[Editor’s note: Since moving to Washington, DC, neigh on 7 years ago, I have been fascinated by the system of street names used in the nation’s capital. There’s your normal east-west, north-south grid sectioned into cardinal quadrants in the NW, NE, SW, and SE directions, and then all the state streets, often large Avenues, named after the 50 first-order administrative units that form these United States. The above map shows where these are (some are tiny!), and the entire post, from GreaterGreaterWashington and 29Tracks, has more maps and dialog including a tidbit about the 1st thru 3rd rings being based on number of syllables and the 4th ring based on plants. Thanks Laris!]
Visitors and residents of Washington, DC know, to one degree or another, about the city’s street naming conventions. Most tourists know that we have lettered and numbered streets. And to some degree, they know there is a system, but it doesn’t stop them asking us directions. But most out-of-towners and even many residents don’t understand the full ingenuity of the District’s naming system.
Washington is partially a planned city. The area north of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and south of Florida Avenue (originally Boundary Street) is known as the L’Enfant City. This area of Washington was the original city of Washington, laid out by Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott. It is comprised of a rectilinear grid with a set of transverse diagonal avenues superimposed. Avenues frequently intersect in circles or squares, and the diagonals create many triangular or bow tie-shaped parks.
Washington is the seat of government of a nation. Believing that the structure of the government should inform the structure of the city, L’Enfant centered the nascent city on the Capitol, home of the Legislative (and at the time, the Judicial) branch of the government, the one the framers held in highest esteem. From this great building radiate the axes of Washington. North and South Capitol Streets form the north-south axis; East Capitol Street and the National Mall form the east-west axis. These axes divide the quadrants.
The axes also provide the basis for the naming and numbering systems. Lettered streets increase alphabetically as they increase in distance both north and south of the Mall and East Capitol Street. Numbered streets increase in number as they increase in distance both east and west of North and South Capitol Streets.