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Michael Grass

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Northwest D.C. Arrogance? Sometimes It's OK to Give Preferential Treatment to the Favored Quadrant

Posted: 02/ 7/2012 11:13 am

I read Dan Zak's brainy thinkpiece on the "real K Street" in Monday's Washington Post with particular interest. For me, K Street NW is more than just a thoroughfare with big, boxy office buildings. It's a street that my family once called home at different times in the 19th and 20th centuries -- the 1800 and 2100 blocks to be precise.

As Zak dissects, K Street's image is inextricably wrapped up in the dark arts of influence and power in the nation's capital: "It's the symbol of all that's wrong with Washington, the front line where the Occupiers dug their anti-authoritarian trenches, the boulevard that has been shorthand for capital corruption during recent Republican debates."

In reality, Zak finds K Street sort of ordinary and boring. Lobbyists actually lurk in other parts of town and have been for years.

(For the record, my great uncle -- who came from relatively humble Foggy Bottom roots -- became an actual "K Street lobbyist," working in the government affairs shop for Bethlehem Steel in an office on the 1600 block of K Street back in the 1940s and '50s. He lived five blocks to the west in a modest rowhouse. K Street was where he lived and worked.)

But is there any real question where this "K Street" actually is located? Apparently so.

While watching some of the reaction to Zak's piece on Twitter, I was tempted to respond to something prolific local Twitter user and noted geographic nitpicker Geoff Hatchard had posted:


say 'Eye Em Gōph'
could you get the headline writer to add "NW" to "K St" in your article? It dings K St NE w/ the lack of specificity.

Seriously Geoff? First off, it's highly unlikely that Dan Zak holds much sway over his editors at the Post to the point where he'd be able to convince them to change the headline. (Sorry Dan.)

But more importantly, does the headline on Zak's piece really ding the pride of K Street NE? Sometimes, symbols of D.C. locality trump the city's quadrant divisions.

Before explaining this greater detail, I should note that after a friendly Twitter back and forth with Hatchard, Zak stressed that his piece focused on the stretch of K Street NW between 9th and 22nd streets, as was outlined in the piece. Hatchard, in turn said he liked Zak's piece and didn't want his nitpick to come off as offensive.

Hatchard's quadrant sensitivities aren't totally unfounded. In the District of Columbia, there's a long tradition of Northwest overshadowing Northeast, Southeast and Southwest. In part, there's a good reason for that: Northwest is the city's largest quadrant and where most of D.C.'s commercial and civic core is situated.

But it's also been an unfortunate tradition of many local media outlets to use the city's quadrants as blanket geographic references, the Washington Post being one of them. Take this recent Post headline as an example: "Man fatally shot in Southeast D.C." (How many times have you seen that headline before in the Metro section?)

Depending on who you ask and in what context, the use of a quadrant reference that isn't Northwest can sometimes be interpreted as coded language meant to classify those who live there: Southeast D.C. is where bad things happen to bad people. (That is, of course, an inaccurate statement, but a sentiment that many people harbor.)

At Washington City Paper, where I once worked as an editor, such broad geographic references are largely forbidden. Specific wards or neighborhood names are preferred, something, I should note we aim for at HuffPost DC.

But the average TV viewer of an 11 o'clock newscast isn't going to know that Marshall Heights is located in Southeast or that Woodridge is in Northeast. (In fact, they might mix up the latter with Woodbridge, Va.)

However, people do know where Southeast D.C. is in a general sense. And for years, it's a place where many people didn't want to go.

But then something interesting happened in the past decade or so. People who would normally stay in the so-called Favored Quadrant -- Northwest -- started to take more interest in other quadrants. While the Northwest-centric perspective still dominates in D.C. -- and probably will on into the future -- certain non-Northwest spots have transcended their quadrants.

The best example is the stretch of H Street in Northeast, which has become a mecca for all things new and cool, complete with good music and interesting food. And this brings me back to my point about Hatchard's original nitpick.

While many people casually refer to this corridor as "H Street NE," many more simply call it "H Street." If you're in Northeast D.C., this, of course, makes total sense. But while H Street NW is a major thoroughfare downtown, H Street NE's identity as "H Street" easily trumps Northwest's H Street -- or Southeast's or Southwest's for that matter.

Similarly, the identity of "K Street," but better or worse, is anchored in Northwest. It's a major thoroughfare that connects some key circles in squares in the original L'Enfant plan. Northwest's K Street was designed to be dominant. Northeast's? Not so much.

And people know that. In the end of his Twitter discourse with Zak, Hatchard admitted that "a story on K St. NE would be pretty boring. rowhouses, as far as the eye can see."

So what other streets that exist in different quadrants have a larger identity that transcend those quadrant identities?

Fourteenth Street, 18th Street and U Street in Northwest for sure. Those major corridors are destinations and have broader citywide identities. In the case of "U Street," it's become an informal neighborhood name that has over the decades changed the identity of Shaw, a neighborhood that once had a much larger geographic identity.

Will we all recognize 8th Street SE on Capitol Hill simply as the city's dominant "8th Street" some day? Eh, maybe? It's moving in that direction. "Barracks Row" is a better identifier in any regard.

How about "First Street" in Northeast, which is sometimes referred to as NoMa's emerging Main Street? (Only in the dreams of the local business improvement district there.)

But we can't abandon quadrant identifiers, either. They're necessary for accurate postal addresses. So while we can simply refer to "U Street" and "14th Street" as general localities, we still must use "U Street NW" and "14th Street NW" to pinpoint addresses on those streets.

It's complicated, for sure.

But if anyone in Anacostia is complaining about how their "14th and U" is being unfairly overshadowed by Favored Quadrant arrogance, there's a good -- but complex -- reason for that.

Flickr photo by Andrew Feinberg

 

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