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Can you Explain the Layout of DC?

Updated: January 17, 2023

Have you ever heard that the layout of DC was designed to confuse invaders? Find out if that is true or not on this week's Should Have Asked A Tour Guide.


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Can you Explain the Layout of DC?

Speaker 1: Hey, can you explain the layout of DC?

Canden: So.... street layout. Start with the Capitol Building, where does it go from there, Becca?

Becca: The Capitol building is sort of the center of the map and that all the streets converge at the Capitol. We have a quadrant system that can be quite confusing if you've never been here before. Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, Southeast, which means that there's four 1st streets, four 2nd streets and onward and onward. Knowing your quadrant is really important and paying attention to street addresses is very important... especially if you signed up for one of our tours.

Canden: Accurate. Very accurate. Multiple first streets, but we also like multiple C streets. What letter are we missing? Rebecca.

Rebecca: B and J.

Canden: There is a B street, isn't there? On this side?

Rebecca: No, there isn't a B street.

Canden: Yes, I guess, Constitution-- There is an A street on this side, there is not an A street on the other side. See, even tour guides get confused.

Rebecca: Yes, see. B streets kind of Constitution.

Canden: And, Independence.

Rebecca: And, Independence.

Canden: What's the other one?

Rebecca: J street.

Canden: Why there is no J street?

Rebecca: The story.

Canden: That's how I phrase it, too.

Rebecca: There is a founding father named John Jay. No one really liked him. He's one of the first Supreme Court Justices and he was notoriously difficult.

Becca: Bad tempered.

Rebecca: Bad tempered, just ornery. They didn't want to give him a street because then he would think it was named after him and no one really liked him, so we just skipped J.

Canden: Do you know what's funny about that though? There's no letter J. There's just the letter J, but there is J-A-Y Street now. His last name was not the letter J, it was J-A-Y. There is actually a street named after him, well after he could have been aware about it. That's not true, right?

Rebecca: No.

Becca: No

Canden: Why is there no-- What is the story?

Rebecca: Because I and J are so similar.

Canden: Good. That's what I heard, too.

Becca: Especially when we look at the 19th century writing styles, I, J capitalized-- All our lettered streets are capitalized. I, J look too similar. It would be too confusing

Canden: Capital I. That's what I thought you were saying, I was very confused. I had heard that it wasn't everyone doesn't like him. It was that L'Enfant doesn't like him. Again, I don't know the man, but I feel like the stories I've heard about him, he was petty enough to have done something like that, but didn't actually [crosstalk]

Becca: I would definitely believe that about L'Enfant.

Rebecca: Yes, I would, too.

Becca: He probably know John Jay best from The Federalist Papers.

Canden: Is he mentioning Hamilton?

Becca: Yes.

Canden: There you go. That's where everyone ...

Becca: At the end of Act 1, non stop.

Canden: What line? [laughs] No, I'm just kidding. We will not perform Hamilton for you on this episode.

Becca: Not this time.

Canden: Come back and we probably will. Anything else about the layout of Washington DC?

Rebecca: Constitution Avenue used to be a river called the Tiber.

Canden: Canal.

Rebecca: Canal, river.

Canden: Creek? Creek.

Rebecca: Creek. Back in those days, having a river outside of your front door was a money-making opportunity.

Canden: That's fair.

Rebecca: People would erect gates and you'd have to charge them to go through the gate.

Becca: You know the story of Constitution Avenue being paved over, right?

Rebecca: No.

Becca: The story is that after the Civil War, huge boom in population in Washington DC. A lot more people here, a lot more waste, a lot more runoff and the river or the creek and the canal were starting to really smell. Ulysses S. Grant was living in the White House at this point. You'd have to keep the windows open, it's hot in DC like it is today, you to get breeze coming in and apparently the smell was so terrible that Grant himself petitioned to have the street paved over. The rumor is he threatened to resign. I don't know if that's true, but that he really advocated for, "I'm getting rid of it because just smelled terrible," and it was starting to be just--

Canden: It's still there right?  The canal, whatever the body of water.

Becca: Underneath, but to pave it over so you wouldn't have the runoff and the stench.

Canden: If you guys have any future myths, misconceptions, questions about Washington DC or American history in general, comment below. Let us know, tag us on social media, @topthingstododc #shouldhaveaskedatourguide


[00:04:20] [END OF AUDIO]


What do YOU want to know about DC? Let us know by commenting on a video or tagging us on social media @topthingstododc using #shouldhaveaskedatourguide

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Follow On Instagram | I'm a historian & tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. I have written for HuffPost Travel and have been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. I've also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. I am the producer of the podcast, Tour Guide Tell All. I am an authority on D.C. history, and have led tours in the city since 2011. I currently resides in DC, but have also lived in London and South Korea, and have traveled to over 28 countries and every US State but Hawaii. I homeschool my 2 children by exploring the plethora of museums in DC. Read More...
Updated: January 17th, 2023
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