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Washington, DC

Washington, DC, officially the District of Columbia (also known as DC; Washington; and, historically, the Federal City) is the capital city and administrative district of the United States of America. Residents of the city and its surrounding suburbs refer to it simply as the District or DC, to contrast Washington from its greater metropolitan area.
Aerial photo (looking NW) of the Washington Monument and the White House in Washington, DC.

Washington, DC is the most common way to refer to the District throughout the rest of the United States and the world. Washington or Washington, DC is also used as a metonym for the federal government. Politicians and candidates for office sometimes use these terms pejoratively to convey a sense of solidarity with their constituents by distancing themselves from the negative image of an out-of-touch centralized government. (The Washington Post criticized this common political tactic in a 2001 editorial.)

The District of Columbia is not part of any state, but is instead a nationally unique administrative district under federal jurisdiction, but with limited – and sometimes contentious – local rule. As the seat of national government as well as the home of numerous national landmarks, museums, and sports teams, Washington is a popular international destination for tourists and school trips.

The centers of all three branches of the U.S. federal government are in Washington, as well as the headquarters of most federal agencies. Washington also serves as the headquarters for the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization of American States. All of this has made Washington the frequent focal point of massive political demonstrations and protests, particularly on the National Mall.

The population of Washington, as of 2003 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, is 563,384. Despite being smaller in area than the smallest state (Rhode Island), it has a larger population than the least populous state (Wyoming). Together with portions of Virginia and Maryland, and Baltimore and its environs, Washington is part of a large metropolitan area known as the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. In recent years, the metro area has expanded to include communities as far away as West Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

The official bird of Washington DC is the wood thrush. The official motto is Justitia Omnibus (Justice for All).

For non-federal and historical geographical information on the District of Columbia, go to the District of Columbia (geography) page.

Law and government
License plate reading Washington, D.C. at the top and Taxation Without Representation at the bottom.

Residents of the District vote for the President but do not have voting representation in Congress. Citizens of Washington are represented in the House of Representatives by a non-voting Delegate, who sits on committees and participates in debate, but cannot vote. DC does not have representation in the Senate. Citizens of Washington, DC are thus unique in the world, as citizens of the capital city of every other country have the same representation rights as their fellow citizens.

There have been efforts to attain voting representation for many years, including the District of Columbia Voting Rights Amendment passed by Congress in 1978 but unratified by the states. These efforts are endorsed by the current mayor, Anthony Williams, and by the current delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. So, while the District's official motto is "Justitia omnibus" (Justice to all), the words "Taxation Without Representation" were added to DC license plates in 2000 and there is a current movement to the add the words "No Taxation Without Representation" to the DC flag. Advocates of statehood who have supported these changes have said that they are intended as a protest and to raise awareness in the rest of the country. These measures in particular were chosen because the DC flag is one of the few things under direct local control without requiring approval from Congress.
English ancestors of George Washington.

Various approaches for attaining voting representation in Congress have been proposed. These include:

  1. Treating DC in some way as a state:
    1. Have Congress pass legislation that would treat DC as if it were a state for the purposes of voting representation in Congress. Senator Joseph Lieberman introduced The No Taxation Without Representation Act of 2003 (S. 617) on March 13, 2003, to the U.S. Senate, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the same Act in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1285).
    2. Amend the U.S. Constitution. In 1978 an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have given full congressional voting representation to residents of the District of Columbia passed through both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. However, by 1985 when the seven year limit on ratification of the amendment expired, the amendment had only passed in 16 of 38 states necessary.
    3. Statehood for the District of Columbia. Statehood for DC was last discussed in the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1993, and was defeated by the vote of 277 to 153.
  2. (Re)combining DC with Maryland in some way:
    1. Retrocession (Reunion with the State of Maryland). The original land of DC was originally Maryland and Virginia's land, and from 1790 until 1801 citizens living in DC continued to vote for, and even run as, candidates for the U.S. Congress in Maryland or Virginia. In 1846 the land from Virginia was given back to Virginia, so all current DC land was originally from Maryland. If both the U.S. Congress and the Maryland state legislature agreed, DC land (except for federal land) could be given back to Maryland with only a small federal area.
    2. Treat District Residents as Maryland Voters for federal Congressional elections. Congress could give DC residents the right to vote as if they were part of Maryland for the Senate and House of Representatives (including the calculations for apportioning House seats).

On a local level, the city is run by an elected mayor and city council. The school board has both elected and appointed members. The 37 elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) provide the most direct access for residents to their local government. However, Congress has plenary power over the district. It has the right to review and overrule laws created locally, and has often done so.

DC residents pay all federal taxes, such as income tax, as well as local taxes. The mayor and council adopt a budget of local money with Congress reserving the right to make any changes. Because so much of the valuable property in the district is federally-owned and hence exempt from local property taxes, the city is frequently cash-strapped; public services in the city suffer as a result.

See:District of Columbia home rule.

German map of Washington, DC

Washington was selected as the site of the national capital city after a sit-down dinner deal between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson agreed to support Hamilton's banking and federal bond plans in exchange for the choice of a Southern locale for the capital. It was initially 100 mi² (260 km²).

The signing of the Residence Bill on July 16, 1790 established a site along the Potomac River as the District of Columbia (seat of government) of the United States. Land for the district was given to the federal government by the states of Virginia and Maryland and the city was named after George Washington. On February 27, 1801 the district was placed under the jurisdiction of the United States Congress. The towns of Georgetown and Alexandria already existed at the time the district was founded; the remainder of the territory was subdivided into Washington City and Washington County (on the Maryland side of the Potomac) and Alexandria County (on the Virginia side). By an act of Congress, the area south of the Potomac (39 mi² or about 100 km²) was returned to Virginia on July 9, 1846 and now is incorporated into Arlington County and a part of the City of Alexandria. In 1871, Georgetown, Washington City and Washington County were unified into Washington, DC.

On August 24, 1814, British forces burnt the capital during the most notable destructive raid of the War of 1812. British forces burned public buildings including the Capitol, the Arsenal, the Dock-Yard, Treasury, War office, and the bridge across the Potomac. The Presidential Mansion was also gutted, and the white paint subsequently used to disguise the blackened exterior walls, meant it became known as the White House.

President James Madison was forced to flee to Virginia and American morale was reduced to an all-time low. The expedition was carried out between August 19 and August 29, 1814, and was well organized and vigorously executed. On the 24th, the American militia, who had collected at Bladensburg, Maryland, to protect the capital, fled almost before they were attacked.
Aerial photo of Washington, DC (looking WSW, roughly along the National Mall)

President Herbert Hoover ordered the United States Army on July 28, 1932 to forcibly evict the "Bonus Army" of World War I veterans that gathered in Washington, DC to secure promised veteran's benefits early. U.S. troops dispersed the last of the "Bonus Army" the next day.

The Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on March 29, 1961 which allows residents of Washington, DC to vote for president and have their votes count in the Electoral College the same as the least populous state, which currently has three electoral votes.

The first 4.6 miles (7.4 kilometers) of the Washington Metro subway system opened on March 27, 1976.

Walter Washington became the first elected mayor of the District in 1974, but was defeated in the Democratic primaries in 1978 by Marion Barry. During his third term, Barry was arrested for drug use in an FBI sting on January 18, 1990. He was acquitted of felony charges, but convicted on one misdemeanor count of cocaine possession for which he served a six-month jail term. On January 2, 1991 Sharon Pratt Kelly (elected as Sharon Pratt Dixon but married later that year) was sworn in as mayor of Washington, DC becoming the first black woman to lead a city of that size and importance in the United States. After her term ended in 1994, Marion Barry was once again elected mayor for his fourth term, during which the city nearly became insolvent and was forced to give up some home rule to a congressionally appointed financial control board. The current mayor, Anthony Williams, a Yale educated lawyer, served as Chief Financial Officer on the control board, and was elected mayor in 1998. He was reelected in 2002. See List of mayors of Washington, D.C.
Security camera image of the moment that American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon

The Washington area was the target of at least one of the four hijacked planes in the September 11, 2001 attacks. One plane struck the Pentagon in Arlington County, killing 125 people in addition to the 64 aboard the plane, while another that was downed in a field in Pennsylvania is believed by many to have been intended to hit either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.

Shortly after September 11, Washington was once more subject to fear from an anthrax attack, when what may have been a domestic terrorist sent anthrax-contaminated mail to numerous members of Congress. Thirty-one staff members were infected, and two U.S. Postal Service employees at a contaminated mail sorting facility at Brentwood, Washington, DC, later died of pulmonary anthrax.

During three weeks of October 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo perpetrated what became known as the Beltway Sniper attacks in Washington and across the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area. Muhammad and Malvo killed ten people and critically injured three others with a high-powered rifle. The apparently random selection of victims (crossing racial, gender, and socioeconomic categories) caused a general panic in the Washington area and led schools to cancel all outdoor activities. Muhammad and Malvo were arrested on October 24 at a highway rest stop. In March 2004, Muhammad was sentenced to death and Malvo to life imprisonment for the attacks.

In November of 2003, the toxin ricin was found in the mailroom of the White House, and in February of 2004, in the mailroom of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. As with the earlier anthrax attacks, no arrests have been made.

Partly in response to these events from the past few years, the Washington area has taken many steps to increase security. Screening devices for biological agents, metal detectors, and vehicle barriers are now much more commonplace at office buildings as well as government buildings. After the 2004 Madrid train bombings, local authorities have decided to test explosives detectors on the vulnerable Washington Metro subway system. False alarms due to suspicious chemical or powder substances or suspected explosives have led to fairly frequent evacuations of buildings, Metro stations, and local post offices. Vehicle inspections at several roadblocks set up around the U.S. Capitol building were introduced in July 2004, but were removed in November 2004.

USGS satellite image of Washington, DC, taken April 26, 2002. The Potomac River and its eastern branch, the Anacostia River, are visible. Virginia lies across the Potomac from Washington, while Maryland surrounds it on all other sides. The black "crosshairs" in the image mark the quadrant divisions of Washington, with the U.S. Capitol at the center of the dividing lines. To the west of the Capitol extends the National Mall, visible as a slight green band in the image. The Pentagon is also visible in Virginia, near the Potomac.

Washington is located at 38°54'49" North, 77°0'48" West (38.913611, -77.013222)1.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 177.0 km² (68.3 mi²). 159.0 km² (61.4 mi²) of it is land and 18.0 km² (6.9 mi²) of it is water. The total area is 10.16% water.

Washington is surrounded by the states of Virginia (on its southwest side, and a small part of its northwest one) and Maryland (on its southeast and northeast sides, and most of its northwest one); it interrupts those states' common border, which is the Potomac River both upstream and downstream from the District. The city contains the historic federal city, the territory of which was formerly part of those two adjacent states before they respectively ceded it for the national capital. The land ceded from Virginia was returned by Congress in 1847, so what remains of the modern District was all once part of Maryland.

See also District of Columbia (geography).

City layout

The original street layout was designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant at the time of the city's founding. Washington is divided into four quadrants, directly along the four compass directions: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, and Southeast. Every street name has appended to it the abbreviation of the quadrant that it is in—e.g., Connecticut Ave., NW, New York Ave., NE. A street's quadrant is necessary to include in postal addresses, especially because much of the city's street layout repeats within each quadrant. The north-to-south numbered streets in Washington and count upwards from east to west in NW/SW (1st St NW, 2nd St NW, 3rd St NW, etc.); these streets repeat in NE/SE, counting upwards from west to the east. The east-to-west lettered streets (A St, B St, etc.) "count" upwards from south to north in NW/NE, and likewise repeat in the opposite direction in SW/SE. Street numbers count upwards traveling outward from the dividing lines of the quadrants.

The center of the north/south and east/west dividing lines is the U.S. Capitol, which is offset from the physical center of Washington's diamond shape making the quadrants unequal in size. Additionally, much of what was SW is now Arlington County, Virginia (or the Potomac River), making it by far the smallest quadrant; NW is the largest.

L'Enfant's plan also includes many diagonal avenues named after the states, such as Pennsylvania Avenue which connects the Capitol and the White House.

To preserve the grandeur of the National Mall, the White House, the Capitol, and various other key locations, the entire city is subject to strict height limits. Thus, it has no skyscrapers and has a relatively modest skyline in comparison to the majority of American cities. But there are some high-rise buildings in many nearby suburbs like Arlington.


Washington includes many distinct and historic neighborhoods:

(External link to DC neighborhood websites)


As of the census of 2000, there are 572,059 people, 248,338 households, and 114,235 families residing in the city. The population density is 3,597.3/km˛ (9,316.4/mi˛). There are 274,845 housing units at an average density of 1,728.3/km˛ (4,476.1/mi˛). The racial makeup of the city is 30.78% White, 60.01% African American, 0.30% Native American, 2.66% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 3.84% from other races, and 2.35% from two or more races. 7.86% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There are 248,338 households out of which 19.8% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 22.8% are married couples living together, 18.9% have a female householder with no husband present, and 54.0% are non-families. 43.8% of all households are made up of individuals and 10.0% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.16 and the average family size is 3.07.

In the city the population is spread out with 20.1% under the age of 18, 12.7% from 18 to 24, 33.1% from 25 to 44, 21.9% from 45 to 64, and 12.2% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 35 years. For every 100 females there are 89.0 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 86.1 males.

The median income for a household in the city is $40,127, and the median income for a family is $46,283. Males have a median income of $40,513 versus $36,361 for females. The per capita income for the city is $28,659. 20.2% of the population and 16.7% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 31.1% are under the age of 18 and 16.4% are 65 or older. The median income for a household in the city is $40,127, and the median income for a family is $46,283. Males have a median income of $40,513 versus $36,361 for females. The per capita income for the city is $28,659. 20.2% of the population and 16.7% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total population, 31.1% of those under the age of 18 and 16.4% of those 65 and older are living below the poverty line.

Map depicting federal lands of D.C.

Washington, D.C. is first and foremost a company town, the company being, of course, the federal government. Most (but by no means all) people who work in or around the District have some sort of connection to the federal government. In addition to government employees, many people work for the federal contractors headquartered in the area, and many also work for the numerous nonprofit organizations of all sizes and political orientations. Then there are the law firms and lobbying firms, catering and administrative services companies, and several other industries that are sustained by the enormous economic presence of the federal government.

This arrangement has the effect of making the Washington economy virtually recession proof, since the federal government will still operate no matter the state of the general economy.

Several major companies are based in Washington, including the Carlyle Group and Marriott International, Inc.

America Online and Orbital Sciences Corporation are based in nearby Dulles, Virginia. MCI is based in nearby Ashburn, Virginia. Nextel and Unisys are based in Reston, Virginia. US Airways is based in Arlington County, Virginia. Colgan Air is based in (not quite so) nearby Manassas, Virginia. Lockheed Martin is based in nearby Bethesda, Maryland. Alhurra is based in Springfield, Virginia. Independence Air is based at nearby Dulles International Airport. The Gannett Company, a media conglomerate that publishes USA Today, is based in McLean in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The American genomics industry is largely centered around the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Prominent players are Celera, The Institute for Genomic Research (also known as "TIGR"), and Human Genome Sciences (all of which are in the city of Rockville, Maryland).

Cultural features

Landmarks and museums

Washington is the home of numerous national landmarks and is a popular tourist destination. Landmarks include:
The Jefferson Memorial

Professional sports

Washington is home to several professional sports teams: the MLS D.C. United, the NHL Washington Capitals, the WNBA Washington Mystics, the NBA Washington Wizards, and the MLB Washington Nationals (the former Montreal Expos, who will start play in 2005). It also hosts the annual Legg Mason Tennis Classic tennis tournament.

Other professional and semi-professional teams based in DC include the USAFL Baltimore Washington Eagles, the NWFA D.C. Divas, the Minor League Football DC Explosion, and the Washington Cricket League. It was also home to the WUSA Washington Freedom, and, during the 20002002 NLL seasons, the Washington Power was based in the city.

The NFL Washington Redskins formerly played at R.F.K. Stadium in the District, but are now based at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland.

There were two Major League Baseball teams named the Washington Senators in the early and mid-20th century, which left to become respectively the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers. In the premodern era of baseball, the town was home to teams called the Washington Nationals, Washington Statesmen, and Washington Senators on and off from the 1870s to the turn of the century. It was also home to several Negro League teams, including the Homestead Grays, Washington Black Senators, Washington Elite Giants, Washington Pilots, and Washington Potomacs. On September 29, 2004 MLB announced plans to relocate the Montreal Expos to Washington and to rename the team the Washington Nationals, pending certain conditions including approval by the City Council of a stadium deal. The market is also home to many fans of the Baltimore Orioles of Baltimore, Maryland, whose owner initially opposed the move of the Expos to DC.

The MCI Center in Chinatown, home to the Capitals, Mystics, Wizards, and the Georgetown Hoyas, is also a major venue for concerts, WWE professional wrestling, and other events.

See also: U.S. cities with teams from four major sports.

Performing arts

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts hosts the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Opera, the Washington Ballet, and other musical and stage performances. Notable local music clubs include Madam's Organ Blues Bar in Adams Morgan, and the Black Cat, the 9:30 Club, and the historic Bohemian Caverns jazz club, all in the U Street NW area.

The only native DC music genre is go-go, a post-funk, percussion-driven flavor of R&B that blends live sets with relentless dance rhythms (that "go and go and go.") The most accomplished practitioner of go-go was DC bandleader Chuck Brown, who brought go-go to the brink of national recognition with his 1979 LP Bustin' Loose.

Washington was also an important center in the genesis of punk rock in the United States. Punk bands of note from Washington include Fugazi, Bad Brains, and Minor Threat. Native Washingtonians continue to support punk bands, long after the punk movement's peak in popularity. The region also has a storied indie rock history and was home to TeenBeat and Simple Machines, among other indie record labels.

Local media

The Washington Post is the oldest and most read daily newspaper in Washington. The Post is also one of the most reputable daily newspapers in the U.S. and is highly influential in its political reporting, particularly after the role of its reporters in cracking the Watergate scandal. The daily Washington Times and the free weekly Washington City Paper also have substantial readership in the District. The weekly Washington Blade focuses on gay issues. Most neighborhoods in the city have their own small-circulation newspaper, usually a free weekly. These include the Voice of the Hill for the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and the In-Towner in Dupont Circle, in addition to several others throughout the District. They are usually published by each neighborhood's respective neighborhood association.

Washington is served by the following local broadcast television stations:

  • WBDC—Channel 50, a WB affiliate
  • WDCA—Channel 20, a UPN affiliate
  • WRC—Channel 4, an NBC affiliate
  • WETA—Channel 26, a PBS affiliate
  • WJLA—Channel 7, an ABC affiliate
  • WTTG—Channel 5, a FOX affiliate
  • WUSA—Channel 9, a CBS affiliate

Some prominent radio stations in the District include:

  • WAMU, 88.5 FM, an NPR-affiliate run by American University. Plays the usual NPR programs, community programming, and BBC news. Once known for its daily bluegrass programming, bluegrass and oldtime country are now aired only on Sunday and on its online affiliate,
  • WETA, 90.9 FM, another NPR-affiliate. It runs less news/talk programming than WAMU in favor of classical music.
  • WKYS, 93.9 FM, a Radio One station competing with WPGC for the young African-American market. Home to the regionally syndicated Russ Parr Morning Show.
  • WPGC, 95.5 FM, a highly rated rythmic CHR/hip-hop station.
  • WHUR, 96.3 FM, a commercial radio station run by Howard University, an "urban adult contemporary" station in radio industry parlance. Also highly rated.
  • WMZQ, 98.7 FM, the city's country music station.
  • WIHT, 99.5 FM, a popular top-40 radio station run by Clear Channel Broadcasting.
    Washington Monument

  • WWDC, 101.1 FM, also known as "DC 101," this is the District's "alternative rock" station. Competes with WHFS, which targets DC and Baltimore as a region.
  • WJFK, 106.7 FM, an all-talk station owned by the Infinity Broadcasting network. It broadcasts personalities ranging from Howard Stern to Bill O'Reilly.
  • WMAL, 630 AM, long-running conservative talk station.
  • WTOP, 1500 AM, an all-news station. Claims to be the District's top-rated radio station.

XM Satellite Radio is based in Washington as well.

List of D.C. radio stations

Educational institutions

Colleges and universities

High Schools

Other Schools



The I-495 Capital Beltway surrounds the Washington area. The I-270 spur connects I-495 with I-70. The I-395 spur breaks off of I-95 at the Beltway to connect northern Virginia with downtown Washington. I-66 connects to I-495 and provides access to the western edges of northern Virginia, and continues out to the west.

Among the major roads in Washington, DC, are McArthur Boulevard, 16th Street NW, Connecticut Avenue, Rock Creek Parkway, Wisconsin Avenue, M St NW, Pennsylvania Avenue, Constitution Avenue, Independence Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue, U Street NW, North Capitol Street, South Capitol Street, East Capitol Street, Georgia Avenue, Minnesota Avenue, Nannie Helen Boroughs Avenue, Martin Luther King Jr Avenue, New York Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue, the Anacostia Freeway, and the Suitland Parkway.

Bus and rail

The Washington area is serviced by the Washington Metro public transportation system, which operates public buses (Metrobus) and the region's subway system (Metrorail). Many of the jurisdictions around the region also run public buses that interconnect with the Metrobus/Metrorail system. Union Station is served by MARC and Virginia Railway Express commuter trains, and Amtrak intercity rail. Intercity bus service is available from the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Northeast and from dragon buses leaving from Chinatown.


Washington is located in proximity to three airports: Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) between Dulles, Virginia and Chantilly, Virginia; Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) in Arlington County; and Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI) near Baltimore, Maryland.

Dulles International is used for most international travel to and from D.C., and is the largest domestic low-cost hub in the U.S. BWI is used more for international and domestic service serving the Baltimore area, although, thanks to Southwest Airlines, it too carries a lot of low-fare traffic into the metro region.

External links

General information and activity guides

District representation debate


  •, - Source for flag image - Flag image made by Mark Sensen


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