You know that north end of the shopping center down the street from where we live right?

There’s a very good chance you don’t.

So, allow me to fill you in.

It’s the one that’s very close to a lot of things, and yet, it might just as well be stuck out in the furthest reaches of the solar system for all the difference it makes in terms of relevance.

And I don’t cite the “solar system” term to infer that the people are aliens or act spacey.  Because there are no people and barely any signs of life in this dormant ex-shopping area.

I merely suggest that the commercial zoning in this neglected hideaway looks more like “Twilight” zoning than anything else.

The buildings have the neglected faces of missed opportunity brought on by the cruel hand of fate.  Smack dab in the economic heart of one of the most prosperous counties in Northern Virginia.

And it’s such a pity because had but one decent service road been extended from Route 7 (the mother highway) things could have been dramatically different.

Just one little tributary emptying into this asphalt river and the lights might be shining all around.

It reminds me of the fateful “Lady Be Good” plane crash in the Libyan desert during WW2 in 1943.  As a brief history recap—this was a case in which had the stranded men headed south on foot instead of north when seeking rescue, they most likely would have made it to an oasis and survived.

Same thing here.  Just remove a few yards of concrete and grassy field, and it would have been a different story.  The businesses would have been rescued.  “Should of, could of” hand ringing I know—all bathed in the light of hindsight but you can’t deny the parallel pathos and drama.

Instead, it is the prosperous south end of the shopping center that has all the condos and townhouses and commuter car access.

To add to the irony, the well-known restaurant row in the front side of the shopping center is doing just peachy.  Patrons circulate effortlessly in from the road on the opposite end.  When one business takes a hit, it is quickly replaced by a new start.

So, to better examine this issue, let’s look at the grey areas between light and dark from the south end to the north.  Those surrounding reference points where signs of life still exist before we fall into the “black out” that is the north shopping area.

Restaurant Row gives way to Home Depot and Marshalls and behind that block, the anchor of the shopping center, Giant food grocery store.  And of course, there’s a Starbucks there too.

The middle demarcation line is the Hallmark store.  It alone separates darkness from light.  On the front sidewalk lies success and clarity on the other—well let’s just say it might as well just sport a gigantic wall that says “Keep Out” to deflect respectable consumers.

Given all this normality and assurance, who would even imagine gazing further down the inky black expanses of the service roads to a deeper layer?

But just a few blocks away, past the senior center, the public library and the shining high beacon that is the Hampton Inn, the north ends wallows in its solitude.  It’s lights out as it is there that the north end sits, neglected and alone.  A strange little no man’s land that has defied restaurant success for years.

This is where the circulation ceases for shoppers when it comes to doing business.

Like a black hole in the retail universe, you are more likely to see skateboarders and homeless people here than any kind of clientele or prospective businessmen.

Let’s trace just some of the casualty stores to fall victim to termination in the past several years in this retail ghost town.

Just the past month, pathetically before the Christmas season, the Office Depot drew up their tent and unexpectedly closed with nary a ‘Thank You” sign.

The Sports Authority had left the year before, after hemorrhaging for months with closeout sales.

Now its spaces are occupied only intermittingly by the blood sucking vampires of commerce—the SPIRIT franchise which runs Halloween costume sales very greedily during that hot part of the retail calendar.

The latest round of restaurants to leave were Logan’s Roadhouse and Famous Dave’s.

When it was alive, Logan’s had a great symbiotic relationship with the nearby Hampton Inn, which rises resiliently above this pit of despair like a Crackerbarrel exit sign—with its neon bright sign shining like an SOS flare gun out to Route 7 traffic.

Now the hotel guests must get maps to further away restaurants or eat inside the hotel.

Perhaps it was just another reminder on the OVER-retailing of America, especially with the on-line convenience of today’s insular switch to an electronic community instead of a brick and mortar one.

Who knows.

All I know is that I have been long drawn into the black maw of this vacant wasteland—not just as a sentimental old man who fears change, but as a man who shares a similar fate.

Because I happen to also live in a similarly neglected street grid—one that NEARLY succeeds in sharing a main therefore, but fell short by just the small field by a cul de sac.

And in that small field lies the unsightly spectacle of a water tower which has kept our property value low.

Even though Route 7 roars to life faithfully like the surging rapids on a river, we are denied the benefits due to some cruel oversights of inaccessibility.

The super deluxe mall is across this double split highway, but presents too dangerous a prospect for foot travel.

So, I hang out with the drifters and the skateboarders, way back in the upper reaches of the vacant universe.  Every night.  I walk my dog there.  I revisit store fronts to see if there are any signs of a pulse.

And I wait.  Just as I have waited this past decade for the Sports Authority to reopen and the Blockbuster to magically turn the hands of time around.

It’s really not such a bad wait.  The contours of a very pretty, tastefully man-made lake lie to the outside corner by the Home Depot.  And an asphalt hiking trail curves towards the abandoned Logan’s.

And as I approach all the empty sockets of stores and restaurants, I still hold out some perverse remnant of faith that maybe things will be different and some new era will start.

Will the vacant space at the old Logan’s restaurant lead to a more vibrant, and tastier looking new establishment?

Perhaps some “Ma & Pa” diner will open up that will be the best ever escape ever for flavor and some sense of community connectivity.

Amid the walking, I often pause and sit on my favorite bench with my dog at my feet.  And it makes me ponder even more.

I think of the good times with friends and family dining at Logan’s with their soft rolls and attempts at honkytonk roadhouse music.  Or the boom times eating my favorite sharp cheddar chicken barbecue at Famous Dave’s.  How about those great shrimp deals at Mahalo Bay, with its Jimmy Buffet meets sports bar, happy hour façade?

So, on and on it went.  I kept on hiking my dog and sitting on the bench at that north end of the shopping center.  And the retail space remained vacant and abandoned.

My kinship with this odd anomaly complete.

Until one fateful trip when I caught myself having fallen asleep on my favorite bench and woke with a start to see another man across me sat in a similar “thinker” statue pose at a bench that he must have favored.

In many respects, his features looked very much like mine, just a bit more weathered and wrinkled for having been down the road a bit more.

Something about the disconcerting nature of seeing someone else interrupt my solitude out in the otherwise empty field of the north end of the shopping center, made me stand up and walk towards this stranger.

And as I approached acceptable social exchange range, I instinctively nodded my head at the man.

He seemed too sad to bother nodding back.

“How’s it going?” I asked gamely.

“I miss my daily farm.” the man replied to throw me off my stride and accelerate the chit chat to another level.

“How’s that?” I queried.

“I used to own all this property 3 decades ago.  I was the last in a family line of dairy farmers.  Our dairy cows grazed all the way up to the fence by the community college property.”

I was dazed.

Could it be?  Before my sad little north side of the shopping center had ever been birthed, this land had a completely different identity.

Cows chewing their cud right right in plain sight of the community college students back in the early 80’s.  Imagine.

It gave me a dramatic paradigm shift.

While I was commiserating with the lost stores and restaurants scattered along this neglected area, another guy much older than me, was missing his farm property from a far earlier time.

Perhaps this land wasn’t always tragically cut off from Route 7 all the time.    If anything, it might have been too close.

Progress had swallowed it up—swept everyone up in the excitement, and then, ironically left it largely neglected and empty anyway.

And as I peered back at the old fellow (apparition?) on the bench, I swear I could see the ghosts of all his former head of cattle all assembled behind him, as adept as ever for loitering and passing the time (like only cows can).

And it was then that the big lesson hit me squarely, right between the eyes.

Change and loss is all relative.  No one had any claim that makes them more entitled than anyone else.

I was jarred out of my reverie by the sound of skateboarding kids in the distance, trying to find new angles to try new stunts on the slope of the old Staples store side walk.

And when I looked back, the old dairy farmer had faded away, along with his cattle—before I could thank him.

And as I walked the dog home; back to my tragically cut off residential area behind the retaining wall, it was then that I finally realized that the only real isolation was found in one’s perspective.

All the true amenities in life remain all around us–if we don’t assume that we get to keep everything and fail to see the gift.  Everything that really matters in any landscape, conveys anyway, regardless of ownership and paperwork—deep down in the heart of the admirer.



About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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