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Revealing the Facts and Myths About D.C.'s Street System

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[Map via Flickr user Leeann Cafferata]

Most people in D.C. know the basics of the city's street system: numbers, letters, quadrants and sometimes confusing diagonals and circles. Once you get outside of the original part of the city, the system changes a bit, but Curbed is here to tell you how you can understand the system to know where you are at all times, and to explain some of the misconceptions you may have heard about the plan.

This is probably clear, but the Capitol is the center of the quadrant system for the L'Enfant Plan of our capital city, the "ten miles square" which was authorized in the Constitution and designed in 1791 by Pierre Charles L'Enfant. However, you may have heard that the Capitol was chosen because it's the geographic center of the city. That's not true, and it wasn't true even before Virginia rudely took back the portion of the District west of the Potomac in 1846. The original center was around Foggy Bottom while the current geographic center is right where Interstate 395 intersects New York Avenue and 4th Street NW.

Also, the term "ten miles square" in the Constitution is sometimes misinterpreted too: the city isn't 10 square miles, the term means a square 10 miles on each side, or 100 square miles. That square was laid out by Major Andrew Ellicott (as in Ellicott City) and Benjamin Banneker, a free African American surveyor, astronomer and author. Many of the stones marking the square, called Boundary Stones, are still in place. (That also makes a good namesake for a bar, as the folks in Bloomingdale have discovered.)

The L'Enfant Plan covers the area from the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers to Rock Creek, up to what is now Florida Avenue. The street was formerly called Boundary Street, since after the street the land slopes quickly upwards, making it less than ideal for a city where walking and horses were the main form of transportation.

Numbers and Letters (and Alphabetical Syllables)

It's widely known that as you go east or west from the Capitol, the numbered streets increase, and as you go north or south, the letters increase. The lettered streets skip J, not because of some rivalry between somebody and Founding Father John Jay, but because at the time the letters I and J were used mostly interchangeably. GW's food court is named J Street, which provides devious students a trick to play on newbies, saying "meet me at J Street" as the students wander back and forth between I and K.

The lettered streets stop at W, not because anybody didn't like X, Y or Z, but because after W Street NW, you reach Florida Avenue (Boundary Street) and thus the end of the old city. Beyond Boundary Street you were in Washington County, which was mostly rural for much of the city's history.

Aside from the letters and numbers, there's more to D.C.'s street system. Once you're beyond the L'Enfant Plan, the streets are generally alphabetical starting with two syllable words. In Columbia Heights, look for Belmont, Clifton, the D is skipped, then Euclid, Fairmont, Girard, Harvard, Irving, and so on, up to Webster. These streets continue the pattern of skipping X, Y and Z. There are some exceptions to the alphabetical rule like Columbia Road and Park Road, and minor streets sometimes fit the pattern like Otis and Ogden, but those two syllables can help you orient yourself – so if you're at 14th and Quincy, you are roughly 17 blocks north of Florida Avenue, Q being the 17th letter. The same pattern happens west of Rock Creek with different street names (for example: Tilden, Upton, Van Ness versus Taylor, Upshur, Varnum) and it's roughly true east of the river too, though there it's not much of a grid – the two-syllable streets are mostly cities like Austin, Bangor, Camden, Denver, Erie, etc.

Beyond the two syllable streets, the pattern continues into three syllables: Albermarle, Brandywine, Chesapeake and so on in Northwest, and similarly named streets east of the river. In Southwest the pattern ends at Joliet, but with Northwest being so much bigger it goes all the way to Whittier, also skipping the X, Y and Z streets. This leads to some quirks, like the need to include a three syllable Q word, hence the fantastic Quackenbos Street NW, apparently named for a prominent political family. The names are different on the east side of Rock Creek Park here too, such as Allison, Buchanan and Crittenden and so on.

As you go farther north, after the three syllable words come flowers and trees in alphabetical order: Aspen, Butternut, Cedar and so on. This continues all the way up to the very northern tip of DC with Verbena Street NW, a type of flower. (The grid also falls apart up there, with Verbena running into Tamarack while Redwood and Spruce intersect.) But if you hit flowers and trees, you are way up there.


Avenues

And then come the avenues. Named (mostly) for states, the avenues served as quicker forms of transportation and provided nice views towards important plazas and circles. Some say that the diagonals and their circles were designed as defense against cavalry attacks, but that's not true – most circles and plazas (and most circles were actually rectangular in L'Enfant's original plan) were placed where they were as a way to make it easier to orient yourself, as the distance between them is about the farthest distance a person can see, and to form the centers of neighborhoods. After all, it's easier to say you live in the Dupont Circle neighborhood than in the New Hampshire/Connecticut/19th/P area. Other earlier cities like Savannah, Georgia and Philadelphia are similarly organized around squares.

But not all the state avenues in the original plan are still there. Remember, of course, that when the plan was laid out there were only 13 states. Potomac Avenue in SE is one example: all the nearby diagonals are states, like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Potomac is actually parallel to the Anacostia, rather than its own name. That's because it was originally Georgia Avenue. The street kept that name until the early 1900s, when Sen. Augustus Octavius Bacon from Georgia noticed how run down and neglected it had become, and considered that an affront to his state. He proposed renaming it Navy Yard Avenue, after the military base there, and then renaming what was Brightwood Avenue (aka Seventh Street Extended) to Georgia. It took a couple of years, but in 1909 Congress changed Georgia to Potomac and Brightwood to Georgia, despite opposition from Park View and Brightwood residents.

And another quirk is that not every state has an avenue: California is a Street in Adams Morgan, while Ohio has a Drive down to Hains Point. Some early maps show Columbia Road as California Avenue, with a Grant Circle where 14th and California would have met, but that didn't occur. There also used to be an Ohio Avenue as well, running from 15th Street between C and D NW to 12th Street NW. (See this 1851 map, for example.) It was removed when the Federal Triangle government complex was built in the early 1900s, and only in 1950 Ohio was put back on the map as Congress renamed Riverside Drive in West Potomac Park. Despite the nice location, Ohio has the fewest addresses of any state, according to the city's Master Address Repository. Many of the states remained small or got shortened over the years too, with Delaware, Washington, Louisiana, Indiana and others only occupying a few blocks. (Washington was originally Canal Street, as it was a canal in L'Enfant's Plan.) And despite being scattered throughout the city, it is possible to visit each street. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association, for example, organizes a 50 states bike ride (and a 13 colonies one for those less athletic folks.)

There are non-states with avenues too: Puerto Rico has an avenue near Catholic University, plus the Philippine islands of Luzon, Corregidor and Bataan and the Canadian province of Ontario have their own streets, roads or avenues. Only Luzon is a proper diagonal avenue, however, located north of Military Road NW.

So now when people complain about D.C.'s confusing street system, you can help them out, or at least provide some trivia. Have fun out there.
· Tracing Washington, D.C.'s Design Roots in Versailles [CDC]
· DC Mythbusting: Traffic Circles [WeLoveDC]
· Boundary Stones [Official Site]