News & Politics

Notes from Underground (of Crystal City’s Labyrinthine Mall)

Photo by Noah Lanard

Washingtonian is spending the day exploring Crystal City. Read all of our Crystal City Day coverage here.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground begins: “I am a sick man.” A book by a denizen of Crystal City’s underground would open with: “I am a comfortable man.”

Crystal City’s underground mall, which is actually at street level, is an indoor world unto itself. There are plazas and street signs. Barbers and dry cleaners. Mom-and-pop delis alongside mega-chains.

The temperature at 2100 Crystal Drive is cool, but not too cool. Certain corridors, I guess you could call them streets, are warmer than others, but none approach the stifling humidity of the outdoors. And it is quiet. Instead of horns and sirens, there are just the muffled footfalls of office workers.

In DC’s downtown, high-rents seem to have forced out all but the most efficient operators. Here the options are eclectic, and, I suspect, less profitable. At the Synetic Theater, which bills itself as Washington’s “premier physical theater,” you can catch a production of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Synetic, which is the vision of a couple from Georgia the country, was founded in 2001 and debuted with the first wordless Shakespeare production: Hamlet…the rest is silence.) If you prefer to make art yourself, you can “unleash your inner artist” at the ArtJamz studio. If you want to buy art, there are galleries, too.

Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

Other shops are more practical. There is a frame shop, a cobbler, an optometrist, and a maker space complete with a stone-cutting waterjet. Surprisingly few are chains.

If all the art and errand-running makes you hungry, you can refuel at across-the-Potomac favorites like Taylor Gourmet and Sweetgreen. But the more daring will venture further into the bowels of the underground. Plaza Gourmet—a steam table and salad bar joint that claims to be the “best kept secret in Crystal City”—sells its food by the pound ($6.99 for breakfast and $8.49 for lunch.)

And this is just half of the underground. After following a long hallway, you arrive at 1750 Crystal Drive—2100’s sister shops. The first thing that hits you is the sweet smell wafting out of the Schakolad Chocolate Factory. Later on, there’s a Plaza Gourmet competitor (Market Basket) that charges the same price for breakfast, but bumps lunch up to $8.79. For those wary of food-by-the-pound, 1750 has a wider range of menued restaurants. There’s even a Morton’s the Steakhouse for the expense account set.

There are also more stores that would struggle to make it in chicer parts of DC. A dingy dollar store. A puppet shop. A store with military medals and a Donald Trump cutout wearing wearing an awkwardly perched “Make America Great Again” cap.

Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

But what is most enticing about Crystal City’s underground is the space, not the stores. The hallways are brightly lit, and made brighter by the light bouncing off the optic white walls. Along the halls, the artwork is mixed in with advertisements. Walking through them feels like being in an airport with no gates. Corridors that seem like they should lead to a destination only connect to more passageways. Out of nowhere a woman appears from a door that leads to a parking garage. Before you know it, you’re at the other end of Crystal City.

The effect is the architectural equivalent of ambient music. The underground does not tell you what type of person it expects you to be. You can be an artist, or a puppeteer, or just a drone in search of Egg & Cheese. It’s a town.



Editorial fellow

Noah Lanard is an editorial fellow. Before Washingtonian, he freelanced for the Guardian, Fusion, and Vice in Mexico City. He was born in DC, grew up in New Jersey, and went to college in Montreal.