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In late February, Charles Dabney stepped out of his front door in Cardozo and turned on his new, hand-held Magellan Meridian Platinum Global Positioning System receiver. Dabney, a Navy consultant who’s helped develop radar technology to track Russian submarines, purchased the gadget for a deep-water mine-location project. But before going in search of explosive devices at sea, he decided to test it on his own doorstep.
The gadget locked in, took its bearings, and showed Dabney where he stood on its electronic map of the District. According to the Magellan, he was no particular place at all: a blank space a little bit south of U Street NW and west of 9th Street. His home didn’t exist.
“Not the first time that’s happened,” recalls Dabney.
Dabney’s actual address is 1905 9 1/2 St. NW. For years, he says, his street has been overlooked not just by satellite software but by city administrators, emergency-response personnel, and mailmen. When Pierre L’Enfant laid out D.C.’s street grid in 1791, he labeled the north-south streets with numberswhole numbers. But over the years, streets that employed fractions crept into the mix: 4 1/2 Street SW, 13 1/2 Street NW, 9 1/2 Street NW.
In 1905, city officials set out to clean up the map to match L’Enfant’s street plan. According to Amy Alotta, the author of George Washington Never Slept Here: Stories Behind the Street Names of Washington, D.C., one of the essential changes targeted a pair of unauthorized north-south streets that ran alongside South Capitol Street, the city’s y axis. Rather than naming the newcomers 1st Street SE and 1st Street SWwhich would have required bumping up all the other numbered streets, raising 1st Street to 2nd Street, 2nd to 3rd, and so oncity officials performed some basic division and dubbed the two Half Street SE and Half Street SW.
Despite the shared theoretical underpinnings, members of the 9 1/2 Street community express no solidarity with those residents and businesses located on Half Street SW or Half Street SE. Businesses on the Half Streets have no problem telling customers where they are: H-A-L-F Street. It’s the fraction that divides 9 1/2 Streeters from their neighbors. “People hear ‘Nine-and-a-half Street,’” Dabney says, “and they don’t even believe we exist.”
About three years ago, Bill Stevens, a high-school history teacher, was house-hunting when he saw a listing for a place on 9 1/2 Street. He drove back and forth on U Street between 9th and 10th, unable to find a sign. Finally, on the verge of giving up, he turned into a broad, unmarked alley running south of U, across from the Velvet Lounge. There, on the left side, stood about a dozen two-story brick row housesthe entire 9 1/2 Street community.
Stevens bought the house, and within months he joined Dabney in lobbying city officials to put up street signs. Eventually, the District capitulated, hanging a standard green “9 1/2 St NW” sign on a U Street light post.
But that solved only part of the problem. In an age when finding directions often requires logging on to a computer, Stevens says, the fraction causes all sorts of confusion.
In August 2002, Stevens heard a car alarm and poked his head outside to meet a gust of warm air and thick smoke. Yards away, a car was on fire. He called 911. The dispatcher asked him for his address. He told her 1921 9 1/2 St. NW. “The lady told me, ‘I’m not seeing a 9 1/2 Street here; there is no 9 1/2 Street,’” recalls Stevens. “She thought it was a prank call.”
Stevens ended up giving the dispatcher old-fashioned directions”Come down U Street and look for the sign”and shortly thereafter fire trucks arrived to put out the flames.
Ira Grossman, director of the Public Safety Communications Center, says that the city’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system does handle fractions and should have had no problem locating 9 1/2 Street.
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Nevertheless, Stevens says last summer wasn’t the first time a city employee was unable to locate his street. Requests for service on 9 1/2 Street have long disoriented 311 dispatchers and representatives of the D.C. Department of Public Works. “It’s obvious that either we’re not in the city’s computer system, or people don’t know how to type in a fraction and access the information,” says Stevens.
Ordering merchandise over the Internet presents the same problem. Dabney can rattle off a list of companies whose computers don’t recognize 9 1/2 Street, including FedEx, Airborne Express, Sears, and Kaiser Permanente. Stevens says he once tried to get a delivery shipped to “9.5 Street,” only to learn that someone had signed for it over on S Street.
Half-street residents are a small constituency, unlikely to get much attention. The history of half streets in the District is one of assimilation. Over the years, 3 1/2 Street NE changed to 3rd Place NE, 14 1/2 Street NW was renamed 14th Place NW, And 6 1/2 Street SW disappeared altogether. According to records in the District’s Office of the Surveyor, the only street other than 9 1/2 that currently uses a fraction is 13 1/2 Street NW. More a ramp than a thoroughfare, 13 1/2 Street NW branches off Pennsylvania Avenue, runs for about 50 feet between the Wilson Building and the Ronald Reagan Building, and descends into an underground parking garage.
Nobody lives on 13 1/2 Street NW. Nevertheless, it enjoys a level of recognition that has been denied to 9 1/2 Street. According to city regulations, a thoroughfare must be at least 30 feet wide to qualify as a street. Short though it is, 13 1/2 Street meets that requirement. But 9 1/2 Street checks in at a mere 20 feet across. On the books at the D.C. Office of the Surveyor, the block’s official name is “Nine and a half street alley.”
“City administrators have told me that the signs labeling us a street were just a courtesy,” says Dabney. “They compared us to [the alley off U Street named after the owner of Ben’s Chili Bowl] Ben Ali Way. I told them nobody lives in Ben Ali Way,” says Dabney.
Dabney and Stevens claim that their street is as wide as, if not wider than, other streets in the Districtand they think it deserves full streethood status. “These houses were here before that law,” says Dabney. “Our block should be grandfathered in.”
Stevens recently picked up an application at the Office of the Surveyor to have his block officially recognized as a street. But the application costs $1,870 and would probably be rejected. “It’s like running into a dead end,” says Stevens. “Just like 9 1/2 Street.”
The residents on 9 1/2 Street aren’t the first D.C. locals to bemoan the fraction in their street’s name. Back in the early ’30s, members of one Southwest neighborhood successfully lobbied the city to round off their street’s name to a whole number. In 1934, a long corridor of 4 1/2 Street SW, stretching from the National Mall all the way down to Fort McNair, was renamed 4th Street, which it remains today.
On a Monday evening in October 1934, thousands turned out to celebrate the change of name. “The celebration by Southwest citizens is designed to show their appreciation of the improvement of Fourth street, a wide elm-bordered thoroughfare, which for a number of years has been paved with cobblestones, poorly lighted, and according to residents has been ‘forced to bow beneath the humiliating name of Four-and-a-Half street,’” the Washington Star reported.
Carole Kolker, a local historian, interviewed numerous 4 1/2 Street residents for her dissertation at George Washington University on the migrant community of Southwest. She says that by the ’30s, “4 1/2 Street” had become a neighborhood insult. “There was a stigma about living on a half street,” says Kolker. “People used it in a disparaging manner.”
In the mid-’90s, Kolker interviewed Alvin Morganstein, who grew up above his family’s bakery on 4 1/2 Street. Morganstein disclosed to Kolker his homespun retort to 4 1/2 Street’s detractors. One block to the west of 4 1/2 Street ran 6th Street; one block to the east ran 3rd Street. There was no 4th or 5th Street in Southwest. Morganstein recalled silencing half-wits with some irrefutable math: “Well, there was a Third Street and a Sixth Street, so in between, using arithmetic, it would have to be Four and a Half!”
Should 9 1/2 Street go the way of 4 1/2 Street and revert to a whole number? Over the years, Charles and Brenora Dabney have wrangled with the question. Charles Dabney admits that if it were up to him, he’d rename the block 9th Place. But his wife votes for the status quo. “She thinks the half adds character,” says Charles Dabney.
“We’ve been fighting for 9 1/2 Street for so long,” says Brenora. “Why should we give up on the fraction now?” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery.