DC Mythbusting: No J Street Because L’Enfant Held a Grudge

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

Here at DC Mythbusting we’ve covered a lot of myths, but the one I referenced in the first ever Mythbusting feature is one of the most persistent I’ve ever heard.  That myth attempts to explain the lack of a J Street in DC.  In all four quadrants of our fair city, the street that comes after I Street is K Street.  So what happened to J Street?

The myth states that our city’s planner, Pierre L’Enfant, left out J Street as a slight to John Jay.  Legend has it that L’Enfant hated John Jay for the 1794 Jay Treaty, which settled some issues between America and Great Britain.  The treaty was generally unpopular with Americans because it seemed to greatly favor the British, and the French were mad too because they were an ally during the Revolutionary War and now were fighting Great Britain on their own.  Supposedly, L’Enfant was upset because he was a French-born American, so he was doubly pissed.

However, this myth falls apart entirely when you look at the timeline of things.  L’Enfant’s plan for DC was finalized in early 1792, and the Jay Treaty didn’t happen until 1794.  And the other myth, that John Jay stole Pierre L’Enfant’s wife or girlfriend, also falls apart when you learn that Pierre L’Enfant was gay.  So there’s really no truth about the omission of J Street as a slight to John Jay.

Photo courtesy of
‘Get out!’
courtesy of ‘marc.benton’

So why do all the quadrants skip from I Street to K Street?  Well, the really boring answer is that back then, I and J looked very similar when written and were largely interchangeable, so there would have been logistical issues having two streets named the same thing.  So J was left out, along with X, Y, and Z Streets.  A Street and B Street have been renamed in certain quadrants as Constitution, Independence, Madison, and Jefferson, but A Street NE and A Street SE still exist.

Photo courtesy of
‘Taxation Without Representation St SE’
courtesy of ‘voteprime’

Interestingly, the whole network of east-west streets in the District follows this alphabetical pattern.  After letters are exhausted, the streets are named alphabetically with two syllables, then after those are exhausted it changes to three syllable alphabetical names, then finally (only in the upper reaches of northwest do these names come in) streets are named after plants and flowers alphabetically (Aspen, Butternut, Cedar, etc).  Of course, it’s not as simple as it sounds; for example, the northwest quadrant has several different two-syllable C streets, like Calvert, Channing, Chapin, and Clifton, all within a few blocks of one another with no real relation.  But generally, the rule is followed pretty closely.  And Arlington County follows a similar pattern in naming their streets as well.

So there you go, the real reason why there’s no J Street.  I know I’m really tearing apart all the great stories of DC through all this mythbusting, so I apologize.  Feel free to continue to tell visiting tourists and friends that there’s no J Street because of some long-standing feud with John Jay– I won’t tell.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

10 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: No J Street Because L’Enfant Held a Grudge

  1. What did Is and Js look like back then?

    How about Is and 1s? I wonder why he didn’t preserve J and get rid of I so that the I would not be confused with 1st street.

  2. I think both Is and Js looked like Is. According to one of the articles I was reading, Thomas Jefferson used to sign his letters T.I.

    Good point on the second question. I’m guessing it’s because J was so uncommon back then (it ranks 23/26 in letters in order of frequency), but you’re right that it would clear up some confusion. I think that’s why I Street is written as Eye Street in some places.

  3. It’s actually how they are pronounced. I use to be used for both I and J sounds. It wasn’t until a century or two before L’Enfant that J came into use as a seperate letter. And since the Romans, the people who made the alphabet, didn’t really use it as it’s own character, why would any educated person in 1792 want it in a classically designed city? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J

    Also, the Masons hate the letter J. Didn’t you know that? :OP

  4. Maybe WeLoveDC should do an article on all the fun things to tell tourists…like that the two different colors of the Washington Monument is due to regular flooding…

  5. I know you were trying to avoid this one, but I’m glad you busted this myth. Thanks, Shannon.

  6. that makes sense…also there is no confusion btwn 1 and I, bc 1st street is written as First st.

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