The History of DC’s J Street

One of the most interesting (and confusing) things about DC is the layout of the city. The streets all follow a pattern, but unless you looked into the history of the grid, you wouldn’t catch the pattern. I’ve been coming to DC since I was 8 and I only just found out. In fact, it was all thanks to a post done by Tess & Eloise at Wandering Washingtonians (so check that out if you’re interested!). That post prompted a new found interest in the city’s history enough to make me do some more digging.

If you’re not aware, some of the streets go alphabetically from A-Z. Some of the letters are more obviously left out (X, Y & Z, notably) but some go a bit more unnoticed. K Street is a major artery of the city but just one block away, something is afoot. You’ll find I Street (often spelled as Eye Street) in the place of J Street. Odd, right? Turns out J Street simply doesn’t exist just like X, Y & Z. What gives?

It turns out that there are some really fun history rumors about why this street is missing.

The Mystery of DC’s Missing Streets

All of the rumors involve Mr. Pierre L’Enfant, designer of the DC Grid. The original claim was that L’Enfant purposely left out J Street because he held a grudge against John Jay. Joh Jay was the Supreme Court Chief Justice at the time. Even the original plans for the Capitol building didn’t include a courtroom, a further rumored snub at John Jay from L’Enfant. It gets even juicer when you learn that L’Enfant could have held this grudge because his wife might have been having an affair with Jay. Or maybe John Jay isn’t the man in question at all. Maybe it was Thomas Jefferson and he was the one having the affair.

The real reason is way less interesting. When I found out that J Street was simply omitted because J and I look too similar (especially when handwritten as was the style at the time), I was so disappointed. According to Snopes, they were even used interchangeably at the time. Why would they pick I, which can often look like a 1 is beyond me.

The reasons for why there is no X, Y & Z are even more disappointing. The rumor is that L’Enfant wanted to get to the end of his map without using X, the symbol for Christ at that time. To do this, he used both U and V, even though those letters were used interchangeably just like J and I. Y and Z were skipped because it seems as though there simply were no more streets to name. The old boundary for the city (which is now Florida Ave) is just north of W Street.

The truth is that someone like L’Enfant would not have had the power to name the streets without running it by a committee. After all, he was no politician. More than likely it would have been James Madison, Thomas Jefferson or a group of wealthy, white men.

Many people have poo-pooed the DC naming system and many have suggested changing it later in history. One suggestion was to name streets after Indian Tribes. Another suggested that the streets should be named after cities in the rest of the country. For example, the city of DC was already broken up into four quadrants so each quadrant would have represented a different portion of the United States. Streets in NE DC would be named after cities in the Northeastern section of the city. This idea truly is an interesting one. It would make figuring out where someone lives so much easier.

I feel like I had this great hypothesis for this mini research project. All I did was prove it wrong. I found nothing interesting so I will continue to tell people about the John Jay/L’Enfant grudge instead. Maybe one of these days I’ll pick up another book about the city of how the city came to be and find something worthy of a National Treasure movie.

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