© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Washington D.C. is the capital city of the United States of America. The "DC" suffix means "District of Columbia", and the city is often referred to as "Washington" or simply "D.C." However, note that there is also a state called Washington (think Seattle and Spokane), in the extreme northwest of the Continental US, so using the term "Washington" can cause confusion unless the context is clear.
D.C. is the home of the headquarters of the three branches of the Federal Government: The Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial. [Almost all the Executive Departments and Agencies are within the limits of the District of Columbia, but the Department of Defense is actually across the Potomac River in the Pentagon located in the state of Virginia.]
According to Wikipedia, at the time of writing, "The city hosts 177 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of many international organizations, trade unions, non-profit, lobbying groups, and professional associations, including the World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organization of American States, …".
For a detailed overview of Washington D.C., click here.
Shape and Layout
When D.C. was created in 1791, it was a 10-mile-by-10-mile square consisting of land contributed by the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the Potomac River that separated them. However, in 1847, that part contributed by Virginia was returned to that state, leaving approximately 69 square miles (69% of the original), the southwestern, jagged edge of which borders on the Potomac.
Some 19% of the city's total area is parkland, which contains a wide variety of plant and animal species, including deer and coyotes.
The streets of D.C. are organized in a grid system. Those running north-south are numbered (as in First, Second, and Third Street), those running east-west are lettered (as in D, E, and F Street), and those running diagonally, at least in the downtown area, are named for states (as in New York Avenue and Virginia Avenue). Now while such a plan keeps it simple for Members of Congress and those that lobby them, in order to confuse any invading army—not to mention people visiting from out-of-town—a twist was added. The Capitol building is at the center of a rectangular coordinate system whose four quadrants are named—TA DAH!—Northwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest! And any street in a quadrant has the suffix NW, NE, SE, or SW, as appropriate. (For example, the Whitehouse is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and Union [railway] Station is at 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE.) As a result, there are actually four distinct intersections of 6th and C Streets, for example, one per quadrant.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
This is probably one of the best-known addresses in the world and is the location of the White House, the residence of the US President. This building includes the West Wing, the location of the President's Oval Office.
Marine One is the Presidential helicopter, which typically transports the President to/from Air Force One (stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland) and to/from the Presidential retreat, Camp David, in rural Maryland. Marine One lands in the front yard of the White House. [Once while taking a cousin on a tour of the D.C. Mall, I watched Marine One land to deliver President George W. Bush. Some years later, I watched Air Force One land at the Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, with President Obama onboard.]
Every four years, on January 20, the President takes office at the Presidential inauguration, held on the steps of the US Capitol Building. The Presidential motorcade—and its very long parade—then travels from the Capitol to the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue. [I stood out in the cold along Pennsylvania Avenue for the first inaugurations of Presidents Reagan and Clinton.]
Across the street from the White House is Blair House, where visiting dignitaries and other guests of the President sometimes stay. When a head of a foreign government is in residence there, at the corner of each street in the surrounding neighborhoods, a set of three flags fly: Washington D.C.'s flag, the US flag, and the flag of the country of the visiting leader. [When Harry Truman was President and the White House was being renovated, he lived at Blair House. During that time, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate him there.]
The Capitol and Surrounds
[Note the distinction between "capital" and "capitol".]
The United States Capitol building houses the Federal Senate and House chambers, which together make up Congress, the Legislative Branch of government. This building sits atop a hill in what is known as the Capitol Hill district. The Capitol (and other places mentioned below) are protected by the Capitol Police. The public may tour the Capitol via the Capitol Visitor Center (which I highly recommend visitors do).
The offices of Senators and Representatives, their staff, and meeting rooms, are not located in the Capitol. Instead, they are located on the north side of Constitution Avenue NE (Senate) and the south side of Independence Avenue SW (House). However, they are part of the Capitol Complex, and are protected by the Capitol Police.
On the eastern side of First Street NE stands the U.S. Supreme Court (pinnacle of the federal Judicial Branch), and next door, on the eastern side of First Street SE, stands the main building of the Library of Congress, the research arm of the US Congress. The United States Botanic Garden is in the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds. These places are also part of the Capitol Complex and are protected by the Capitol Police.
Although the Library of Congress doesn't look too impressive from the outside, it is definitely worth a visit just to see the interior. As well as entering via its main door, a tunnel leads to it from the Capitol.
The Supreme Court building is also worth a visit even if you don't plan on attending a formal session. There is an orientation video narrated by one or more of the justices, halls of permanent exhibits, and sometimes temporary exhibitions. There is also a nice cafeteria.
The National Mall and Memorial Parks
This is the large area to the west of the Capitol and is part of the National Park Service.
Much of this area used to be a mosquito-infested swamp, which is why, from time to time, people running for national office who have not served before in Washington promise that if elected, they will come to D.C. and "Drain the swamp!"
I highly recommend visiting the following:
- Smithsonian Museums: These have free admission, although there is a charge for some special exhibits and movies. The National Air and Space Museum is perhaps the most-visited museum in the world. The place to start in the National Museum of the American Indian is in a small, circular theater on the top floor where a video is projected onto blankets. Although its cafeteria isn't cheap—visit even if you don't eat there—all the food is native American, as are all the things in the gift store. The administration building, the Castle, is also worth a visit.
- Washington Monument (site of a major fireworks display on July 4th): Thankfully, tourists no longer need to stand out in the weather to get inside. Now, they get a (free) ticket in advance, which is stamped for a particular date/time.
- Lincoln Memorial: The destination of various protests, and where one can stand on the spot from which Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech. Don't miss the basement where you can watch the video shown there. The 36 columns represent the 36 states in existence when Lincoln was President. The classic view is from the left or right edge upstairs, east across the Reflecting Pool, past the Washington Monument, and to the Capitol.
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial: After all the war memorials showing dead white guys on horseback, this was a big departure when it was completed in 1982. It's a wall sunken into the ground with the names of the 58,220 dead and missing-in-action engraved on a series of panels ordered by year. Nearby directories help you locate the panel for a given name. Nearby is the Three Servicemen Statue (with Agent Orange marker) and the Vietnam Women's Memorial.
- Korean War Veterans Memorial: After the Vietnam Memorial, it was a challenge for "what next" in war memorials, but this one really does justice to the conflict. I'm especially taken by the wall containing sandblasted images of photos carried by servicemen.
- Thomas Jefferson Memorial: Situated on the Tidal Basin with a larger-than-life statue at its heart.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial: This set of four open-rooms shows via writing and sculpture a snapshot of each of FDR's terms in office. And you can join the throngs of people who have patted the bronze head of the statue of his well-known dog, Fala.
- Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial: This statue is also situated on the Tidal Basin.
- National World War II Memorial: At the center of the Mall, this relatively new memorial is sunken down, so it doesn't obscure the view down the Mall at ground level.
Personally, I prefer to visit most of the monuments and memorials at night.
Each spring, the Tidal Basic is the location of the National Cherry Blossom Festival when many visitors come to see the pink and white blossoms. However, it is not uncommon to have strong winds and/or heavy rain in the days before the festival, resulting in many of the blossoms being knocked from the trees.
Washington D.C. is not a state (yet)! Instead, it is a federal territory whose government is headed by a mayor and council. However, the US Congress maintains supreme authority over the city and may overturn local laws.
For more information on how this all works, click here.
Federal Representation and Federal Elections
Washington D.C. is one of six US Federal Territories (the others being American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). None of these territories has a voting member in the US Congress, not even D.C.! And while D.C. does have a non-voting, at-large congressional delegate to the House of Representatives, it has no representation at all in the Senate. In that respect, citizens residing in D.C. definitely are second-class Americans!
Leading up to the American Revolution, in 1773, the Boston Tea Party was a protest by the American colonists who objected to Britain's Tea Act because they believed that it violated their rights as Englishmen to "no taxation without representation" in British Parliament. Fast-forward 246 years, and we find that the D.C. motor vehicle license plate contains the phrase "End taxation without representation."
In 1961, the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution went into effect. For Presidential elections, this treats D.C. like the least-populous state, as though it had one Representative and two Senators, resulting in its having three electoral votes. (The other 535 electors come from the 50 states.) So, since 1961, citizens in the nation's capital can actually vote in a Presidential election. (See District of Columbia voting rights for more information.) But they still don't have a vote in Congress!
It is interesting to see how some other countries having a "capital territory" deal with this issue:
The Fight for Statehood
There have been, and continue to be, efforts to get D.C. full statehood. And if that were successful, given the model used for Federal representation in Congress for the 50 states, that would result in D.C. have one Representative and two Senators. Now, D.C. has long been a bastion of the Democratic Party, so it is quite likely that all three of these positions would ultimately be held by Democrats. With the Senate having only 100 members (two per state), adding two extra Democrats could easily cause control to swing Democrats' way. (As the House has 435 members, an addition of one would not have anywhere near as big an impact.) As a result, Republican opposition to statehood is high.
See District of Columbia statehood movement for more information.
The War of 1812
Although the British lost the American Revolutionary War in 1783, after licking their wounds, they decided to come back and "have another go," from June 1812 through February 1815. In August of 1814, the blighters actually captured and occupied the US Capital, and set fire to the White House and Capitol. Altogether, they were quite an unfriendly lot!
These days, the Brits seem to be content with a small bit of land in D.C. for an embassy, and permission for its staff and other subjects to play cricket in/near The Mall.
The Greater Metropolital Area
The Washington DC metro area includes the Maryland suburbs on the east side of the Potomac River, and the Virginia suburbs on the west side. This is especially important for prospective tourists to know when they are looking for accommodation. Although the D.C. subway system is relatively small, it does provide easy access to D.C. from numerous Maryland and Virginia areas.
The population of D.C proper is around 700,000 while the metro area has more than six million. Given the large number of people commuting to work from the suburbs, it is estimated that D.C.'s weekday population exceeds a million.
Washington D.C. was not the first national capital. The former capitals include Annapolis, Maryland; New York City, New York; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Trenton, New Jersey.
The second President, John Adams, was the first to occupy the White House, in November 1800. Interestingly, the Vice President did not have an official residence until 1974 when a house on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory was made available. However, its first fulltime resident was Walter Mondale (1977–1981).
Presidential history buffs can visit Ford's Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was fatally wounded.
Many of D.C. neighborhoods have names, and one of the best-known is Georgetown with its brownstone houses and up-scale shopping and eating establishments. It is also home to Georgetown University, and the place where the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal joins the Potomac River.
One of the best "secrets" of D.C. is Theodore Roosevelt Island, a National Park on an island in the Potomac River. Although many thousands of commuters drive over part of it on a bridge each workday, because the island is only accessible from Virginia, and then by only one entrance while driving west, it's not easy to get to, and there is very little parking. Having walked and picnicked there many times, in all four seasons, I highly recommend going there. And if you are a little adventurous and the north shore of the island isn't flooded, you can make your way off the path through the woods to stand on a beach and get the only uninterrupted view of the Kennedy Center and Watergate complex (see below).
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts overlooks the Potomac River, as does the nearby Watergate building complex, the location of the great Watergate break-in, in 1972, that ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation.
The Washington Post newspaper was started in 1877. It is well-known for its reporting on the Watergate scandal, which was the subject of the 1976 movie, "All the President's Men." The 2017 movie, "The Post", covers the paper's decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers.
According to Wikipedia, "Washington was once described as the 'murder capital' of the United States during the early 1990s. The number of murders peaked in 1991 at 479, but the level of violence then began to decline significantly." Interestingly, in 1995, the owner of "The Washington Bullets" professional basketball team announced he would change the name to avoid violent overtones! Eventually, the team became the Washington Wizards. For many years, there has been opposition to the name of the local-area professional football team, The Washington Redskins, seen by some as offensive. Click here for more details.
Finally, not one of D.C. finest moments, according to Wikipedia, The Bonus Army, "were the 43,000 marchers—17,000 U.S. World War I veterans, their families, and affiliated groups—who gathered in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1932 to demand cash-payment redemption of their service certificates. … Many of the war veterans had been out of work since the beginning of the Great Depression. The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded them bonuses in the form of certificates they could not redeem until 1945. Each certificate, issued to a qualified veteran soldier, bore a face value equal to the soldier's promised payment [with] compound interest. The principal demand of the Bonus Army was the immediate cash payment of their certificates.
On July 28, U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell ordered the veterans removed from all government property. Washington police met with resistance, shots were fired, and two veterans were wounded and later died. President Herbert Hoover then ordered the Army to clear the marchers' campsite. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur commanded the infantry and cavalry supported by six tanks. The Bonus Army marchers with their wives and children were driven out, and their shelters and belongings burned."
Major George S. Patton commanded a cavalry group, and Major Dwight D. Eisenhower served as one of MacArthur's aides.