arlington resident

    Yeah, Ben, I spend time in DC. I work in DC. Living in NW is alot like living in a semi-urban suburb directly adjacent to a major city too.

    You been to Arlington lately?

  • Arlington resident

    m, you realize that you'd send representatives to Annapolis like everyone else, right? Like you send representatives to the DC Council? And that the rest of Maryland would likely send you a huge chunk of money, probably alot more than you paid in state taxes?

  • rambler

    Adam L:
    thanks for the link...

  • Arlingtonian

    If you study and work hard enough, you will earn a high income that D.C. will tax at higher rates than will Virginia. If you have a low income, D.C. will provide you with more benefits than will Virginia, courtesy of the people who earn more. If you murder someone, Virginia may execute you, while D.C. will put you in jail until somebody eventually lets you out. Where you you reather live?