Tuesday, June 2, 2009

D.C. Myths

Here's the downside of starting this blog. I keep finding out that stories I have loved forever were never true.

This happens when I go to verify before I publish. Something I've been saying for years under the guise of "I've heard" or "they say" - that I never had to verify since I was just saying it in casual conversation - suddenly becomes untrue because I go to find a link for it for the blog and I read "a commonly mistaken belief is..." etc.

Take Washington, D.C. for example. I lived there in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's where I went to law school, it's where I worked for a small law firm with a national practice (where they terrorized me for three years about not making a mistake, any mistake, large or small... ah, the joys of being a lawyer).

After living in DC for a decade or so, I had stories. I loved the stories. I regaled people with the stories. It is only now that I keep finding out that all these stories are myths. Sigh.

Take, for instance, J Street. Or the lack of J Street, actually. There is no "J" Street in DC. The streets jump from "I" to "K." It goes A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K... The story? That when Pierre L'Enfant designed the District of Columbia, he deliberately left out "J" street because he hated John Jay (who ultimately became a Supreme Court justice).

This was a great story to tell. The Washington Post magazine even had a column for awhile called "J Street" (sub-captioned "the street L'Enfant forgot"), which told the stories of DC life that were little known. (I went just now to look this up on the Washington Post... begun in 1986, created to tell of "unusual sightings, strange tales, unsung occupations and noteworthy obsessions of all kinds," the J Street column "vanished" in 1994, "not unlike Brigadoon.")

The J Street legend? Turns out, not true. Or probably not true. Apparently "J" was left out because, way back then, with their curly-q lettering, the "J" looked too much like the "I" so L'Enfant eliminated the confusion by removing the letter J as a street name. Simple. Succinct. No conspiracy. Story-wise, though - this is not what legends are made of.

Or take, as another example, the lack of skyscrapers in DC. I've told people for years that there is a law in DC that does not allow any building to be taller than the Washington Monument, which means nothing taller than 555 feet. "This is why there are no skyscrapers there," I have said often. If you look right across the Potomac into Virginia - huge buildings. Back to DC - nothing. So I was getting ready to post this information on my favorite local news blog (Huckleberries), which was posing a question about skyscrapers in general, and I thought, hey, I'll just research this....

Alas, another myth debunked.

Turns out, there is a law, called the Heights of Building Act, from 1910. But it doesn't say anything about the Washington Monument. Instead, it says something about how no building in DC can be taller than 20 feet more than the width of the adjacent street. (If the building sits on a corner, which street rules?) So, wrong again. What's next? George Washington didn't really cut down a cherry tree? (And yes, I know that he didn't.)

There's a part of me, though... yes, it's true, I just might hold on to this myth about the Washington Monument anyway. Here's my theory: since the streets already were built, and their widths were already known, and the Building Heights law wasn't passed until 1910 (after the Washington Monument already was built), who's to say that the law wasn't written with an eye to ensuring that the Washington Monument stay the tallest edifice in the district? So even though they didn't use the words "Washington Monument" in the law - couldn't that have been their underlying purpose when they drafted it?

And along those same veins of holding on to our stories in spite of all the evidence to the contrary... Who's to say that L'Enfant didn't really hate John Jay? I mean, he could just have easily eliminated the "I" street and kept "J," right? Maybe he was a good designer, knew he should eliminate one of them, looked at the "I," looked at the "J," grimaced at the thought of John Jay and his (whatever the grudge) - and threw the J away.

Those are my new stories, and I'm sticking to them. No more research!


Anonymous said...

Thanks. I knew of these urband legends as well. The rationale for J street is funny because DC does have a "Jay" street. Likewise, "I" street is replaced with "Eye" Street in certain areas.

I had no idea that the "J Street" column was axed in 1994, finding out why that happened is probably worth another investigation. The building ordinance/law is controversial in a sense when you think of churches, particularly the "Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception". You know, the big "church" on Michigan Avenue. Even if you measured the width of Michigan Avenue and Irving Street, the "bell tower" far exceeds the height. Likewise even the Capitol violates this ordinance. Anyways, good work. Keep busting those myths.

Beth Bollinger said...

Thanks! Though I'm a little sad about it - sort of like busting the Easter Bunny. I know some of the buildings were grandfathered in, and I think certain kinds of buildings might be exempt. But it does make for a beautiful neighborhood city, to be without the skyscrapers. As for "J Street" column (which I loved), best I could gather is they decided to replace it with another column. It can't be that they ran out of odd stories, though, I'm sure. Thanks for your comments!