DC Mythbusting: Highway to Heaven

Photo courtesy of
‘Three Churches, One Corner, Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.’
courtesy of ‘adcristal’

I love that after several years of living here, I keep finding out new things about the District. Just last week while on a run with a friend along 16th Street, she told me that she had heard that 16th Street was known as the Highway to Heaven because of the concentration of churches, synagogues, and mosques along it. I had never heard of that, but it sounded like an interesting myth to investigate. Does 16th Street really have more religious institutions than any other corridor in the city? And is it called the Highway to Heaven?

Photo courtesy of
‘Unification Church on 16th Street’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

It sure looks that way. Between the Lafayette Square and Eastern Avenue, there are 44 religious institutions located on or just off 16th Street NW. Forty-four! For a segment of a road that is only about 6 miles long, that’s a remarkable average of 7 churches per mile (or about a church every two blocks). However, they aren’t equally spread out, as there are a number of concentrations of churches: five churches near 16th and Harvard Street NW in Mount Pleasant, five churches near 16th and Webster Street NW in Crestwood, and four churches near 16th and Monroe Street NW in Mount Pleasant.

And it’s not just churches, either– there are several synagogues, a couple Buddhist churches, and an ethical society included in there too. There doesn’t seem to be any other stretch of the city that has that concentration of religious institutions over such an area. So I’ll call this one confirmed– 16th Street NW has the highest concentration of churches in the District, with 44 religious institutions over about six miles.

Photo courtesy of
‘Third Church of Christ, Scientist – 16th and Eye Streets – 4-17-09’
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

But that leads us to the second question. Is 16th Street really known as the Highway to Heaven? Here’s where this gets interesting. The road known as the Highway to Heaven is actually just outside the District– New Hampshire Avenue, between the Beltway and Sandy Spring Road. This ten-mile stretch of New Hampshire Avenue is home to religious institutions from just about any faith imaginable. There are two Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls. A mosque. A Hindu temple. Dozens of foreign language services, in Spanish and Vietnamese and Khmer. There’s even a tiny “prayer stop” shack. Several of these churches are so-called “megachurches” that attract up to 3,000 worshipers at a time.

New Hampshire Avenue beats 16th Street here because of variety. The communities along New Hampshire Avenue have high concentrations of foreign-born residents, and many new immigrants immerse themselves in churches as they build connections in our country. So the amazing variety of churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples is due to the multicultural nature of the area.

Photo courtesy of
‘Cherry Blossoms at All Souls’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

So while 16th Street has an amazing concentration of churches, New Hampshire Avenue outside of the District has it beat in the variety of religious institutions in a concentrated area. But it is pretty remarkable that our region is home to two major concentrations of religious institutions. The sheer number of churches on 16th Street is amazing, particularly at some intersections where four or five churches are present. And the variety and international character of the religious institutions on New Hampshire Avenue, with everything from a tiny prayer shack to several megachurches, make it a nationally-known Highway to Heaven.

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!

3 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Highway to Heaven

  1. “So I’ll call this one confirmed– 16th Street NW has the highest concentration of churches in the District, with 44 religious institutions over about six miles.” — not sure on this one, but you may want to check the number of religious institutions in Brookland – aka Little Rome -before making this conclusion (there are churches of many types – not just Catholic). unless, of course, you already checked that.

  2. I hadn’t already checked that, but I just did. I count about 20 churches in Brookland, over a 1.5 square mile area. Here there are 44 churches in less than one square mile (it’s 6 miles long, but I only looked at the block– so it is only 0.1 miles wide).

    Brookland is probably the neighborhood with the most churches, but 16th Street has it beat for the concentration of churches along a corridor.

  3. i’ve never heard highway to heaven, but i have heard “church row” and that the churches located on 16th on purpose. this isn’t where i first read it, but i can’t seem to find the original source soo…wiki it is –

    “Early in the city’s history, many foreign countries located their embassies on 16th Street because of its proximity to the White House. Many religious denominations followed suit by building churches on the street to serve symbolically as embassies, thus earning the street the nickname ‘Church Row.'”