Vital Facts of Washington D.C.

Posted by on 1/22/2003 7:41:43 AM | Views: 29 |

Vital Facts of Washington D.C.

Welcome to the Washington area! "Wherever the American citizen may be a stranger, he is at home here," said Frederick Douglas, whose inspiring life began in slavery and ended in statesmanship.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, your view of Washington will depend on who you are and what your special interests are. Tourists prefer the monumental Washington and spend their time and energies on and about the Mall. Foreign diplomats and their families settle down on embassy row. Students seek out the major universities. Politicians and lobbyists concentrate on Capitol Hill and the White House. Art lovers will find fine galleries and museums. Researchers can spend weeks at the Library of Congress, Archives, other specially libraries, and the Smithsonian Institution. Virtually all find Washington one of the most beautiful cities in the world, especially in the spring when the famous cherry trees and azaleas bloom. About 600,000 residents can sample all these aspects of Washington every day because for them it's home.

Compared with other major cities, especially world capitals, Washington is a relatively new town. Congress decided in 1783 that it wanted a place to meet which would be independent of state influence-a sort of neutral zone. In 1787, George Washington chose this peninsula formed by the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers as the site for the new federal city. Originally the District of Columbia was a square 10 miles on each side, made up of land ceded to the states of Maryland and Virginia. Present-day Washington consists of only 69 square miles because the southwest corner of the square was given back to Virginia in 1846 when Congress decided that portion of land was not needed for the federal city.

From the start, Washington was a planned city. The basic design is the work of French architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who was hired to assist the original planners and surveyors, a Major Elicott and Benjamin Banneker. L'Enfant took over the project for only 10 months, but his design of grand avenues and sweeping vistas so appealed to the leaders of the day that it determined the form the city was to take.

Thanks to L'Enfant, Washington is a very livable city, with grand vistas and wide avenues. Because it is a "low-rise" city, one doesn't get the canyon effect here that occurs in many modern cities. Washington is also one of the world's grreenest cities. In the mid-nineteenth century, Alexander Shepherd managed to get the streets paved, have sewer, water, and gas systems installed, and have trees planted along most of the streets. In 1890, Congress established Rock Creek Park, that 1,754-acre island of green which runs north from the Potomac to the Maryland border and beyond. There are many more acres ofparkland along both the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, the Chesapeake &: Ohio Canal, and in small parks scattered throughout the city. Nearly every square or circle is landscaped to provide a bit of nature in the urban scene.

Washington is a city of variety and contrast, of contemporary office buildings, Victorian townhouses, modern apartments, modest family homes, and mansions on large estates. It is also a city of many neighborhoods each with a different ambience to appeal to the wide variety of people who live here. In Washington, your neighbor is as likely to be from Oslo or Osaka as from Oakland or Oceanside.

In order to find your way about Washington with ease, you need to understand how the city is laid out. Each street address includes a geographic designation, i.e., 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (the White House). The city is divided into quadrants with the Capitol as the central point. So, First St., NW and First St., SW are one block west of the Capitol, and First St., NE and First St., SE are one block east of the Capitol. While the city street system is quite logical, if you don't notice the quadrant designation, you may never find the address you seek. (For example, 1325 G St., NW may be a store and 1325 G St., NE may be a vacant lot.) In general, numbered streets run north and south; lettered and named streets run east and west in alphabetical order; and avenues run on the diagonal radiating from circles throughout the city.

There are of course various roads, places, and squares that don't fit this scheme, so a city map is a big help even for people who have lived here for years. Washington neighborhoods have distinct personalities. They may be elegant or casual; almost entirely white, 1 black, or Spanish; integrated; wealthy; lower income; or middle class. The northwest quadrant of the city is the largest in area and generally the wealthiest, but it encompasses everything from the White House to areas in the very early stages of urban renewal.


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