Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Water, Water Everywhere

Photo courtesy of
‘Potomac River – Traffic on the Key Bridge – 04-20-10′
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

I went for a swim in the Potomac River this weekend, and right before I jumped in the water I heard two fellow triathletes have the following conversation:
Triathlete 1: I have a friend who signed up for this race, but he dropped out because he has an Ironman tri coming up, and he wanted to be healthy for it.
Triathlete 2: (confused look)
Triathlete 1: Oh, you didn’t know?  The Potomac River is one of the dirtiest rivers in the country, and people have caught hepatitis from it.  He wanted to make sure he didn’t catch anything during today’s swim.
Triathlete 2: Oh my God.

The triathletes then continued to discuss the poor quality of the river they were about to jump into.  I doubted that anyone could catch hepatitis from a body of water (but apparently I was wrong), but I started to wonder whether it was true that the Potomac River was one of the worst in the country.  So after swimming, biking, and running around the District, I decided to sit down and put this myth to the test.  Is DC home to the most polluted rivers in America?

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Danger!

Photo courtesy of
‘Nacho #19′
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

I was born and raised in the suburbs, and when I decided to become a city planner and move to a major city, I heard from many people in my parents’ generation about how dangerous Washington DC was.  “It’s the murder capital of the country!” But is it really?  How does DC’s crime rate compare to that of other cities?  These sound like some good myths to bust.  Let’s get to it!

So is DC the murder capital of the country?  This claim may have been true at one point, but that was about twenty years ago.  The District went through a trying time in the early 90s, when crack cocaine took over the city and murders peaked at 479 in 1991 (an astounding 78.92 murders per 100,000 residents, Borderstan points out).  But last year, there were 143 homicides in the city, continuing a decades-long downward trend.  So yes, at one point the District may have had the highest murder rate in the country, but that’s definitely not the case now.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Lincoln Edition

Photo courtesy of
‘Lincoln’
courtesy of ‘Samuel Gordon’

Had enough of the tourists yet?  Not only do they stand on the left of Metro escalators and block entire sidewalks with their matching-t-shirt armies, half of what they’re saying about the monuments and memorials in our city is wrong.  The Lincoln Memorial is the subject of several monumental myths, so this week we’ll look at myths regarding our 16th President: is Robert E. Lee sculpted into the back of Lincoln’s head at the Lincoln Memorial?  Are Lincoln’s hands supposed to be showing his initials in American Sign Language? And why is  a portrait of George Washington hanging at the Lincoln Presidential Box at Fords’ Theatre?
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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Monumental Myths

Photo courtesy of
‘TJ, from above’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

It’s officially tourist season here in DC, and our once-serene monuments and memorials are again overrun with school groups in matching t-shirts and families pushing strollers the size of SUVs.  They’re here to see the monuments and memorials all over the city, and to educate future generations about the founding of our country and important historic events.  But there are so many myths about the monuments and memorials in the District that can’t possibly be true, so I set out to bust some of them, just in time to set those tourists straight.   Read on to find out whether there’s an extra hand of God on the Iwo Jima memorial, whether the number of horse’s hooves on the ground of a statue relates to how a person died, and what’s really buried beneath the Washington Monument.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: White House Flag

Photo courtesy of
‘The White House – The Dream Home of Many Children’
courtesy of ‘adcristal’

There are all sorts of rules and regulations about the proper display of the American flag– when it can be displayed, where it can be displayed, and how it should be regarded.  For example, apparently it’s a violation of the Flag Code to display the flag horizontally on a football field, as is a common practice in games across the country. Whoops!  But what about the White House?  There’s a legend out there that the US flag is only flown over the White House when the President is in the District.  If he’s not in DC, no flag is flown.  With all the specifications and regulations in the Flag Code, I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was true– but is it?

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: The 2010 Census (Or, How You Are Worth $4,656)

Photo courtesy of
’274/365 Filling out the census’
courtesy of ‘eiratansey’

I love busting myths about the city in this feature, but myths about owning vs. renting, the international nature of DC’s residents, and how no one is from DC would be impossible to bust without cold hard data.  And where do we get that data? The Census!  And now is an exciting time– Census forms should be arriving this week, and now you get to do your civic duty and fill out your form.

There are a lot of myths about the Census– who should fill it out, what the information can be used for, etc– and this is the first time that many of us are the heads of households filling out these forms.  Lucky for us, we’ve got Maurice Henderson, the director of DC Counts, to help us bust this week’s Census-related myths.  Check out what Maurice had to say about three big myths Census myths.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: The Lost Forts of DC

Photo courtesy of
‘Fort Gaines at Tenleytown 1864′
courtesy of ‘NCinDC’

Some of the myths about the city seem a little far-fetched, particularly the more historic ones about the layout of the city.  Traffic circles meant to confuse invading armies?  No J Street because Pierre L’Enfant held a grudge?  Come on.  Here’s another one I heard– there’s a system of forts on the outskirts of the District designed to protect the city from an invasion.  This story, like the other two, has to be a myth, right?  The only fort in the city I can think of is Fort Totten, which (as far as I know) is a Metro station and not some Civil War encampment, and I certainly can’t picture an entire ring of forts around the city.  So this myth is pretty easily busted, right?

Not quite. It turns out to be true– there was an incredibly extensive network of forts that once surrounded the city, and today, many of these forts are again being linked together to create a greenway trail for recreational uses. The Fort Circle Park system was a surprise to me, and digging through the history of these parks turned up some other interesting facts.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Daytime Population

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘flipperman75′

Now that the snow is melting and the city is returning to normal, let’s focus on a non-snow topic for a change.  Last Friday’s commute from hell showed us all that the city’s transportation network wasn’t quite ready for the influx of commuters going to work. That got me thinking– how many people commute into DC, and how does that compare with other cities?  And does the population of the District really double during the day?

Once again, the Census provides all these answers– so keep in mind this data is almost a decade old, but until we fill out and return our Census forms this spring, it’s the best we can do. The Census tells us that in 2000, 572,059 people lived in the District (and because DC is such an awesome city, more people are moving here– the population was estimated at 588,373 in 2008).  On top of that, over 400,000 more people commute into the District from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania on any given weekday.  That leaves DC’s daytime population in 2000 at 982,853– 172% of its nighttime population.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: International City

Photo courtesy of
‘Flagged entry’
courtesy of ‘afagen’

Hi, and welcome to a new year of Mythbusting!   We’re going to start out the year off with a myth about the character of the District.  When I first moved to DC, I always thought it was such an international city– walking down the street, you hear people speaking foreign languages,  and with all the embassies it seemed like it was home to people from many different nations.  And I’m not alone– there are clubs in the city focused on bringing international professionals together, and DC is known as a major global city.  But is the District home to more people from foreign countries, and more foreign speaker, than other peer cities?

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

Photo courtesy of
‘Christmas in Washington – 090′
courtesy of ‘giantminispacegoat’

Welcome to a holiday edition of Mythbusting! This week we’ll be figuring out exactly what is going on with the Christmas trees in DC. How many National Christmas Trees are there? There’s the one outside the Capitol and the one outside the White House, but are there more “official” Christmas trees in our federal city?

Yes, there are! There are three official national trees in our fair city: the Capitol Christmas Tree in front of the Capitol. the National Christmas Tree near the ellipse at the White House, and the White House Christmas Tree inside the Blue Room of the White House. Read on to find out the difference between these trees, where they came from this year, and which one is a DC native!

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: DC is a Company Town

Photo courtesy of
‘The Capitol’
courtesy of ‘Tyrannous’

Welcome to another Mythbusting feature!  This week, we’ll be tackling the myth that the District of Columbia is a company town– that is, that the majority of jobs in the city are federal government jobs.  DC is the center of the federal government, so wouldn’t it make sense that most of the jobs in the city are federal government jobs?  And secondly, aren’t the majority of federal jobs here in DC?  And what are the largest federal agencies here, anyway?  Read on for the answers to all of these questions, as well as the surprise largest private employer in the city.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Metro Map to Scale

Photo courtesy of
‘Metro_Compared’
courtesy of ‘Don Whiteside’

Hi, and welcome to another edition of Mythbusting!  After our last feature busted some misconceptions about the busiest Metro stations and lines, we’ll tackle another Metro myth this week: that the Metro map that you see in stations is proportional.  The official Metro map shows right angles and evenly-spaced stations throughout the system, and all lines look to be generally the same length.  So the real Metro system looks the same when it’s drawn to scale, right?

Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Haunted DC

Photo courtesy of
‘Thomas Trueman Gaff Monument’
courtesy of ‘kimberlyfaye’

Hi, and welcome to a Halloween edition of Mythbusting!  This week, I’ll see if my mythbusting skills can translate to ghostbusting.  I’m going to tackle three different spooky DC myths and see if I can find any validity in the legends.  Sound good?  Let’s get started.

The Demon Cat in the Capitol: First off, let’s tackle one of the most widespread haunted myths of our city: the Demon Cat.  There are so many ghost stories involving a black cat who appears in the Capitol as an omen before national tragedies like presidential assassinations.  Legend has it that the cat has appeared before the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, before the stock market crash of 1929, and even on September 10, 2001.  Apparently, there are even permanent paw prints in the Capitol that show the presence of the Demon Cat!  So is there really a Demon Cat?

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Georgetown Metro Stop

Photo courtesy of
‘Georgetown Tunnel’
courtesy of ‘MikaAltskan’

Hi and welcome to another edition of Mythbusting!  This week we’ll be tackling the myth of the Georgetown Metro.  The legend explains why Georgetown, a vibrant part of the city with many attractions, does not have a Metro station.  Legend has it that Metro planners had originally planned a station for Georgetown, but Georgetown’s well-connected residents fought to keep the criminals and poor people that would ride Metro away from their exclusive neighborhood.  They successfully defeated the Metro plans, and thus, there’s no Metro station in Georgetown today.  Why else would there not be a Metro station at such a major destination in DC?

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

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

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0016.jpg’
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. Continue reading

Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: No One is From DC

Photo courtesy of
‘moving boxes’
courtesy of ‘ilya’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting.  This week we’ll tackle the myth that no one is really from DC.  The District has a reputation as a transient city, with young go-getters coming here after college, putting in a few years on the Hill, then moving on to bigger and better things.  But is DC really more transient than other similar cities?  Is no one really from DC?

The answer is no, but there’s a bit of a qualifier to that.  The best resource to answer this question would be the US Census, which asks a question about where you lived 5 years ago compared to where you live now.  But the 2000 Census is seriously outdated (especially since the demographic makeup of the District has changed significantly since then), and the 2010 Census hasn’t started yet.  So the next best resource is the annual American Community Survey, which asks two questions that help us answer this question: where was your residence one year ago?  and which state were you born in? After the break, see what the American Community Survey tells us about DC.

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Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Takoma or Takoma Park?

Photo courtesy of

courtesy of ‘Hoffmann’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting.  This week we’ll be tackling a myth about nomenclature– is the town on the other edge of the boundary with DC called Takoma or Takoma Park?  If it is Takoma Park (which is the name you hear more often), why on earth is the Metro station just called Takoma?

Because there are two different places– Takoma Park is a city in Maryland, while Takoma is a neighborhood in NW Washington DC.  They’re right next to each other, and they used to both be part of a suburb called Takoma Park, until the District of Columbia grew up to its current boundary.  Takoma Park was founded back in 1883 as a Washington garden suburb with “clean air, pure water, and no mosquitoes.”  The area grew as an attractive estate-filled suburb with streetcar service connecting it to Downtown DC.  In 1890 Takoma Park was incorporated as a town by the Maryland General Assembly. However, the northeast boundary line of Washington DC ran right through what was formerly known as Takoma Park. Pierre L’Enfant probably wouldn’t have been too happy with someone messing with the boundaries of his orderly 10-mile square, so the part of the suburb that was within DC remained under District control.

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Essential DC, Mythbusting DC, The District, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Built on a Swamp?

Photo courtesy of
‘Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens – Egret Among the Reeds – 7-20-08′
courtesy of ‘mosley.brian’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting.  I’m sure you’ve heard that the muggy mosquito-filled summers in DC are due to its location on a swamp.  The Chicago Tribune named their DC bureau’s blog “The Swamp” and it is oh-so-clever to call sleazy politicians “swamp creatures“.  And yes, we all know that summers in the city are humid and gross and miserable… but was DC really built on a swamp?

Not really– today it’d be called more of a tidal plain.  When Pierre L’Enfant set out with a team to survey the city, there was a lot of variety in what he found: fields of tobacco and corn, small forests, and some waterside bluffs and wetlands.  Most of the marshy areas were along the rivers and were susceptible to tidal fluctuations and intermittent flooding, but most of the core of the Federal City wasn’t marshy.  That being said, DC was and still is a water-rich city, with the Rock Creek, the Tiber Creek (which was enclosed in the 1870s), the Potomac River, and the Anacostia River and countless creeks.

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History, Mythbusting DC, The District, The Features

DC Mythbusting: “Lobbyist” Coined at Willard Hotel

Photo courtesy of
‘WASHINGTON 2-35′
courtesy of ‘chantoozie’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting!  This week we’ll be busting the myth of the term ‘lobbyist’.  The legend that I’ve heard countless times in the District is that the term ‘lobbyist’ originated at the Willard Hotel when Ulysses S. Grant was in office (1869-1877).  Apparently President Grant would frequent the Willard Hotel to enjoy brandy and a cigar, and while he was there, he’d be hounded by petitioners asking for legislative favors or jobs.  It is said that President Grant coined the term by referring to the petitioners as “those damn lobbyists.”   The legend has been forwarded by the Washington Post, The Hill, the American Society of News Editors, and, of course, the PR director of the Willard Hotel.

It’s a fun story to tell tourists, and it makes the Willard Hotel even more of a landmark, but the legend is just not true.  Sure, President Grant visited the Willard Hotel and enjoyed his brandy and a cigar, but he did not coin the term ‘lobbyist’.

The verb ‘to lobby’ first appeared in print in the United States in the 1830′s, at least thirty years before Ulysses S. Grant came to Washington.  The term is believed to have originated in British Parliament, and referred to the lobbies outside the chambers where wheeling and dealing took place.  “Lobbyist” was in common usage in Britain in the 1840′s.  Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large for the Oxford English Dictionary, believes the term was used as early as 1640 in England to describe the lobbies that were open to constituents to interact with their representatives.

So there you have it: President Grant may have used the term to refer to all those hangers-on at the Willard, but the term was around long before he arrived in DC.

Life in the Capital, Mythbusting DC, The District, The Features

DC Mythbusting: Traffic Circles

Photo courtesy of
‘Sheridan Statue Hoof’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting!  Last week we discussed how, contrary to popular belief, the height limit wasn’t based on the Capitol or the Washington Monument.  This week I’m here to debunk the myth of the traffic circles in DC.   I have heard from a couple different sources that supposedly Pierre L’Enfant designed the traffic circles in Washington DC as artillery bases to defend the city.  It is said that cannons were placed in the center of the circles to defend against cavalry.  This myth has some traction out there– it can be found in transportation magazines, Washingtonian magazine, and even a book.

The fact is that the circles weren’t even originally envisioned as circles.  According to Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, DC, L’Enfant had planned for squares where the avenues intersected the grid.  In fact, L’Enfant’s plan for the squares was more of an economic development tool: he thought that each square should be settled by residents and Congressmen of a particular state, creating informal state ‘embassies’, and that states would then encourage the development of that particular area of the city.  In this way, the squares would encourage both business and residents to locate near their home state square and foster community development.  His plan for the development of the city was to start developing at each of these nodes and connect the nodes with grand avenues. Continue reading