The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Washington's systemic streets

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.

Many street names intersect in multiple quadrants. G Street intersects Sixth Street in all four quadrants, and each of these intersections is separated by over a mile. Western, Eastern, and Southern Avenues form in many places the land boundaries of the District.

North of Georgetown and Boundary Street (Florida Avenue), the area formerly known as Washington County, DC began to develop. For the most part, developers extended the grid as the most efficient way expand the growing city. Some areas, notably Petworth, recreated the principles of the L'Enfant plan, with avenues and circles intersecting the grid. In other places, geography made a rectilinear grid impractical.

As the city expanded, so did the system of naming streets. In the L'Enfant city, the highest lettered street was W Street (running between Ninth and Fifteenth Streets NW). Unlike numbers, the alphabet is not infinitely expandable. In order to continue to have an alphabetical progression of streets, the alphabet starts over. Only "streets" are subject to the convention. Avenues, roads, drives, and other minor streets do not conform to the alphabetical progression. "Places," on the other hand, usually appear one block north of the correspondingly lettered street and often share the same first letter.

After the first alphabet runs out of letters, street names restart alphabetically with two-syllable names. "Adams Street" follows "W Street." Once the second alphabet is exhausted, the system repeats with words of three syllables. "Webster Street" is followed by the third alphabet's "Allison Street." However, the Fourth Alphabet does not use words of four syllables. Instead, the Fourth Alphabet, only present in the Northwest and largest quadrant, uses the names of plants in increasing alphabetical order. Thus "Aspen" follows "Whittier."

Map shows streets based on number of syllables (numbers excluded)

Typically, each of the other alphabets uses the same letters used by the First Alphabet (A-W, skipping J). However, there are some exceptions. The Second Alphabet has Yuma Street, there's a Jefferson Street in the Third Alphabet, and Xenia Street appears in Southeast. East-west streets in the District are often discontinuous due to obstructions. Sometimes the street continues with the same name on the other side, and sometimes it changes to a different name. Shepherd Street NW, for instance, is split by Piney Branch Park between Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets, but keeps the same name on both sides. However, on the other side of Rock Creek Park, in Upper Northwest, the two-syllable "S" street name is Sedgwick. Still, a look at the first letter of streets in the District easily shows the strata of the alphabets.

Map shows all streets starting with letters C, D, E, F, or G (numbers excluded)

The highest numbered street in the District is 63rd Street in the Capitol Heights section of Northeast. Southeast's nearby 58th Street is that quadrant's highest numbered street. In Northwest the ridges and valleys of the Potomac Valley cause numbered streets (and the grid) to give up the ghost at 52nd Street. And tiny Southwest sees its highest number with 23rd Street south of the Lincoln Memorial.

Map showing numbered streets in the District

Of course, without its state-named avenues, Washington would have a far less complex street system. But the avenues don't only add complexity, they also close the streetscape, provide vistas to monumental buildings, and create squares, plazas, and parks throughout the city. These famous streets are important streets in the city, but they don't conform to the system, and as a result are more difficult to find.

Except for California Street and Ohio Drive, all the states have avenues named after them. The shortest of the avenues is Indiana Avenue, found near Judiciary Square and the Archives. It stretches less than half a mile, exclusively in Northwest. While no state-named avenue passes through all four quadrants, the longest, Massachusetts Avenue, passes through three. It stretches from border to border across the District, although it lacks a bridge over the Anacostia, and continues northward into Montgomery County, Maryland.

Map shows each of the state-named roadways in Washington

Crossposted at Track Twenty-Nine.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Heís a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


Add a comment »

Wow, this is thorough...

I'd add that some areas, like Le Droit Park, specifically used a different grid or pattern, as a way of distancing them from the city. The Permanent Highway Plan of 1897? that gave us Petworth and Northwest did away with a lot of those shenanigans, but approved the shape of Palisades, for example.

by цarьchitect on Aug 7, 2009 12:03 pm • linkreport

No kidding . . . kudos.

I myself wonder why Klingle Street becomes Klingle Road for the (controversial) segment in Woodley Park.

by ah on Aug 7, 2009 12:25 pm • linkreport

Actually in far upper NW, it does go to four syllables: Aberfoyle Place!

Nice job.

by William on Aug 7, 2009 12:33 pm • linkreport

Ah, that last one reminds me of the wonderful 50 states bike ride. If you can make it through the 64 miles or whatever it's a great way to see a huge variety of the District. Arizona Ave up there in far NW near the Palisades was the worst, though. It's near the end of the entire ride, and you have to go from nearly Fort Reno (highest point) to close to the River level and then promptly ride right back up the hill again. Whew!

Well done, Matt. Great to see it all in map/viz form.

by Steve Davis on Aug 7, 2009 12:49 pm • linkreport

This is awesome. Outstanding work!

by Paz on Aug 7, 2009 12:55 pm • linkreport

fascinating!! i live on Kalorama off 16th and always wondered how that fit in, what with the letters starting up again right below me after W, with Belmont and Crescent.

by sarahlucy on Aug 7, 2009 12:57 pm • linkreport

Bravo! As a map lover and city planning officionado, I can honestly say that your report was so good, I wanted a cigarette after finishing.

by Woodsider on Aug 7, 2009 1:01 pm • linkreport

The convention also works similarly in Arlington. North-South streets ascend alphabetically from the Potomac, starting with one-syllable names: Bell, Clark, Dale, Eads, etc.; then two syllables: Adams, Barton, Cleveland, etc.; then three syllables: Abingdon, Buchanan, Columbus, ending at Yucatan near the border with Falls Church.
East-West streets are numbers, with Arlington Blvd. (Rte 50), serving as the midpoint. So 1st Street North is one block north of 50 and 1st St. S. is one block south, etc.
Sometimes the numbers are repeated thus: 9th St. 9th Place, 9th Road. Also, sometimes several streets in a row start with the same letter--Madison, Montana, Manchester--before moving on to the next letter, in this case, Nottingham.

Much of Arlington is not a perpendicular grid, and so some streets change names as they wind around and many are also discontinuous.

There are also significant exceptions all over the place, but they are generally not called "Streets:" Washington and Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards, Columbia Pike, Lee Highway, George Mason Drive and Glebe Road being prime examples.

I find this makes it both hard and easy to find things. It's often easy to get relatively close to where you are going, but sometimes it's hard to get there exactly.

by Steve O on Aug 7, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

and, there's a puerto rico avenue in northeast as well, paralleling and running just east of the red line tracks north of taylor street.

by IMGoph on Aug 7, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

Another interesting thing to note is that the diamond is not centered on Capitol Street, but more like 17th St.
What I have heard (and it's supported by Wikipedia) is that the diamond was situated to include Alexandria within its original borders.

by Steve O on Aug 7, 2009 1:30 pm • linkreport

The only thing I can think of to add is that the system is even more confused by short somewhat-of-system streets all over the place. Examples: Church St between P&Q, Corcoran St between Q&R, Riggs Pl between R&S, Swann St between S&T and Williard between T&U.

These guys confuse the hell out of me, cuz you can't trust passing a block without checking its name. You can't go, I need to go from P to T, so that should be 4 blocks, ignoring the silly diagonals.

by Jasper on Aug 7, 2009 1:30 pm • linkreport

Is Columbia Road the DC "State" Street?

by David C on Aug 7, 2009 1:36 pm • linkreport

Absolutely terrific. A keeper. And and interesting sidebar about Indiana Ave NW is that it's broken in two by the Department of Labor. I know, I work on the tiny sliver of it where it collides with 1st & C NW. And I mean TINY SLIVER.

by Joey on Aug 7, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

Nice piece. I always wondered what Alaska Avenue and Hawaii Avenue were called before 1959? For that matter, Did Arizona Avenue and New Mexico Avenue exist before 1912? I assume they did, but does anyone know what they were called?

by Tsar Bomba on Aug 7, 2009 1:49 pm • linkreport

@David C
I don't think Columbia Road is named after the District of Columbia. Most of the "roads" in DC pre-date the urbanization of the District.

However, I've found no conclusive evidence to say that it is or isn't named for the District.

It is *not* shown on my state-named roadways map.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 7, 2009 1:51 pm • linkreport

Amen. I think I knew about 80 to 90% of this info, but I still learned something. Very nice. And excellent presentation.

@David C: Good question about Columbia Rd.

Why no avenues for Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Wake Island, US Virgin Islands?

Isn't there something about the 13 colonies' streets that makes them more central to the plan? Mass Ave, Conn Ave, NY Ave, and Rhode Island Ave seem to be major axes in the Northern quadrants. Not sure how Wisconsin (in NW) and Minnesota (in SE) got so prominent. Places like New Mexico Ave. and Hawaii Ave were tacked on later just as the states themselves were.

I wonder how much of the plan is still present in Arlington's street names? I used to live on Kenmore, between Jackson and Lincoln. All the streets were alphabetical. They have numbered streets, but not really a grid.

by Ward 1 Guy on Aug 7, 2009 1:53 pm • linkreport

Trivia: What were the original names of MacArthur Blvd, Malcolm X Blvd, and MLK Blvd? Alas, no prize other than e-bragadoccio.

by JB on Aug 7, 2009 1:59 pm • linkreport

The 13 colonies were around when L'Enfant was, so it's no surprise the major downtown thoroughfares are named after them.

Now, how Delaware got such slim pickings I don't know.

As for Columbia Road, presumably it derives from the same name-Columbus-as the District itself.

by ah on Aug 7, 2009 2:08 pm • linkreport

On my 1940s era map of DC, Hawaii Avenue is already named as such. My map doesn't show whether the same is true of Alaska Avenue.

It also shows that what's now Ohio Drive used to be called Riverside Drive. According to Wikipedia, an Ohio Avenue used to exist where Federal Triangle currently is. Makes me wonder if something similar happened to a California Avenue.

And of course, what had been Naylor Street in SE is now known as MLK, thereby somewhat violating the street-naming convention.

by Fritz on Aug 7, 2009 2:19 pm • linkreport

Wisconsin was always a thoroughfare, they just renamed it at some point. Georgia Avenue used to be what is now Potomac Avenue but since that was in the dumpy industrial marina, some congressman had "Brightwood Avenue" renamed Georgia Ave. Delaware Avenue, on the other hand, was probably nice until the SE freeway and urban renewal ripped it apart.

by цarьchitect on Aug 7, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport

Ward 1 Guy, you'll notice that the original 13 are all in the L'Enfant Plan. Minnesota isn't. You can pretty much look at a history of what parts of Washington County were developed when by where the state street is located and when that state was accepted into the union.

For example, the only two other states that have streets in the L'Enfant City are Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vermont. Vermont was admitted in 1791 as the 14th state, Kentucky was admitted in 1792 as the 15th state and Tennessee in 1796 as the 16th. It would make sense that L'Enfant or Ellicott could update L'Enfant's plan by the time the city was founded in 1800 to reflect the new states.

Since the original 13 were the widest avenues in the original city, it makes sense that a lot of development was along extensions of them north of Boundary Street (Florida Avenue).

It's pretty much a fluke of history that Delaware was chopped up by building Union Station and by the 1950's/60's "urban renewal" of Southwest. Maryland was brutalized in Southwest by both the railroad and then later the "urban renewal." You can see it was extended out to the marshes of the Anacostia on the northeastern end. Virginia in Southeast is now the Southest Freeway.

It should also be noted that at different times in the last 200 years, the different sections of the city have had different relationships to each other in terms of social status, vibrance, and commerce than they do today. Our experience with the last 10 years has shown how dramatically the atmosphere of a neighborhood and an entire city can change. While nothing as dramatic as the Metro happened before (although maybe the urban renewal and L'Enfant Plaza could be argued to be on the same scale) it stands to reason that a lot of change happened that is lost to history or doesn't make sense to us because we are without context today. I doubt that someone 100 years from now will fully understand the dramatic social and economic changes that the District and region underwent since 2000 or so.

by Cavan on Aug 7, 2009 2:25 pm • linkreport

Delaware Avenue used to be a pretty big road, running from the where Fort McNair now is all the way up to where Florida Avenue now is. A good chunk of it is now where the Red Line and CSX train tracks now are.

MacArthur used to be Conduit Road (I think b/c of the water pipelines to the reservoir).
Naylor Street is now MLK.

by Fritz on Aug 7, 2009 2:26 pm • linkreport


Much of what used to be Delaware Avenue is now railroad tracks traveling northeast from Union Station. Before the construction of Union Station, the mail train station was on the mall.

The L'Enfant plan does not include what is now the Federal Triangle, the construction of which obliterated some state avenues such as Ohio Avenue.

Washington Avenue, SW did not exist until the late 1980s. Before that it called Canal Street.

by Vadranor on Aug 7, 2009 2:27 pm • linkreport

So many historical maps geeks! I feel totally at home!

Anacostia is now overwhelmingly black, whereas Georgetown is now overwhelmingly white. Turn back the clock some 80 years, and those roles are reversed. The old Chinese, Italian, Irish, Greek and German parts of DC have long since faded into history (other than what's left of Chinatown and the Italian Church next to 395). What we call gentrification has been occurring since the city's founding. It's a normal part of any city's life.

by Fritz on Aug 7, 2009 2:30 pm • linkreport

Fritz wins! I had actually heard that MLK (at least near St. Elizabeth's west campus) was called Asylum Road. Malcolm X used to be Portland St SE.

by JB on Aug 7, 2009 2:47 pm • linkreport

jb: you (and fritz) are wrong about what the old name is for MLK. it was not naylor, it was nicholls.

i'll take my e-bragadoccio in monthly installments, thank you.

by IMGoph on Aug 7, 2009 2:49 pm • linkreport

and columbia road was named as such because the roads in columbia heights were named after colleges (harvard, columbia, and kenyon are the only remaining college-named streets in that part of the grid. princeton, yale, etc., were all renamed to fit into the alphabet system. how columbia managed to avoid that fate is not something i have knowledge of.

by IMGoph on Aug 7, 2009 2:52 pm • linkreport

Important states at the time of the creation of the city were given important avenues in the heart of the city such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.

I know MLK was named Nichols Road before they renamed it. Don't know about the other two JB.

by alex on Aug 7, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

Other street names changed or were carved into the plan as well. The western leg of Indiana Avenue used to be Louisiana Avenue, and it extended further southwest several blocks. The current Louisiana Avenue wasn't platted by L'Enfant. I believe it was carved out when Union Station was built.

I think Arizona Avenue, or part of it, used to be a section of Chain Bridge Road.

Also, my understanding is that none of the street names were planned by L'Enfant. I believe the naming system came after he was transitioned out of the role of city planner.

Re: Arlington, I attended a meeting a few months ago in which the naming system was discussed. When Arlington sought to have the name "Arlington" apply throughout the county as a post office name (replacing or layering over the older village/town names, such as "Balls Town" and Rosslyn), they needed a convention to avoid duplicative names from town to town. A bunch of proposals were discussed, one of which would have attempted to extend the Washington naming system over into Arlington, as a SW quadrant. Correspondence from antiquity was read, in which the Arlington road planner at the time was discussing with his DC counterpart the value of using such a system. The DC planner discouraged it, because he thought (a) it would be very difficult to apply a grid naming/numbering system to curvilinear streets (though they ultimately found a hybrid way of doing it), and (b) the streets would start in the 20s and 30s, wasting the lower numbers.

@Matt, I think your first map improperly expands the DC boundaries near Alexandria. Part of the modern (and possibly historical) grid of Alexandria was actually outside of the District, I believe.

by Joey on Aug 7, 2009 2:56 pm • linkreport

Oh the irony that Amtrak replaced Delaware Avenue. Where have you gone Amtrak Joe Biden!

by ah on Aug 7, 2009 2:57 pm • linkreport

Joey-I agree. There's something a little hinky about that south-west border once it goes under the legend.

by ah on Aug 7, 2009 2:59 pm • linkreport

Yes, the southern corner of the shape is off. I didn't redraw the shapefile, because I didn't want it to be inaccurate.

The map is actually showing the District of Columbia, Arlington County, and all of Alexandria City. I just strategically covered most of Alexandria City with the legend.

Part of Alexandria's street grid was indeed outside of the District of Columbia.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 7, 2009 3:02 pm • linkreport

I don't think that L'Enfant meant to emphasize importance of states in any way. Pennsylvania Ave, Massachusetts Ave, and New York Ave are very important in our time. However, if you look at the plans, and also look at historical maps, you'll notice that there was originally no importance placed on any state avenue or another.

For example, Delaware is now considered a very minor street. But that's becuase it was broken up by Union Station and the late 1950's urban renewal project. However, I'm sure in the early years of the city, it was very important since it went from the waterfront (which was where all goods came into town, shipping was the primary and most cost-effective way to move goods) to the Capitol. Maryland would have been more prominent at the time for similar reasons.

What we think of as important streets in our time has more to do with whether or not they were extended to the Beltway and/or what sections of the city they connect. Our idea of an important street has more to do with the distribution of centers of place and amenities througout the city in our present day than anything that Mr. L'Enfant planned.

by Cavan on Aug 7, 2009 3:03 pm • linkreport

The third alphabet does include the Js, at least in Upper Northwest - right before the Maryland border, we have Jenifer and Jocelyn Streets. I like counting off the "Connecticut Avenue Waltz" as I drive up towards Maryland. Albemarle, Brandywine, Chesapeake, Davenport... Very rhythmic.

by Matvey on Aug 7, 2009 3:05 pm • linkreport

An amazing piece. It'd be interesting to document how the systems were extended into Maryland. Existing streets were renamed as state streets as the city grew-for instance, Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring was the Brookeville Turnpike. And the numbered streets continue as well-from NW into the 80s in Glen Echo and from NE into the 100s near Lanham.

by dan reed on Aug 7, 2009 3:50 pm • linkreport

Arlington has a summary of its street grid (and a PDF brochure about it) here.

by Gavin Baker on Aug 7, 2009 3:56 pm • linkreport

Damn my fat fingers! I meant to type Nichols, and somehow typed Naylor! My moment of map geek glory is now ruined forever!

I believe Columbia Road was named for GWU's predecessor - Columbia College - which was located near Meridian Hill Park.

by Fritz on Aug 7, 2009 4:01 pm • linkreport

Awesome maps and explanation. Only thing I'd add is that Arlington does have one four syllable name, Arizona Street near where I'm at.

by Michael Perkins on Aug 7, 2009 5:17 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this really nice post.

There *is* a rough system for the State Avenues for the original 13 states, except for Georgia, which I gather was moved. Take a look - South Carolina is the southernmost, New Hampshire the northernmost. In between, they are in order if you consider the parallel avenues. Of course this only works so well, since the avenues have different headings. But the pattern is clear.

Since the White House and the Capitol were certainly part of the original plan, there clearly were more prominent avenues from the beginning. So I would imagine that Pennsylvania and New York Avenues (among others) have been thought of as prominent for 200 years. Whether that is a simple result of the north-south pattern I mention above, or the fact that PA and NY were two of the more powerful states at the time, I don't know. Maybe the happy coincidence shows the political wisdom of Ellicott?

Once again, very good post, Matt. I hate to be picky, but I think a better title would be "Washington's Systematic Streets."

by DavidDuck on Aug 7, 2009 10:40 pm • linkreport

There are J streets in the second alphabet as well (at least in NE) Jackson St between Irving and Kearney

by Tyler on Aug 7, 2009 10:53 pm • linkreport

What were the reasons for not having streets named "j" "x" "y" and "z" ?

by kenf on Aug 7, 2009 11:33 pm • linkreport

@ Kenf

John Jay was a political enemy of L'Enfant. Thus no J street.

by MPC on Aug 8, 2009 12:40 am • linkreport

I thought it was because there is no J in the Roman alphabet.

by AJ Pasl on Aug 8, 2009 1:45 am • linkreport

Columbia Road was in fact named for Columbian College, now The George Washington University (GW). GW's original campus (1821) on what was then known as College Hill, was bounded by Columbia Road to the north, Boundary Road (now Florida Avenue) to the south, 14th Street to the east and 15th Street to the west. Columbian College is still the name of the school of Arts & Sciences at the University.

by GWalum on Aug 8, 2009 2:22 am • linkreport

kenf: don't listen to mpc. he/she is just spreading an urban myth. the reason there's no "J" street is because of something close to what aj pasl said. when the city was laid out, the letters "I" and "J" were written the same way, so, due to the lack of ability to tell the difference between them when written alone, "J" was skipped over.

by IMGoph on Aug 8, 2009 10:04 am • linkreport

There's no K or W in the Latin alphabet either, so that's not the reason. J was for a long time considered a version of "I". In fact even today, the Italians refer to J as "i lunga", the long i. That's also why it falls right after I in the alphabet.

by Paul on Aug 8, 2009 10:16 am • linkreport

Can we make Matt's essay required reading for all DC cab drivers? Many of them seem oblivious to the street naming and house numbering conventions.

by Paul on Aug 8, 2009 10:26 am • linkreport

Following up on Steve O's point about where the diamond is centered: the quadrant convention may have put the Capitol at the center, and therefore in highest esteem, but I find it interesting that the diamond is centered on the White House, which in modern times has become (for better or for worse) the focus of American power.

by Anderkoo on Aug 8, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport

@Anderkoo, it has much more to do with the location of Jones Point in Alexandria as the "bottom" of the diamond. The location of the WH and Capitol were not a consideration in the location of the "10 miles square" district and the exact location of the "diamond" pre-dated the L'Enfant plan.

by Paul on Aug 8, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport

The diamond is actually centered around 18th and C NW.

I don't know when or why, but at some point Georgia Avenue was moved to its current location from it's original location, Potomac Avenue. I have seen (but of course can't find right now) very old maps of DC that show what is now Potomac Av listed as Georgia Av, which makes sense, it was paced near the avenues for the other southern colonies at the time the district was created.

by Dave Murphy on Aug 8, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport


Klingle Road is "Road" all the way from Woodley Park to its terminus at the Park Road/Walbridge Place intersection. I know of no "Klingle Street".

Re the streets in this area named after universities: don't overlook Brown.

by Jack McKay on Aug 8, 2009 7:05 pm • linkreport

Go west, Jack McKay. There's a Klingle Street that runs through Wesley Heights, with another section in Kent. And a Klingle Place in Cathedral Heights, for all of a block (which is what Places are limited to, I believe).

by ah on Aug 8, 2009 11:24 pm • linkreport

Looking at my old stomping ground, Mount Pleasant (Jack McKay's SMD, in fact, if I'm not mistaken), I see that Brown St and Oak St are colored as 1st and 4th Alphabet, respectively. I'd have said, instead, that the region is still the 2nd alphabet but those two streets don't fit the naming convention.

Also, this talk about the street alphabets reminds me of a poem about Ingleside Terrace that was reprinted in Mara Cherkasky's entertaining book about the history of Mount Pleasant. You can find the whole thing in Google Books by searching on its first line, "Ingleside Terrace is shaped like a bow."

by tdcjames on Aug 9, 2009 9:40 am • linkreport

I'm a little late to this excellent post. You mention that 6th and G intersect in all four quadrants: I did some calculations and found that there were 28 such four-quadrant intersections, plus 71 that occur in three quadrants.

by thm on Aug 9, 2009 10:28 am • linkreport

You are referring to the "Alphabet Sets" map. On that map, I made it by doing the following:
1. Excluding Avenues, Places, Roads, Circles, etc.
2. Excluding numbered streets.
3. Of the remaining streets, classifying all plant-named streets as Fourth Alphabet.
4. Of the remaining streets, dividing them into First-Third based on their syllables.

This means that a three syllable street name, no matter where in the city it's located, is colored as if it's in the third alphabet.

Take, for instance, Warder Street. With two syllables, it fits in the second alphabet, which is also where you'd find it. But it doesn't run east-west. It runs north-south from Harvard Street to Rock Creek Church Road, where it becomes 7th Street.

There are a few streets that do not meet the naming convention. The map was made to show how many do meet the convention. However the "Sets" map doesn't show the progression alphabetically. For that reason I created the "Strata" map. You can see that sometimes streets are out of alphabetical order, as well.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 9, 2009 10:55 am • linkreport

Unless I'm missing something in this thread, the Malcolm X and MLK questions were answered already (Portland and Nicholls, which is what my old D.C. maps say), but the question about MacArthur Boulevard wasn't answered. The former name was Conduit Road, named for the Washington Aqueduct. At the bend near Nebraska Avenue and Chain Bridge Road, there's the old Conduit Road schoolhouse and at least one apartment named The Conduit closer to Foxhall Road.

Someone earlier said that they thought that Arizona Avenue followed the old Chain Bridge Road. That's incorrect to my knowledge. Where today's Loughboro Road (or if you're really old school, Loughborough Road), splits off Nebraska Avenue, the old Chain Bridge Road remains, past the ruins of Peggy Cooper Cafritz's house, past Battery Kemble and the old slave cemetery. Chain Bridge Road follows the original course of the old "Ridge Road" (following the ridge line down from Tenleytown (or Tenallytown). Generally, it's really narrow, especially between MacArthur Boulevard and the former right-of-way for the No. 20/Glen Echo trolley tracks. After that it disappears in the trees above Canal Road, where it once connected to.

by mgrass on Aug 9, 2009 10:56 am • linkreport

Brookland was also laid out on it's own grid, much like the aforementioned LeDroit Park. It was outside the city limits at the time. When the are was incorporated with the city in the 1930s, my understanding is there were a number of street name changes made to help associate it with the rest of the city grid.
This is a spectacularly helpful amount of information.

by Wondermachine on Aug 9, 2009 11:24 am • linkreport

Excellent work, Matt!

Most of LeDroit Park's streets were named after the trees that were planted along them, e.g. Maple (now T), Spruce (now U), Elm (still there), Oak (now Oakdale), Larch (now 5th)

If anyone looking for old maps (and old street names), I would recommend the Library of Congress's digitized map collection, especially, the detailed Boschke map of the entire District charted in the 1850.

by Monumentality on Aug 9, 2009 1:20 pm • linkreport

"Klingle Road is "Road" all the way from Woodley Park to its terminus at the Park Road/Walbridge Place intersection."

Nice attempt at trolling ;)

by Phil on Aug 10, 2009 1:39 pm • linkreport

Why isnt there a X, Y or Z street.

Why is there a 9 1/2 street, where do the half streets come into the picture at

Why do the numbered streets start at the capitol and go out rather than start at the borders of the original city and go in

What was the purpose of the quadrants instead of just have a complete numbered grid from the Anacostia River to the Potomac River

Since street names have been changed many times since 1790 why haven't the changed many of the streets to make them logical.

Why are there broken streets that start at one point end pick up miles later such as New Hampshire Ave, Central Ave, Buchanan ST, North Capitol ST, Southern & Eastern Ave, Brentwood Rd & Chillium Place did they ever go there full distances unblocked.

Why do we have streets that are only one block why not just bulldoze them and set up a proper grid.

by kk on Aug 10, 2009 3:34 pm • linkreport

I'll answer some of your questions, the others, I'll leave to anyone who knows.

1. Half Streets: I assume half streets were added to the grid later, or were placed where they because it was thought that the city should keep a fairly constant interval. It may be a combination of both.

For instance, let's assume that we already have a Ninth Street and a Tenth Street. We decide to add a parallel street in between. What do we do?

Well, we could follow one DC convention and name the street Ninth Place. Or we could do what other cities have done, (Atlanta has 17th 1/2) and use half numbers. It's perfectly clear where the street belongs.

2. Streets Centered on the Capitol: Having an origin (that is, the center of a cartesian grid) makes the city relative to one point. In this case, all addresses are based on the Legislative Branch, the part of the government that the framers believed the most important. That's why it's structure is set forth in Article I of the Constitution.

Starting at a center point also makes the city infinitely expandable. If we had started at, say, where East Capitol Street crosses the Anacostia, the numbers couldn't expand eastward with the city. Or if they did, suddenly the symbolic center of the city would be in the middle of a river. In a national capital, it is important to have a symbolic center.

Similarly, starting at the edges of the city and numbering inward, would mean that we would have numbers decreased as one approached Georgetown from the west, increased as one continued toward the Capitol, decreased again as one headed toward RFK, and then increased again as one moved toward Capitol Heights. That certainly sounds confusing.

3. Anacostia-Potomac Numbering: This is the strategy used for Avenue numbering in New York and for sreet numbering in Philadelphia. But the rivers aren't north-south, they slope away from each other. Where would the numbering start?

If First Street were located at the north-south line where the Anacostia crosses the District Line, (about 42nd Street NE today), from the perspective of East Capitol Street, the grid would start at 20th Street. On the opposite bank of the Anacostia, perhaps we would have First Street of the opposite quadrant, or perhaps we wouldn't have a system.

It bears reiterating, that the addressing system has a symbolic heart, the Capitol.

4. Broken Streets: I find this system unique and interesting. And while it's confusing, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Take numbered streets, for instance. Address numbers change whether the numbered street in question exists at that point or not. Consider Shepherd Street NW near Georgia Avenue. Because Georgia Avenue meanders a bit (it follows a pre-urban course), and because Kansas Avenue is nearby, Ninth and Tenth Streets don't cross Shepherd. As a result, address numbers jump to approximate the street grid.

Besides, when the numbered street starts again, it's on the same axis, why give it a new number? New York's numbered streets which are interrupted by Central Park don't have different numbers on either side. They pretend the street continues through.

As for other streets, it's no different. Vermont Avenue is split by McPherson Square (by today's standards). But without the channelization of the square for automobiles, the "street" (the public space) goes right through.

Similarly, Pennsylvania Avenue is split by the White House and the Capitol into three sections. But the address numbers don't change, even though the axis is realigned slightly at each point.

In the case of the axes, North Capitol Street is one of the streets that divides the quadrants. It has to continue; it's an axis. Why should avenues or even minor streets be any exception?

5. Bulldozing Streets: I assume you mean that we should remove short streets from the grid merely in an effort to create more order.

But streets connect properties. And they're often there for historical reasons. Sometimes geography (topography) prevent feasible connections.

If you mean instead, tearing down the obstacles at the ends of the street so that it could be extended, that also requires demolishing the city.

While creating order from chaos is certainly a laudable goal, it's not always the best idea. Trinidad and Georgetown both violate the order imposed on the wilderness by L'Enfant and Ellicott. That doesn't mean we should tear them down just to create a better grid.

We've done that once already. In the 1950s, the entire Waterfront Southwest district was cleared of buildings, streets, parks, churches, trees, and everything else. The District started again, and as a result, we have a Modernist Urban Utopia right south of the Mall, but it does not have the vibrancy or historical connection that the Waterfront had.

It's true that Baron Haussmann created modern Paris (and today's Washington) by driving boulevards across the historic center, but Haussmann's plan was far different than the proposals of Robert Moses to ramrod freeways through New York or Le Corbuier's Plan Voisin for Paris.

No, I find nothing improper about our grid, even if -- indeed, perhaps because -- it is not absolute.

I'm afraid I can't answer your other questions.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 10, 2009 4:17 pm • linkreport

> Why isnt there a X, Y or Z street.
There was briefly above Georgetown/Burleith.

>Why is there a 9 1/2 street, where do the half streets >come into the picture at

Half streets are generally alleys or minor (post-L'Enfant)named as streets-9 1/2 is an alley.

>Since street names have been changed many times since 1790 >why haven't the changed many of the streets to make them >logical.
They have been.

>Why are there broken streets that start at one point end >pick up miles later such as New Hampshire Ave, Central >Ave, Buchanan ST, North Capitol ST, Southern & Eastern >Ave, Brentwood Rd & Chillium Place did they ever go there >full distances unblocked.

No. It would have cost lots of money.

>Why do we have streets that are only one block why not >just bulldoze them and set up a proper grid.

It would cost lots of money.

by Matthew on Aug 16, 2009 8:51 pm • linkreport


Is there an article on the streets of Alexandria County DC(Present day Arlington)? I know they have a naming convention as well.

by Matt Glazewski on Nov 25, 2009 9:57 am • linkreport

While we're listing "almost" states that have Avenues (like Puerto Rico, and in the 40s, AK and HI), we should mention Luzon, named after the island in the Philippines that we took with Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War.

by Charles on Dec 10, 2009 2:02 pm • linkreport

Where in dc is there an intersection of 2 roads, 2 streets and 2 avenues?

by matt on Dec 11, 2009 4:46 pm • linkreport

The Starburst in NE:
Florida and Maryland Avenues NE
Bladensburg and Benning Roads NE
H and 15th Streets NE

by Eric F. on Dec 11, 2009 4:48 pm • linkreport

Close enough, though it could be argued that Florida isn't part of the intersection in the strictest sense...

by Froggie on Dec 11, 2009 7:43 pm • linkreport

there are ( at least) two 1/2 streets that aren't alleys.

by a on Dec 11, 2009 9:57 pm • linkreport

great thread!

1/2 streets - is it true that Mt. Pleasant St was once 16 1/2 St?

Reno Road - was that an old Indian trail?

What is the reason for the little streets like Powhatan & Quintana & Roxboro Pl in NW? did a developer just build small houses and decide to increase density and added streets in the preexisting grid?

And what seem like alleys but are named things like 'Browns Court' on the Hill or ' Hughes Mews' in Foggy Bottom, have they been named forever?

by LBW on Dec 11, 2009 11:39 pm • linkreport

LBW: Reno Road was designed in the 1890s to hug the contours of the terrain. As far as I can tell, no road that elegant was created organically. That said, most other streets called "Road" preexist the Permanent Highway plan of 1897, which set out most streets in DC.

by Neil Flanagan on Dec 12, 2009 2:24 am • linkreport

Does anyone know the exact year that the street numbers were changed, running in the opposite direction? For instance, Mary Surratt's infamous boardinghouse in 1865 was at 541 H Street. It is now 604 H Street without ever changing location.

by Laurie Verge on Jan 11, 2010 1:10 pm • linkreport

MLK was originally Asylum Road. It was renamed Nichols Avenue in honor of Dr. Charles Henry Nichols the first medical superintendent and founder of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. It was officially renamed MLK May 6, 1971.

by JE on Feb 12, 2010 1:11 am • linkreport

Was there ever a Lewis Street in NE Washington in the late 1800's and early 1900's. I found a peice of document that my greatgrandfather lived at 1604 Lewis Street N E Washington in the early 1900's. I just want to verfy this. Thanks

by rozvayers on Apr 16, 2010 1:19 am • linkreport

@Fritz on Aug 7, 2009 2:19 pm

Re California Ave., note this map as linked in this post, which shows a grand California Ave. that apparently never was built (except for the portion from Champlain to 16th, now called Kalorama Rd.).

by Tom on Aug 24, 2010 11:16 am • linkreport

This is pretty nice. Great explanation.

I think he should have mentioned the I and J street thing though. At the time, when writing I and J, they looked extremely similar. Therefore, they chose to omit J street so as to not confuse people.

by Steve on Dec 20, 2011 9:09 am • linkreport

Arizona Avenue is a recent construction. The 1940 Census map,however, shows what has to be a proposed Arizona Avenue running through the middel of Glover Archbold Park from Canal Road up to Van ness. This is intersting because in the 50's there was a prposal for a freeway through that same land.It would have connected to the prposed Three Sisters bridge and the proposed Potomac freeway (of which Clara Barton is a stub). I guess the proposal was around for a long time. Kind of like the Fort Circle Parkway proposal

by Brian on May 21, 2012 6:40 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know why there are missing parts to the symmetry in the L'Enfant plan. Connecticut mirrors Vermont, Massachusetts mirrors Rhode Island, Why no mirroring street for New Hampshire? Dupont Circle mirrors Logan Circle; why no mirroring circle for Thomas Circle?
I have found the discontinuity of New Hampshire Ave to be inconvenient...any reason for it?

by Andy on Aug 29, 2012 6:01 pm • linkreport

Excellent piece of work! Thanks. Answers many questions. Will refer others to it, particularly newcomers.

Suggestion: A list of odd street names. For one, I nominate Unicorn Ln NW (yes, there is such a street). It seems to attract a lot of attention. People stop to photograph it, has used it. And thieves often steal the signs, probably to adorn dorm rooms or use as gag gifts.

by Bob on Aug 8, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

Isn't Johnson Avenue, between R & S Sts. N.W., the shortest avenue? Who was it named after anyway?

by Don on Sep 29, 2013 6:40 pm • linkreport

Am I too late? Seems like all has 2009 date and today is Dec 2013?
No mention of "Half St" or "Pine St".
Also never saw Klingle Street. What about AlabamaAve SE becoming MLK? Sure is interesting.
When talking "J" don't forget Juniper NW

by doc brown on Dec 4, 2013 2:45 pm • linkreport

Dec 2013
Also comes to mind on the "J" controversy that several buildings have a "V" in their spelling as "U" had not been
'invented' yet. After all we have the
double V meaning W also.

by doc brown on Dec 4, 2013 2:54 pm • linkreport

When was Portland Street officially changed to Malcolm X Avenue?

by Nichole on Dec 4, 2014 9:36 pm • linkreport

RE odd-named streets and people wanting mementos of same, Bob's excellent comment of 8/8/13. My stepdad's name was Norman Stone, ergo I took multiple detours on, and photographs of the signs on, Normanstone Drive NW. (I had the urge to "appropriate" a sign many times, but I never acted on it.)

by Nan on Feb 7, 2015 2:07 pm • linkreport

Don't the streets go up into the 70s to the southeast, outside the borders of the city? What is the highest number that the system extends to, including in suburbs?

(As a native New Yorker, I am confident that our 263rd Street (in the Bronx) and 271st (in Queens) will not be topped!)

by Mark on Mar 11, 2015 8:41 am • linkreport

No, not to the southeast, but to the northeast.

See this post:

They go up to 100.

by Matt' Johnson on Mar 11, 2015 8:58 am • linkreport

Georgia Ave is even shorter in the District, but becomes MD-97 in Silver Spring. That route continues uninterrupted all the way to the Mason-Dixon line, where it continues to Gettysburg, PA as PA-97.

by Adam on May 22, 2015 4:11 pm • linkreport

How many streets/avenues/roads etc intersect twice? ie: Florida Ave & U Sts NW.

by Harvey Glick on May 23, 2015 8:26 am • linkreport

In Northeast, east of the Anacostia, I've seen streets such as Ash, Blaine, Clay, and Dix, which are all one-syllable and don't match up with their west of the river counterparts. Can someone explain those to me?

by J Paci on May 26, 2015 8:15 pm • linkreport

J Paci,
Am good on: In Northeast, east of the Anacostia, I've seen streets such as Blaine, Clay, and Dix. But where is Ash?

by Harvey Glick on May 29, 2015 5:45 pm • linkreport

I find it cute that Maryland Avenue heads toward Maryland and that Virginia Avenue heads toward Virginia. Don't think it is a coincidence. New York Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue also vaguely head toward their respective states, coincidence there?

by Whitehatgirl on Jun 14, 2015 3:49 pm • linkreport

Can anyone address, sorry for the pun, the fact that even and odd building numbers swap sides depending on what quadrant you are in?
Ride the X2 from either NE to NW along H Street and when you cross North Capitol Street what were odd numbers become even or vice versa depending on your direction of travel.
Why was this done?

by PaulC on Jul 2, 2015 3:16 pm • linkreport

@PaulC - The even numbers are always closer to the origin (the Capitol).

by Charles on Jul 2, 2015 4:26 pm • linkreport

Thanks Charles. That would explain it. It's still pretty strange to witness the change when traveling into the next quadrant.

by PaulC on Jul 2, 2015 7:48 pm • linkreport

Most people don't realize about DC's number switching. In the DCFD, we had to learn about that (& a lot of other stuff). So anyway, when facing a dividing line (North Capitol, South Capitol, East Capitol or the Mall, the odd numbers are on the left and the even numbers are on the right. Yes, there are a few exceptions like O. Roy Chalk's old D.C. Transit Bldg / Trans Caribbean Airways (even number on the odd side of the M St NW. So his bldg. should have been 3601, but with his influence, he rec'd 3600.

by Harvey Glick on Jul 2, 2015 11:33 pm • linkreport

My deceased wife's family had a distant military ancestor who had a small memorial to his honor In Washington, D.C. It was sited in an area to be rebuilt or build over.It was removed by the City in the mid 90's and the last of identifiable distant relatives, my wife's mother did not want any remains or memorial pieces. I have lost the name. Is there a record of memorial sites, circles, statues which have been removed in the last twenty five years in Washington, D.C. thank you,Van.

by Van on Mar 4, 2016 12:31 pm • linkreport

Can someone explain the use of "unit" under street signage? For instance last week I was at the intersection of 3rd St. SE and A St. SE. A sign saying "unit" hangs under the 3rd St. SW street sign. Thanks for the excellent thread!

by cargirl on Apr 18, 2016 3:51 pm • linkreport

The Unit block of any street is that block numbered 1-99. Followed by the 100 block, 200 block, 300 block, etc.

by Matthew Gilmore on Apr 18, 2016 4:02 pm • linkreport

Thanks, Matthew. Just to make sure I understand, house numbers 1 - 99 are on streets with Unit designation? House numbers 100 and upward do not have the Unit designation? If I've got that right, what is the value of the term "Unit?"

by cargirl on Apr 20, 2016 8:54 pm • linkreport

Doing genealogy for wife, found ancestors in D.C. in the 1850's and 60's who lived at 218 F Street North. Is this now Northeast? Googled pic of structure that currently exists at NE and wondered if it is same place.

by Diggers on Apr 24, 2016 2:43 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know the origins of the street names in Trinidad? Who were Morse, Neal, Oates, Owen(s), Penn, Queen, Holbrook, Montello, Simms, Meigs, and Orren?

by Matt on Sep 26, 2016 7:58 am • linkreport

Unit signage are addresses that are numbered, I believe under 100. Example: 28 Webster St. N.W.

by Wendell Hunter on Dec 3, 2016 9:39 pm • linkreport

cargirl & Wendell Hunter, yes the unit block is between 1st Sts NW or NE and N or S Capitol Sts. for the alpha named streets. Also between Constitution & East Capitol as well as E Capitol & Independence Ave SE for the numbered streets.
Diggers: Could have also been 218 F St NW. Check DC maps during that era to see what stood at that address.
Matt. The current Florida Ave use to be named Boundary and that was the end (or outer boundary) of the original city.So the streets below Howard Univ. were woods and was the suburbs as we would call it now.

by Harvey Glick on Dec 4, 2016 8:59 pm • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us