The D.C. Streets – Understanding the Quadrants & Names

Washington, D.C. is defined by four quadrants: NW, NE, SW, SE. The Capitol building is in the center of it all.

U.S. Capitol Dome

Northwest is where you will probably spend your time. This section of D.C. is comprised of many neighborhoods, each with its own charm and personality. SW is small since it was the part of DC taken back by Virginia way back when.

Some find the streets confusing, but if you know the rules you will always know exactly where you are just by looking at the nearest intersection’s street signs (just remember that the quadrants are key).

·      The Capitol Building is the center of everything. All streets and addresses are numbered based on their location from the Capitol. A building’s street address signifies its distance from the Capitol in the direction of the street (north-south or east-west).

·      All North-South Streets are numbered (First Street, Second Street, 17thStreet, and so on)

·      All East-West Streets are alphabetical. There are three alphabets (none include X, Y, Z). Starting closest to the Capitol, the first alphabet streets start with “A Street” this follows the alphabet as you go away from the Capitol with one exception, there is no J in this alphabet and “I Street” can sometimes be referred to as “Eye Street” and the same sometimes goes for “Q Street” or “U Street”. The second alphabet is two-syllable words (example: “Calvert Street”). The fourth alphabet is three-syllable words (example: “Brandywine Street”). There are some other tree names used as a fourth alphabet, but only in part of NW as it approaches Maryland. Non-Street names do not follow this, so beware Place names.

·      State names are Avenues and run diagonally, intersecting with Avenues & Streets at traffic circles.

·      An address can give you all the information you need to find a location in the District. If you in the 5400-block of Wisconsin Avenue of Chevy Chase, Maryland (the numbering carries over to Bethesda and Chevy Chase) and want to go to 3600 Connecticut Avenue

The following information on grid-based naming systems is from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

In many cities laid out on a grid plan, the streets are named to indicate their location on a Cartesian coordinate plane. For example, the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 for Manhattan provided for numbered streets running parallel to the minor axis of the island and numbered and lettered avenues running parallel to the long axis of the island, although many of the avenues have since been assigned names for at least part of their courses. In the city plan forWashington, D.C., north-south streets were numbered away from the United States Capitol in both directions, while east-west streets were lettered away from the Capitol in both directions and diagonal streets were named after various States of the Union. As the city grew, east-west streets past W Street were given two-syllable names in alphabetical order, then three-syllable names in alphabetical order, and finally names relating to flowers and shrubs in alphabetical order. Even in communities not laid out on a grid, such asArlington County, Virginia, a grid-based naming system is still sometimes used to give a semblance of order. Often, the numbered streets run east-west and the numbered avenues north-south, following the style adopted in Manhattan, although this is not always observed. In some cases, streets in “half-blocks” in between two consecutive numbered streets have a different designator, such as Court or Terrace, often in an organized system where courts are always between streets and terraces between avenues. Sometimes yet another designator (such as “Way” or “Circle”) is used for streets which go at a diagonal or curve around, and hence don’t fit easily in the grid.

In many cases, the block numbers correspond to the numbered cross streets; for instance, an address of 1600 may be near 16th Street or 16th Avenue. In a city with both lettered and numbered streets, such as Washington, D.C., the 400 block may be between 4th and 5th streets or between D and E streets, depending on the direction in which the street in question runs. However, addresses in Manhattan have no obvious relationship to cross streets or avenues, although various tables and formulas are often found on maps and travel guides to assist in finding addresses.

My other posts about Washington, DC (date of original posting noted):

The Nation’s Capital – Washington, D.C. (October 2009)

Traveling to Washington, D.C. (January 2009)

My Favorite Places to Eat Inside the Beltway (January 2009)

Free Things To Do in Washington, D.C. (January 2009)

Day in D.C. Ideas! (January 2009)

Day in D.C. – Art Museums & Capitol Hill (January 2009)

Day in D.C. – Georgetown (January 2009)

Day in D.C. – History Museums & The National Mall (January 2009)

Day in D.C. – Mount Vernon (January 2009)

Day in D.C. – Northwest D.C. (January 2009)

Day in D.C. – Penn Quarter & Chinatown (January 2009)

The Streets and Highways of Washington, D.C. (January 2009)

The D.C. Streets – Understanding the Quadrants & Names (January 2009)

Outside links and resources:

Dr. Gridlock of The Washington Post (DC area roads, traffic, and commuting – a ‘must read’)

DCist: Washington DC News, Food, Arts & Events – Official Tourism Site of Washington, DC

100 Free (or Nearly Free) Things to Do in DC

Washington D.C. Tourist Traps (Virtual Tourist)

Visit Washington, D.C.

Best of Washington DC

Washington City Paper

April in Washington, DC


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