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Ashburn, Va.

Had a book talk last night at the public library in Ashburn, before an audience that consisted primarily of empty chairs. The organizers said it's Spring Break in the local schools, and everyone has left town. I would estimate that about a dozen people showed up, but that would be deceptive, since I know there were precisely 12. Nonetheless, I still sold three or four books, and with another 25 or 30 evenings like this I'll see sales rise into the solid three figures. One can sense this whole book thing taking off. It's catching fire! The book is a rocket on the pad.

Ashburn, in case you've never been there, is a new community in eastern Loudoun County, which is at or very near the top of the list of the fastest growing counties in America. For someone coming from the District, Ashburn is an unfamiliar, alien landscape. The uniformity of the housing, connected into rows that curve and weave across the bulldozed Piedmont, creates the sense of a house farm. The houses have been heavily fertilized, for they are taller than the trees. I went for a walk and felt like I was a miniature person strolling across a tabletop model of a community. Nothing has really taken hold yet; even the weeds are just settling in. A drainage ditch has had some slabs of stone added to simulate something akin to a tumbling stream. It feels like a blueprint more than a real place. At any moment, a giant hand holding a compass and a blue pencil will descend from the sky.

But one of the people at the talk said that Ashburn, though initially repulsive to her, has turned into a great place to raise kids. The school is new, and the gleaming, airy library shames any of the gloomy branches of the DC library system. You have to drive to find a hamburger, but parking spaces are abundant (we city folks find this amazing), and the local Irish pub looked like fun (amazing how quickly I found it -- almost a sixth sense at this point). The place was filled with laughing people who evidently had no idea how miserable they are in a planned community.

In a generous spirit we might venture that Ashburn is egalitarian, indeed democratic. Everyone lives in a two-story house with a garage and a deck out back. Meanwhile, the city is segregated, racially and economically. There are affluent people and poor people and a dwindling bunch of folks in between. Go to the liberal enclaves of Northwest DC and you'll find large-D bigshot Democrats racing to expand their already enormous homes into palaces. Sure, we still have cute little bungalows here and there, adding charm to our neighborhoods, but we know they're all tear-downs. (Fact: On a street near my house, the developer decided that instead of flattening the bungalow, he would move it to the alleyway and pretend it was just a guest cottage for the monstrous mansion he built in its place.)

The suburban sprawl in the Piedmont still offends the eye, and is ruining one of the most pastoral landscapes in America. The only way I would move to Ashburn is if my captors said I had no choice, and even then I would request a blindfold. But Ashburn exists for a reason, and its best days may be ahead of it. Those trees will grow.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 23, 2005; 7:31 AM ET
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