We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Jan. 1, 2057—The nation’s capital got a new name today, when the city of Washington was redesignated “Penn Quarter.” The term, which originally applied to a mere 20-square-block area, became so popular that local residents stopped using “D.C.,” “the District,” and “Washington” altogether.
“I’m thrilled at the change,” said Mayor Christopher Barry. “It’s great to give our city a name that was chosen the American way—by a marketing group—rather than by our Congressional overseers. Now if we could only get a vote in the House of Representatives, our long march to self-determination will be complete.”
That change is not gonna come, of course. It’s not likely that the citizens of Georgetown, Anacostia, and other storied neighborhoods will accept a whole new city name. Yet the Penn Quarter tag has partially swallowed “Downtown,” and largely consumed “Chinatown.” What hope do weak formulations like “East End” and “NoMa” have against such a juggernaut?
The confusion actually began in the 1960s, when a new office district fleshed out the spines of K Street and Connecticut Avenue northwest of Lafayette Square. Before then, everyone knew where Downtown was: between 15th and 6th Streets and Pennsylvania and New York Avenues. To some, this area became the “Old Downtown,” as opposed to the “New Downtown.” The latter also became known as “Midtown,” on the Manhattan model.
Both areas have been in a continual state of redevelopment since the late ’70s, and real-estate-industry terms came to apply: The new downtown was called the “Golden Triangle,” a crass nomenclature now enshrined in the name of the precinct’s business improvement district (BID). And the original downtown was dubbed the “East End,” implying that the city’s center was to the west.
Despite the heroic myths of late-20th-century Washington development, very few of the changes to downtown happened organically. That brings us to “Pennsylvania Quarter,” which was devised by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC), a federally chartered agency, and five developers the PADC solicited to create a mixed-use community around the intersection of 7th and Pennsylvania. The developers “were every skittish about developing housing” there, recalls Jo-Ann Neuhaus, then the PADC’s director of project development, and wanted to redefine the area.
To support the new instant ’hood, the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association (PQNA) was founded by PADC and the developers of such buildings as Market Square and the Lansburgh. Neuhaus became PQNA’s executive director, a part-time position she retains today. The new district’s original boundaries, she says, were 5th, 10th, and G Streets and—oddly—Constitution Avenue.
The precinct’s new moniker was ultimately (if not officially) abbreviated to Penn Quarter, and even found its way onto the name of the Archives/Navy Memorial Metro station. When the PADC perished in 1996, Neuhaus became a consultant to the National Capital Planning Commission, a federal oversight group with offices in, of course, Penn Quarter.
Today, the PQNA defines its turf as stretching all the way from the Center Leg Freeway tunnel west to 15th Street, and north to a jagged line defined by Massachusetts and New York Avenues. The growth wasn’t the result of an expansionist vision, says Neuhaus, but of acknowledging new members outside the original borders, and of adoption of the Penn Quarter tag by developers far from 7th and Pennsylvania.
“I kept seeing what people were calling Penn Quarter,” she says. “If people are buying apartments in what they think is Penn Quarter, then it’s Penn Quarter. We weren’t a leader in that. We were just following.”
They’ve followed so far that Penn Quarter’s footprint has become virtually identical to that of the area native Washingtonians still call “downtown.” But, Neuhaus notes, the BID that covers the area stretches to the southeast corner of 16th & K Streets, several blocks beyond Penn Quarter’s reach—at least for now.
The burgeoning Penn Quarter may someday colonize that block, and beyond, but for longtimers there’s some consolation in what the BID covering the southeast corner of 16th and K calls its territory: Downtown.