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


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.