Federalism

Welcome to Little Idaho, DC. Care for Some Fries?

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DC map

Washington is a strange city, with a New York-style grid undergirding what has since become known as a Parisian-style system of squares and parks with wide diagonal avenues in between–New York hustle buried under Parisian pomp and circumstance. As if unable to decide on a single organizational scheme, D.C. has numbered streets, lettered streets, state streets, quadrants, and twisty water-tracing parkways. The layers upon layers of competing rules for organization and traffic flow have also long served as a handy metaphor for out-of-towners attempting to navigate the federal bureaucracy.

A little-known fact is that the city's planner, Pierre L'Enfant, had a mad, brilliant plan for the little squares dotting the Capitol Hill landscape:

Each of these squares, he told Washington, was to be, in effect, the center of a little village. All these villages should be settled simultaneously to encourage the city to fill in between them. And one such "village" should be allotted to each state to help attract investors from those states. That way each state would have a presence, symbolic as well as financial, in the new federal city, and engage in prideful competition to settle and expand its stake. Such a visionary idea might have gone a long way toward selling the notion of federalism to those still wary of an imposing national capital.

But there's always a metaphor-ready twist:

But that aspect of the plan was apparently never seriously considered. (Instead, this strip became Pennsylvania Avenue, a power lane rather than an artery of urban life.)

Instead, the squares that remain today host bums, metro stops, the occasional office worker having lunch on a sunny day, and zero monuments to the glory of federalism and/or commerce. Oh well. C'est la vie.

For more on Our Nation's Capitol, read Matt Welch on the city of rats, and Radley Balko on the National Mall going kitsch.

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  1. So urban planning back then worked about as well as it does now.

  2. I thought D.C. was supposed to be laid out according to some sort of ancient Masonic/Sumerian/Baphomet pentagram design?

  3. So urban planning back then worked about as well as it does now.

    Yep. However, in fairness, L’E was an architect, not an urban planner, so he was engaging in urban planning and wasn’t listened to by those footing the bills. It happens. Given the hairbone nature of the layout of DC, I’ll withhold judgement on his capabilities in planning.

  4. I thought D.C. was supposed to be laid out according to some sort of ancient Masonic/Sumerian/Baphomet pentagram design?

    Shh! I thought we discussed this at the last Mason meeting — no mention of this until we’re ready to…

    Err… I’ve said too much.

    On a side note, I’d like to know who’s idea it was to put long spikes on the banisters of D.C. row houses, just in case some citizens would need to stab some damn British at a moment’s notice.

    Go ahead and try it — they’re attached to the spheric fixtures at the tops of the banisters. Many of the makeshift swords have been painted over enough times to glue them shut, but you can find some loose ones with long fucking spikes on ’em.

  5. Ahem. Katherine, I believe they are called freedom fries now.

  6. “I thought D.C. was supposed to be laid out according to some sort of ancient Masonic/Sumerian/Baphomet pentagram design?”

    No, years before the United Nations was founded those laying the groundwork for its creation planned the city so that it would encourage the foundation of a one world government.

  7. “I thought D.C. was supposed to be laid out according to some sort of ancient Masonic/Sumerian/Baphomet pentagram design?”

    I actually think that there is some group around here that runs tours pointing that stuff out. Never did the tour but will probably do it in the future. Just because something is nutty doesn’t mean that it has no entertainment value, usually the nuttiness increases it.

    Frankly I find the writings found etched into the government buildings much more nefarious than any building layouts themself.

  8. “I actually think that there is some group around here that runs tours pointing that stuff out. Never did the tour but will probably do it in the future. Just because something is nutty doesn’t mean that it has no entertainment value, usually the nuttiness increases it.”

    This is why I LOVE Coast to Coast AM with George Nory. When I work second shift I turn the radio to that after I get off work and laugh all the way home. Especially when the guests throw some words in to soung scientific but obviously have no idea what those words mean. Seriously, if you are ever up late put it on the radio. It is funnier than anything on TV.

  9. I always thought the gird and spoke system was designed to make the city easier to defend from invading armys.

    I forget, how’d that work out?

  10. A 13 center city just doesn’t happen before cars. The New Jersey people don’t want to have to walk 20 minutes to have a word with the Rhode Island people, so whichever area ends up becoming a bit bigger, perhaps due to the presence of the capital building, becomes the place that everyone wants to be. This is especially true of capital cities. It’s also hilariously ignored every time any country tries to build a new capital from scratch (see brazilia, islamabad, etc)

  11. the squares that remain today host bums, metro stops, the occasional office worker having lunch on a sunny day, and zero monuments to the glory of federalism and/or commerce.

    The perfect metaphors for the Capitol City just won’t quit, will they?

  12. Balko is simply incorrect about L’Enfant’s vision for what is now the national Mall. The Mall is the vision of the McMillan plan of the early 20th Century. L’Enfant envisioned a broad avenue much like the Champs Elysees in Paris or the broad vista approaching Versailles (where he grew up as the son of a bureaucrat).

    The grid and spoke system has NOTHING to do with either the Masons or confusing invaders. The tour guides who perpetuate such nonsense really should be flogged.

  13. “Kolohe | June 18, 2008, 2:35pm | #

    I always thought the gird and spoke system was designed to make the city easier to defend from invading armys.

    I forget, how’d that work out?”

    Now we’re trying something else in DC. We have the rest of the obese country come visit us and take pictures and do their one day of walking a year here. I think it is foolproof. I don’t know how many times they have slowed me down when I am walking through the city, just imagine a large army trying to navigate through these huge masses of flesh.

    Really when I see some of these tourists I wonder if gas prices are rising so rapidly because the cars are pulling such bigger loads these days.

  14. Some of the bizarre and uncohesive development is a result not of design but because most of the “city” developed as independent cities.

    Until post civil war a good portion of the NoVa cities like Arlington and Alexandria were part of the Federal District. Georgetown had its own charter into the 1870’s and most of Northwest was Washington County Maryland. Each operating very independently.

    I don’t know off hand the exact date but it wasn’t until at least the late 1870’s that the district took on its current boarders and was governed as an entity. If you are talking about L’Enfant’s Washington you are really talking about a much smaller section of the city then what is now the District of Columbia.

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