Washington DC Myths and Misconceptions May 13, 2018
If you’re planning a trip to the nation’s capital, you’ve probably come across a few of these Washington DC myths already! Read about five of the most common so that you can help avoid spreading misinformation!
1. There are no tall buildings because of the Washington Monument
This one is the king of Washington, DC myths. The Washington Monument is 555 feet tall. The tallest residential and office buildings are only about 200 feet tall. A building as tall as the Washington Monument would be about 50 stories. The reason that we don’t have any tall buildings in Washington DC is because of the Height of Buildings Act of 1910.
This law came into existence because of The Cairo. The Cairo opened as a one hundred sixty four foot tall hotel in the 1890s. It was hugely controversial when it opened. The neighbors who lived nearby thought it was outrageous that this new “skyscraper” opened up near their houses. They went to Congress and demanded they pass a bill preventing any future tall buildings.
The law says most buildings in Washington DC cannot be taller than the width of the street that they are on plus 20 feet. So, if a building were to tip over, it couldn’t cross the street by more than 20 feet. Even though this law does prevent any building from being taller than the Washington Monument, the purpose of the bill had nothing to do with monuments at all.
2. Georgetown is named after King George II
Perhaps the most famous George in U.S. history is George Washington. But the area of DC known as Georgetown was founded in 1751 in the province of Maryland. This was more than 20 years before the American Revolution and almost forty years before George Washington selected the area to be the capital of our new country.
Since King George II was ruler of the British Empire at the time, including the American colonies, you will occasionally hear that the area is named for him. However, according to Dex Nilsson, author of The Names of Washington DC, Georgetown was actually named for neither of these Georges.
Georgetown was settled by Scots who fled to the American colonies to avoid wars in Scotland. Maryland allowed Scots to buy or condemn about 60 acres of land that were currently owned by two other men. These men were named George Gordon and George Beale. When they refused to sell their land, the community made a bargain with them. If they gave up their land then the area would get named after them.
3. No one is actually from DC
Washington DC has a bit of a reputation for being a transient city. A place where people come, work for a few years, and then leave and go back to where they came from. There are actually two different things to unpack with this Washington, DC myth.
Is it true that Washington DC is a city where people are always coming and going? It is certainly true that many people have moved to Washington DC from other places. Some people will stay temporarily and permanently. But that’s true of any big city. There are a few different ways of measuring this. However, studies have found that Washington DC has about the same rate of migration as other big American cities.
The second part of the myth is that no one in DC is actually from DC. This is just false. The reason that this is one of the more believable Washington, DC myths is because many people associate Washington DC with politicians. However, the reality is that the number of politicians and their staff is so small. This is a rounding error on the general population.
4. Rich people kept Metro out of Georgetown
This myth is that rich people in Georgetown prevented a Metro station from being built because they wanted to keep crime and riff raff out of the neighborhood. So when you come to DC and go to visit Georgetown, it’s a pain to get there. In the 1960s and 1970s when Metro was being planned and built, Georgetown was one of the highest-end neighborhoods in the city. Many of the area’s wealthiest residents chose to live here including John and Jackie Kennedy.
It is probably true that at the time that some Georgetown residents protested on these grounds and that’s why this became one of the most prominent Washington, DC myths. However, the reality is quite a bit different. In Zachary Schrag’s book the Great Society Subway, he writes that the reason there is no Georgetown metro station is because of geography and engineering. The center of Georgetown at Wisconsin and M Streets NW is the obvious spot for a Georgetown Metro station. But this spot is really close to the Potomac River.
A station in Georgetown would have either required an extremely deep station or a really steep tunnel to get down under the river. Now whether Georgetown residents could have actually stopped a metro station from being built is certainly debatable, but the reality is that it was never a serious consideration.
5. The city changes when there is a new president
This one is similar to the myths of DC that no one is from DC. The reality is that a very tiny percentage of the total population works for a presidential administration. The idea is that when one president leaves office and when the next president starts his term, there is a huge influx of new people. This is a bit overblown. Even in the federal government almost all employees are civil servants. This means that they serve no matter who is in office. Things might feel quite a bit different on a national level but the local vibe is actually quite steady.
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