Washington, DC, is where most of the Vox.com staff lives, and it's home to Vox Media's main office. The larger metropolitan area is one of the largest in the country, home to millions. The government of the United States of America is also here, as it happens. But the city itself — as opposed to the metonymy for the government or the politics of the nation — rarely comes into view. To actual Washingtonians, this opposition between "DC" where we live and "the nation's capital" that Americans love to hate is fundamental. Yet the city's history has been profoundly shaped by national affairs from its origins in a bizarre congressional logroll to the metro area's current status as the richest in the country. At the same time, lurking amid the general prosperity is a central city that still features a high poverty rate and stark racial and class divides.
DC's shifting boundaries
In its early years, the District of Columbia was more like a very small state than it is today. In additional to the capital city, it incorporated two separate towns plus two rural counties. The present-day Arlington County and city of Alexandria were eventually given back to Virginia, in part so that Alexandria could continue its lucrative slave-trading market free of federal interference. And in 1871, the distinction between the cities of Washington and Georgetown and Washington County were abolished, and the entire territory became a unified city-state under federal authority.
The Compromise of 1790
The District of Columbia's location came about through the so-called Compromise of 1790. This saw powerful Virginia politicians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison agree to Alexander Hamilton's plan for the federal government to bail out state debts incurred during the revolution in exchange for Hamilton and other Northerners agreeing to move the capital to the shores of the Potomac — a concession to Southerners. Virginia, the largest and most important Southern state, was the locus of opposition to Hamilton's assumption plan for several reasons. One was that the more agrarian Southern economies saw less benefit in establishing a stable financial system. Another was that Southern states were generally less indebted at the time. A final one was that Virginia in particular still held vast (and valuable) western landholdings that made its fiscal position more credible. Hamilton's Assumption Act had a long-term impact on the nation's finances, while its companion Residence Act has defined the capital from the beginning. The government would be established in an essentially new city, rather than an existing port that served as a center of commerce and trade.
The Ellicott map
The initial plan for the city was led by Pierre L'Enfant, who got himself fired. The work was then completed by Andrew Ellicott, a pioneer in what were then state-of-the-art surveying techniques. The original city of Washington was considerably smaller than the overall District of Columbia, sandwiched between the Potomac River, Rock Creek, the Anacostia River (then called the Eastern Branch), and what today is Florida Avenue. Georgetown and Alexandria were separate towns, and the District incorporated rural areas north, east, and west of the city. But inside the central core, the present-day city is very much recognizable from this early map. The main difference is the role of water. The canal north of the Mall and then running south of the Capitol was built, but is no longer in use, as water transport has gone out of style. Meanwhile, the Potomac has been narrowed and several of the smaller bodies of water wiped off the map.
George Washington's Mount Vernon estate
Not even slightly coincidentally, the national capital district was located such that its "10 miles square" boundaries were very close to George Washington's massive plantation and estate near Mount Vernon, without including it per se. Major owners of land inside the district-to-be, notably David Burns who held 650 acres in what was to be the middle of the city, were not enthusiastic about the prospect of having their holdings appropriated for public purposes. But the creation of a new city along the Potomac greatly stimulated the value of nearby agricultural land. Washington himself selected the commissions who chose the precise location, and they picked one that greatly benefited the first president's personal financial interests.
Metro's evolution over time
Most heavy rail mass transit systems in the United States are legacies of an era before widespread car ownership. Washington's Metrorail system is different, developed in the 1970s and 1980s during a massive national wave of disinvestment in urban centers. Consequently, the system's original incarnation was much more oriented toward taking suburban commuters to downtown offices than to building a vibrant city. It was not until the completion of the Green Line route from U Street to Fort Totten in 1999 that the densest residential sections of the city were even served. The system's completion has been associated with a massive wave of investment (and gentrification) in the city's central corridor that continues to roil city politics.
Geographically accurate Metro map
Riders normally see Metro depicted in a schematic designed to be highly readable and to lay out the logic of the system in a clear way. This excellent project from Peter Dovak instead offers an actual map, showing where the lines run in a geographically accurate way. It's the clearest depiction of Metro's hybrid nature, as both an urban mass transit system and a suburban commuter rail system. The tendrils of the lines stretch far, far beyond the cities boundaries, and the system is plainly designed to get you downtown from the periphery, not to take you from one peripheral station to another.
DC economic inequality in context
This Brookings Institution map plots the level of income inequality — measured as the ratio of earnings in the 95th percentile to the 20th percentile — in America's 50 largest cities. Each city is depicted on this map as a circle, whose size is proportionate to its ratio. One finding is that cities in general are less equal than non-cities in the United States; they feature both richer rich people and poorer poor people. Among large cities, the average 95:20 ratio is 10.8, and 10 cities — including DC — are above 12.
How DC compares with the nation
Compared with the United States as a whole, the District of Columbia is a prosperous place. Its $64,267 median household income is well above the national average of $53,046. Those high incomes are built on the back of an extraordinarily well-educated workforce. A larger share of DC residents have high school diplomas than is average across the country, and the city contains a dramatically larger proportion of college graduates than does the country as a whole. But despite those college graduates pulling up the average, the city also has an above-average share of its population living below the federal poverty line.
In addition to being a place where actual people live, Washington is the capital city of the mightiest empire the world has ever known and often used as a shorthand by the nation's citizens for everything they dislike about the political system. This great map developed by the Sunlight Foundation shows how small the corrupt cesspool of influence peddling really is in the scheme of things. The foundation created an interactive map charting 17,000 fundraisers over five years, and even within this zoom on the central business district you can see fundraising is hyper-concentrated around Capitol Hill. The creators found that 44 percent of fundraisers occurred at just 10 different locations, all within a three-block radius of the Capitol. This politicking is, in one sense, the engine that drives the city. But it doesn't touch most people or their neighborhoods in a direct way on a daily basis.
White men's roads through black men's homes!
A little bit of racial panic helped mobilize popular opposition to a major 1960s-vintage proposal to construct swaths of freeway through the District's core. What today we know as vibrant neighborhoods in Shaw, Dupont Circle, and U Street would have been turned into car-filled wastelands, and places like Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and Bloomingdale would have been cut off from the central city. Such city-killing freeway projects were common in America at the time, but community opposition largely killed the idea. Funding was instead directed toward the construction of the Metro system in the 1970s as an alternative means of easing commutes from the suburbs into downtown. The fierce opposition was driven by both concerns regarded neighborhood preservation, and also a sense that whites were trying to drive African Americans out of the city. The specifics of the highway plan are a thing of the past, but the broader concerns about gentrification and "the Plan" to evict DC's black majority very much persist.
The richest metro in America
It's an admittedly fairly arbitrary cutpoint, but a striking fact about the DC Metropolitan Area is that it contains four of the five counties in America with median household incomes above $102,000 a year (the other one is Los Alamos County in New Mexico, which is also full of federal workers and contractors). That's Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties in Virginia, plus Howard County in Maryland. And these aren't tiny communities, either. They add up to millions of residents. Montgomery County, also in Maryland, comes very close to meeting the threshold, and even more modest suburban counties like Prince George's have median incomes that are well above the national average and at least somewhat higher than the average inside the city. This reflects the capital area's surprising emergence as the richest region in the United States of America — a dynamic that raises the specter of a parasitic capital living high off the work of its citizens, but that also throws the still-persistent poverty of the central city into stark relief.