Robert Simon (1914-2015) had a vision for American life. While 1950s post-war suburban sprawl cultivated individualism and homogeneity and prioritized single-family homes, Bob Simon dreamed ‘another way of living’ that valued community, nature, and social equity. He set out to build a suburban town that integrated citizens across racial, economic, and religious divides. His vision was realized in the New Town of Reston, VA, in 1964.
This innovative American planner knew that the structures of our towns impact our sense of community. But idealism alone wasn’t enough to keep his dream alive. Amid financial struggles, investors fired Bob just three years after the launch of Reston.
Despite early challenges, the town became an international sensation inspiring new trends in suburban development – mixing residential and commercial zones and creating open spaces and plazas to promote community. Bob’s work to integrate nature into everyday living and reduce car dependency was revolutionary among his contemporaries.
After a 20-year absence, Bob returns to Reston as a community activist. He struggles to ensure the town remains true to its founding principles as it is ushered into the 21st century with rapid urbanization.
As Bob approaches his 100th birthday, will the families of Reston come together to secure the diversity and sense of community he fought so hard to preserve? Or will the rising housing costs and rapid redevelopment mark the end of Bob’s legacy in Reston?
I am a Restonian.
My parents moved to Reston, VA in 1973, only a few days after I was born. They wanted to take part in Reston’s promise of a different life than the typical American suburban experience of single-family homes surrounded by white fences. Because of their hunger for something better, I grew up in a community with plenty of open natural space to play and explore. I had relationships with all of my neighbors and had friends from all walks of life.
I knew I was happy, but I didn’t understand that my childhood experience had been carefully crafted by planners and developers. Years later, when I was a teenager, my family moved into a single-family home surrounded by a fence in a nearby suburb. I was excited to live the “American dream” and surprised when that dream didn’t pan out. I found myself feeling isolated and disconnected. I only knew two of my neighbors. I had to drive to a park to experience nature and my community wasn’t nearly as economically or racially diverse as it was in Reston. That’s when I started to think about what made Reston special and to wonder about the people behind its design.
There aren’t too many communities in the US that have a founder. Reston is one of them. I knew Robert Simon’s name growing up. He wasn’t living in Reston at the time, but he was a kind of celebrity among Restonians. He was a town father figure. But for as much as he was a household name in Reston, I hardly knew anything about his vision for our community and how it influenced my daily life.
When I moved back to Reston as an adult in 2009, residents were preparing for the 50th anniversary. It was the perfect chance for me to dig into the history of my community and its founder. As a filmmaker, documentary was the natural way for me to explore this history. One of my first steps was to interview Bob.
Since I knew very little about him or Reston, I had to start with the basics: Why develop a town from scratch? What was your vision? He had answered these questions so many times in his life that the answers came out rote. I didn’t feel I was getting to the bottom of why he was so beloved. It was only when I started following him around the community on his daily mile-long walks that I finally started to get it. Robert Simon deeply loved life. I can’t remember being with another person who took such joy in the daily experiences of life – taking a morning walk, saying hello to people he passed on a path, watching birds gather on a reed to ride the wind, smelling flowers, listening to good music. I began to see the ways he held great concern for those he knew and loved and how he took a hard line when it came to his beliefs around social equity and diversity.
A STORYCATCHER PRODUCTIONS FILM IN ASSOCIATION WITH RESTON COMMUNITY CENTER.
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