Arlington, Va. • The ’90s hip-hop set the mood. The giant poster of graffiti provided the backdrop. And the neon-and-smiley-face-adorned slap bracelets ensured you knew which decade you’d just entered.
The ice cream, assorted toppings and water bottles also let you know this was not some typical 20-something party.
Welcome to Little Provo.
Officially, this area of northern Virginia is called Crystal City, though for some it's unofficially dubbed Little Provo, a moniker that sticks because of the number of young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who congregate in this community just outside Washington, D.C.
Provo, Utah, it is not. Latter-day Saints are a minority here, but there are hundreds of younger church members who enjoy living in an area where they can run into friends, hang out with like-minded folks and, perhaps, find an eternal partner.
“It’s always great knowing that there are people around that you can rely on,” says Misa Morreall, a New York-native whose birthday party featured her favorite decade, albeit one she was too young to recall. “It’s nice to be reminded that there are other people here that are, you know, friendly and have the same beliefs.”
And so it was on that recent Thursday in mid-September when Morreall’s friends invited folks over to their house — dubbed the Pool House for the backyard water element the tenants confess they don’t use enough — to celebrate in advance of her 26th birthday.
Not everyone belonged to the Latter-day Saint faith, though most did. It didn’t matter to anyone, either way.
Hugs were exchanged with everyone who walked in the door. Balloons scattered the floor. The ice cream flowed.
And Morreall was the star — despite having only moved to the area nine months ago.
The Mormon network helped.
“It worked out really nicely,” she says. “I ended up knowing more people here than I thought I would.”
They came. They saw. They stayed.
The main drag of Crystal City, just across the Potomac from the nation's capital, is largely a concrete jungle of buildings, but it gives way to a leafy, porch-rich neighborhood beyond.
It’s unclear when young Latter-day Saints first started settling here, but the church figured out some eight years ago that it was an enclave of members who had earned their own special treatment. There were several young single wards in the area but the church established the first, singles-only congregations in Crystal City. Once you married, you were out.
Two wards now exist: Potomac Yards and Pentagon City. Both are located in a nondescript, former office building within walking distance — or a short Metro ride — of many of the young members in the area.
Alisia Essig, a former congressional staffer who moved to the area some 10 years ago, says there’s a cycle of Latter-day Saints moving in and out — often prompted by the close-knit community of the faithful. When someone moves away, that person often has a Mormon friend or acquaintance who is happy to take over a lease.
“What perpetuates the ability for people to continue to stay in this area is whenever someone needs a roommate or you know has an open spot in their house, they post something to the Listserv,” Essig says, referring to the Colonialist Listserv popular among younger Mormons in the area.
“Everyone knows about the Colonialist,” Essig says. “Even people who are not members of our faith ask me to post something on the Listserv if they’re looking for a nanny or if they have a home that they would like to rent out to people who are like us.”
That explains, in many ways, the various names for houses that have stuck even if the reason for the name no longer exists.
“There's the Tramp House,” Essig says before quickly explaining that the group home used to have a trampoline in the yard.
Then there’s the Bel-Air House, named because it’s on a hill and looks a bit like the home from the TV show the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." There’s the Flag House, so called because, well, it has an American flag out front. The Tree House, of course, has a real treehouse out back. And then there’s the 606 House, which could probably use a better name than its postal code.
Back at the Pool House, Kevin Peterson says he was able to find a room there because of connections with his fellow Latter-day Saints, and he knew he wouldn’t be walking into a place with roommates whose Friday nights didn’t match his. He’s had great non-Mormon roommates before, he says, but finds comfort living in a place with those who share his values.
“You definitely don't have to worry about it,” Peterson says. “It takes a lot of the risk out of it when you're connected on that level.”
He, like many of the young Latter-day Saints in the area, doesn’t have relatives nearby.
“So my friends are my family," Peterson says, “and that really helps a lot.”
That sentiment isn't just a Washington area thing, either.
Major cities across America may have their own Little Provos, where pockets of young Latter-day Saints gravitate.
Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat and devout Latter-day Saint, went to law school in New York City and practiced there for a few years.
He recalls several spots in Manhattan where Latter-day Saints settled.
“It’s human nature for people to find company with people who have similar interests,” McAdams says.
When he and his wife, Julie, lived in New York, they had Thanksgiving with fellow church members, hosted Sunday dinners and explored Central Park.
“In New York, we didn’t have family,” the freshman congressman says. “And so, you know, church [members] were our best friends and they became our family.”
Krista Winward moved to the Washington area somewhat on a whim.
The Logan native had lived in Chicago and studied abroad in Germany. After graduating from Utah Valley University, she decided to move for the opportunity to work in her chosen profession of communications. She figured the nation’s capital offered good prospects, so she moved last year — without a job lined up.
“A couple weeks after living out here,” Winward recalls, “I got a job on the Hill in Sen. Jeff Flake’s office as a press assistant.”
Networking among other young Latter-day Saints helped, as it did with finding a place to live. She also found her new home with help from the Colonialist Listserv, which includes a fountain of Crystal City rentals.
Winward lives with Essig and her husband, helping them care for their six children. She now works for a public relations firm in Washington after the departure of Flake, a fellow Latter-day Saint and Republican from Arizona, who did not seek reelection
On a recent Sunday, Winward went for a walk to deliver some things to friends. A guy she knew drove by and offered her a ride up a hill, whereupon she ran into three other friends riding their bikes and then bumped into another buddy on her way back home.
“So that was really fun," Winward says, “and it’s nice to live in a place where you feel like you have a community.”
Still, she stressed that after talking to many of her Latter-day Saint cohorts, many of the newer D.C. transplants hadn’t ever heard the phrase Little Provo.
“What I love about living out here is that it is not Provo,” she says.
Sure, she runs into friends at the grocery store and almost always at a nearby Cafe Rio, but she also loves her Pilates group filled with women of all ages and religious and cultural backgrounds as well as co-workers, some of whom are Hindu, Jewish and atheist.
There’s no lack of activities in the Crystal City/Little Provo area to keep the young Latter-day Saints busy with their fellow faithful and any others who might want to join.
Monday is family home evening. Tuesday is institute for gospel instruction. Wednesdays offer tennis and soccer pickup games. Thursdays, a group gathers for volleyball. Fridays could mean dinner out or a movie night.
Says Morreall, the newly minted 26-year-old, it’s good to have built-in friends.
“There’s always something going on,” she says, “which is really nice because I think it helps people feel included.”