How do Maryland and Virginia differ?

From Jared Sylvester, a loyal TCEDG reader:

I was reading through your dining guide, looking for a place to go with my father this weekend.  In your write up of Crisfields [] you said "The accompanying visit to Silver Spring is an object lesson in how Maryland and Virginia differ."  I was wondering if you would mind blogging on that topic.

Let's restrict (most of) this to the adjacent parts of each state.  The food says a lot: Maryland has kosher food and Caribbean food.  Virginia has better Bolivian, Vietnamese, Korean, Afghan, Ethiopian, and Persian food.  (Here is a new piece on minorities in Virginia.)  Both have excellent Sichuan food.  Both have very good El Salvadoran and Thai food.  Neither has real barbecue.  Maryland used to have better Indian food, now Virginia has much better Indian food, including dosas.  Apart from Bethesda, Maryland has virtually no "fine dining."  Maryland has many more Russians, albeit without a decent restaurant. 

Virginia has Tysons Corner, Tysons Mall I and II, The Palm, and a Ritz-Carlton, or in other words a lot of tacky, revenue-generating corporate assets.  Virginia has better and more consistent school systems.  Virginia has better Beltway on- and off-ramps.

Bethesda is better integrated into DC than is any part of Virginia, with Arlington playing catch-up.  Virginia has the airports, the Pentagon, a better business climate, and lower taxes.

The Pentagon and the military are central to my theory of why Virginia is such a well-run state.  Virginia has a major cash cow, to provide employment and taxable incomes, yet unlike Alaska's oil revenue, it is not one that the state government can get its hands on beyond general sources of tax revenue.  The Pentagon, as a natural asset, does not foster corruption or complacency in the Virginia state government.  It is politically untouchable.  It makes Virginia a conservative yet interventionist and technocratic state.  Maryland has more inherited blight. 

Virginia has more ugly colonial houses, and more arches and pillars, Maryland has more tacky old American box houses.  I dislike ugly colonial.

Virginia feels more like an assortment of minorities working within an essentially Protestant framework.  Maryland was originally founded as a Catholic colony.

Looking to the state as a whole, Virginia doesn't have a proper city; Norfolk and Virginia Beach are agglomerations based around what are traditionally non-urban rationales.  I bet people in California, or for that matter Shenzhen, don't even know they are cities at all.  The third largest city, Chesapeake, no one has heard of, or cares about, if not for the nearby Bay.  Other parts of Maryland, such as you find along the Susquehanna, were long integrated into more northerly and westerly trade routes.  Virginia's major waterways lead to the sea.

I've long lived in Virginia, and never wanted to live in Maryland, even if I could equalize the commute.


One is reminded of the old New Yorker cartoon showing their view of the United States: everything beyond Manhattan is collapsed to the vanishing point. The agglomeration around DC is not Virginia, has nothing of the appeal and beauty of the Commonwealth. And.. you don't like "ugly" colonial architecture! What Lord Clark called "civilized, the equal of any in the world." (approx quote.)

Virginia Beach is just a large suburban county (with a beach resort strip) which incorporated as a city, true. Norfolk is more of an actual city. A sizable downtown which is an employment center with tall buildings, etc. It's not a major city but it is a city. It's like a 2/3 Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

This post is why I like this blog. Tyler is wrong about everything except the restaurants, the policy is way off, but I like his conclusions

Too many conclusions from too little data?

It's already been said, but Richmond's not a "proper city"? I get that NoVA and Hampton Roads are agglomerations, but Richmond's a full-sized (1,000,000+ people) metro area with a distinct history and economy...

Funny, a comparison between two states that only discusses DC suburbs and ignores 90% of each state.

It's not at all clear that Virginia's schools are better than Maryland's, especially if we're talking about the counties adjacent to DC. Arlington schools are good, yes, but so are Montgomery County's, which cover a wider area and serve more students. And every young DC couple who has had dreams of settling down and raising a family in Alexandria City has had to confront the reality of their awful schools. Fairfax County schools are inconsistent, too.

The main difference I see is that Maryland has more middle class diversity. Virginia reminds me more of my native California where ethnic and racial diversity is highly stratified by income.

On the other hand, Virginia's taxes are much lower.

Russia has a lot of Russians, too, without a decent restaurant.

Why are the white people in Ballston, creepy? They just seem pleasant enough to me.

I moved from Rockville to South Arlington recently and there isn't much I miss.

Branded 72 in rockville has pretty good Texas style BBQ.

Albert Mangus,

You didn't realize that large numbers of white people in one place is creepy? It is.

On the other hand, large numbers of blacks and/or latinos and/or asians=awesome.

If you didn't know this you must be a xenophobic old white dude. Pfft.

For a year, I took my daughter on Saturdays from Virginia to Maryland for German School in Potomac, Maryland, 3 miles from the D.C. beltway.
One day, as we crossed the Potomac River into Maryland, my 6 year old daughter asked,
"Are we in Germany now?"

Scrolling the wikipedia entires on the DC suburbs basically confirmed my observations that Montgomery county has a much larger black population than Fairfax, but is actually slightly less diverse as it has a smaller Hispanic population (percentage) and a much smaller Asian population. Prince Georges is unique in that it is the "black" suburb and has a uniqueness that does not fit seamlessly into the rest of the surrounding suburbs.

In terms of the government "teat" maryland has a much larger population employed directly by the government, although it is much less defense oriented.

On the non-jobs front both have diverged in terms of high-tech businesses. Montgomery County is a mecca for biosciences because of NIH and HHS. NOVA is second to only silicon valley in terms of tech oriented business. Most of the major contractors are located in Fairfax although this may have to do with more large office space readily available in the Tysons-Dulles corridor which has the office capacity exceeding most major cities.

In all the DC area is the most concentrated conglomeration of knowledge workers of various stripes in the US. The suburbs have always been open to wide immigration and to say one is more or less diverse is nitpicking compared to the rest of the country. I believe the most ethnically divers school systems in the country are all in the DC metro era with the exception of NYC.

Preposterous. Rockville has much better Sichuan food as your own dining guide illustrates.

NOVA roads are constantly closed for construction and the lack of any city planning makes much of Fairfax an eyesore. Virginia driving compares favorably only to New Jersey- there are no pleasant views. Montgomery County has the ag reserve and much more park land and open space. Public transportation is much easier to use north of the river. And thats to say nothing of the rest of the state. VA has nothing that compares to the Inner Harbor or Annapolis.

Plus, any day now gays will be able to marry.

@Jameson Burt; that's funny. I always mutter "asia,asia, asia" when I cross the Potomac too.

How did Tyler leave out the golf course issue?

Street planning is different. In Md. inner suburbs there is a continuation of the DC spoke patter of major roads with a fair amount of urban style grid in between. In outer suburbs there is generally a stereotypically suburban tree pattern

Describing the street system in NOVA requires some weird variant of Riemanian differential geometry. For example, parallel streets generally intersect at least twice.

It has lousy schools and poor roads, and brags about the lack of tax burden to boot.

Yeah, Virginia really should try to be like my own dear Connecticut (or New York, New Jersey, California, etc.) with lousy schools and poor roads, and bragging about high taxes.

We live in Bethesda (and but for my wife's insistence, we'd *gladly* move to Virginia).

What fine dining?

Are you kidding?

Bethesda has a lot of restaurants.

But they are all really mediocre.

There isn't a single really good restaurant in Bethesda. Not one.

Very good sentence:

"The irony to me is that NOVA has much more in common with Maryland than the rest of Virginia yet there is always a seeming rivalry."

Incidentally, going to college in Charlottesville after growing up in Fairfax County was an "object lesson" in how NOVA and (the rest of) Virginia differ.

In general, the Maryland suburbs have always been the place you sleep. DC was the place you went to work, party, good dinner, etc. Perhaps NoVA is different in that you have to cross the Potomac to get to DC, so the psychological barrier lead to more night-life development there.

That and Alexandria was founded in 1749, and close-in Maryland had no equivalent city in it until you got to Baltimore or Annapolis (Gerogetown, of course, being ceded to DC). Silver Spring wasn't even named until the 1840's, Bethesda in 1871. The port of Bladensburg had the Anacostia silt up. I believe Alexandria was the reason why Virginia sought retrocession of its part of DC.

Silver Spring (the urban area) is an interesting entity. I suppose in the 50's & 60's it was an interesting place, but lapsed into decline in the 70's, remained uninteresting in the 80's and 90's, and has finally had a resurrection of sorts.

I do highly recommend 8407 Kitchen Bar ( It is like a nice west side LA restaurant in Silver Spring.

The irony to me is that NOVA has much more in common with Maryland than the rest of Virginia yet there is always a seeming rivalry.

This is spot on. For the most part, NOVA and the Maryland suburbs are pretty similar. The comparisons in the original post struck me as a little odd, especially the bit about the Pentagon.

There isn't a single really good restaurant in Bethesda. Not one.

Grapeseed is very good.

I hear this discussion all the time at home. People in Richmond are divided north and south of the Riva'. The southern gentry of Goochland/West End/ Henrico hate having to go south of the James and all the rednecks in Southside/Chesterfield hate dealing with people from north of the river.

If you want "fine dining" in Maryland, you have to go to Baltimore. Lots to chose from depending on your preferences.

Looking up from my desk on the 19th floor, Norfolk certainly looks like a real city. Most of the “cities” in Tidewater/Hampton Roads truly are just counties that incorporated as cities because in Virginia cities can simply annex adjacent counties and large portions of the area didn’t want to be rolled into Norfolk or Portsmouth.

I’ve lived down here for more than five years and like it quite a bit. It seems though that Virginia is much more in love with its self image than its reality. There is constant bragging about being business friendly and a haven of low taxes, but except for gasoline almost every tax rate is equal to or higher than what I paid in Massachusetts years ago. Meals tax and car tax (“personal property tax” here, “excise” in MA) are particularly insane in VA. The gas tax is low, but the sales tax is charged on everything with no exception for food or clothing. What people seem to forget is that between DC’s influence on the Northern part of the state and concentration of military forces in the southeast it would be almost impossible to screw up this state’s economy.

The politics still seem a bit odd. I’ve yet to figure out how the infrastructure in Norva and Hampton Roads is held hostage by the area west of 95, where three cars at a stop light is a traffic jam.

Culturally I like my area. We hit opening night of the Valkyrie last week, Chrysler Hall is a great place to see any touring show, there is good food to be had on Granby Street (and at the beach) and the Admirals and Tides are almost as much fun and at much lower cost than the Sox or Bruins. My consumer surplus rises steadily!

We like Old Town Alexandria but overall, as an outsider, Arlington, Falls Church, Bethesda and Silver Springs all look about the same to me. It’s all “DC.” If it’s that important too you to find the differences and define better or worse have at it.

Just how dependent is VA on the military budget? If we ever have major Pentagon budget cuts, just how badly will the state be devastated? I'm not really aware of any serious non-military based industries.

This isn't a rhetorical question, I'm really curious.

Oh come now, Tyler - you through a few of those thoughts out there just to get the trolls a'trollin', didn't you? I largely agree with your take on the food, although Maryland still has decent Korean and Indian.

It should be noted that both states have atrocious strip-mall style highways in various places, it's just that have drastically different styles of arranging them. So, for the Virginian used to 7 Corners, Rockville Pike seems crazy. For folks used to Veirs Mill and the Wheaton tangle, Landmark's mess seems messier. And the Mixing Bowl freaks out both Marylanders and Virginians. But are in essence zoning and planning issues make the two states look strangely different for places so close together. The comment about differing styles of tacky houses points is probably rooted in similar differences.

Tyler's also right that some MD burbs are more integrated with the District, but Arlington and Alex seem more connected with downtown DC than are the Maryland suburbs. As for racial and socioeconomic differences, many of the comments sound like those of the proverbial blind men and their elephant. If one looks at the morning DC commute on the Orange Line, the lack of "diversity" probably mirrors that of the western leg of the Red Line. Both area are actually pretty diverse - just in different ways. And both have their own rather monochromatic pockets too.

Schools? Not sure what you're talking about with Virginia schools. One can't reasonably declare they're "better." Compare the high schools of Fairfax and MoCo, and you'd be hard pressed to find a clear winner, although MoCo probably edges that one. Comparing particular K-8s might, or comparing, say, Prince WIlliam and Prince Georges, may yield different results. (But K-8s vary widely, and suburbanites might be siprised to find DC elementary schools are pretty good.) And yes, Virginia's clearly got better colleges.

Describing the street system in NOVA requires some weird variant of Riemanian differential geometry. For example, parallel streets generally intersect at least twice.

That's because many of the major streets, like Braddock Road, were originally people, cow and horse paths. The original paths weren't planned, they were open source. It's like building "sidewalks where people walk"

I'm bemused by the blanket "no good restaurants" statements.

In Virginia Beach, which is apparently just a giant strip mall surrounded by houses, I must have been deluding myself, thinking I was enjoying excellent seafood at Coastal Grill and Steinhilbers. But that's just a couple of really good local dining spots. To talk National Championship level in Virginia, how about the Inn at Little Washington? What would you do, go three thousand miles west to the French Laundry to find a good restaurant?

By the way, there really is good barbecue in Virginia, too. If you can break the chains of "VA==NOVA" then you can find your way to The Q in Richmond (and now in Hampton, too). Competition-quality, not the usual mass-produced restaurant stuff.

On the matter of dining, while both VA and MD have some decent strip mall ethnic joints, by far the top dining establishment in either state or DC is the Inn at Little Washington, VA (and yes, biffpow, it rivals the top places in Northern CA). Period, despite lacking that inexpensive funk Tyler loves so much.

Regarding roads, NOVA has more of the tangled former Indian footpaths, but Wisconsin Avenue/Rockville Pike is also one. The Indians used to roll barrels of tobacco down to the dock at Georgetown along it before there was a a DC.

And, is Natasha who wants to move to MD but kept from doing so by an evil spouse whom I think she might be????

"Norfolk and Virginia Beach are agglomerations based around what are traditionally non-urban rationales. I bet people in California, or for that matter Shenzhen, don't even know they are cities at all."

Basically true. But a few years ago I travelled from LA to visit a niece in Newport News, and discovered that the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area has a lot in common with San Diego. I.e. there's beaches, agglomerated suburbs, etc. etc. but the literal 100K ton gorillas for each are the aircraft carriers, naval bases, and assorted naval presences which are a looming presence in both areas.

This map from the Chronicle of Higher Education is interesting: percentage of Adults with College Degrees in the US, by county (over time)

Montgomery County is way, way up there: 18% in 1940, 23% in 1950, 27% in 1960, 33% in 1970. Same with Fairfax County. The only other counties with this level of educational attainment seem to be the homes of flagship state universities.

Does this mean that the settlement of the federal bureaucrat / "knowledge worker" class has been shaping these places since the New Deal?

'Income, poverty, unemployment, education and welfare data don't matter if there's a Neiman Marcus.'
Nope - I mentioned walking through a fairly major part of the city that is DC, and seeing what sort of poverty stricken hellhole that part is. Georgetown is on one end, Nieman Marcus at the other (roughly). This makes me think that some people with opinions about DC know very little about the actual city.

Though not an accurate comparison, the same is true of a city like NYC - depending on where you walk, it is either extremely well off, or a poverty stricken hell hole. However, most people are unaware of the (not so coincidentally almost unmentioned) part of DC which is not a poverty stricken hell hole - Rock Creek Park was the tip off, not the Nieman Marcus - which just shows a certain reality about the demographic supporting it.

Here is some information about the sort of poverty stricken hellhole which Rock Creek Park and its environs represent -
'The main section of the park contains 1,754 acres (7.10 km2) along the Rock Creek Valley — more than twice the size of Central Park in New York City. Including the other green areas the park administers (Glover Archbold Park, Montrose Park, Dumbarton Oaks Park, Meridian Hill Park, Battery Kemble Park, Palisades Park, Whitehaven Park, etc.), it is over 2,000 acres (8.1 km2). The major portion of the area lies north of the National Zoo, and was established by act of Congress made law by President Benjamin Harrison on September 27, 1890, the same year that Yosemite National Park was established. A later addition of the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway extended the park along a narrow corridor from the zoo to the mouth of Rock Creek at the Potomac River.'

To continue -
'Recreation facilities include a golf course; equestrian trails; sport venues, including a tennis stadium which hosts major professional events; a nature center and planetarium; an outdoor concert venue; and picnic and playground facilities. Rock Creek Park also maintains cultural exhibits, including the Peirce Mill and Civil War fortifications, such as Fort Stevens and Fort DeRussy. Rock Creek is a popular venue for jogging, cycling, and inline skating, especially on the long, winding Beach Drive, portions of which are closed to vehicles on weekends.[2] It is also the path of a major traffic thoroughfare, the Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, especially along the portion south of the zoo.'

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