March 14, 2013 at 4:20 pm EDT | by Ted Smith
Real Estate: The mental geography of D.C.
Adams Morgan, Anacostia, Georgetown, Washington, D.C., District of Columbia, neighborhood, gay news, real estate, Washington Blade

(from left) Adams Morgan, Anacostia and Georgetown are just a few of the many neighborhoods in the District. (Photos by Aude via Wikimedia Commons)


Though geographically compact, Washington is a city of many neighborhoods, each with a particular character, sometimes changing after just a few blocks. I call this the “mental geography of Washington” because it informs our sense of distances in the District that may have nothing to do with the actual physical mileage between places.

However, it definitely has something to do with the physical geography of the District.  Linguists studying regional dialects have long identified natural geographic barriers like mountain ranges and rivers as creating dialect borders or even dialect “islands.” What are those corresponding barriers in the District that create different mental places? Ethnic boundaries obviously play a role in creating different places, but in this column, I’m primarily concentrating on physical boundaries—whether naturally occurring or man-made. The physical barriers that influence mental geography are hills, creeks, rivers and valleys.

If it takes more effort (or time) to cross one of these barriers on foot or by motor or by boat, you will tend to think of that destination as being farther away, even though the mileage may be less than some other destination you can easily and quickly reach unencumbered by one of these natural barriers. Obvious examples in the District are any parts of town separated by the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers (why do Southeast and Southwest seem so isolated?) or Rock Creek (why does Georgetown seem set apart on its eastern flank from the rest of the District? In fact, it was a separate city before 1871.)

Man-made barriers also play a part in sculpting the mental geography of a place. Expressways and railroad lines are probably the best examples of this.  If it is difficult (or impossible) to cross an expressway, your psychological sense of the other side of the expressway is that it is farther away. Consider how the Eisenhower Expressway (I-395) cuts off the south edge of the federal complex from Southwest Waterfront or Capitol Hill from Navy Yards. And many times those expressways are laid down right next to physical barriers like rivers or creeks. (Think of Rock Creek Parkway as an example.)

The mental geography of a city influences not only its development patterns but how we pick our haunts, and what distances we are willing or unwilling to travel after work for pleasure. For example, the distance from my home in Mt. Vernon/Convention Center to the Eastern Market Metro stop in Capitol Hill is less than 3.5 miles—the same distance as from my home to the National Cathedral. Yet, I am far more likely to join friends for dinner at Two Amys off Wisconsin Avenue than I am at Mr. Henry’s in Capitol Hill, even though I used to commute to Barracks Row every day for work.

And, of course, the mental geography of a city influences our desires about what neighborhoods we want to live in. Those mental geographic barriers protect a place as well as isolate it. When I moved to D.C., I was warned away from living in Capitol Hill: “People move in there and never come out,” I was told.  Protected by the actual Capitol Hill on one side, I-395 south on the other and the Anacostia River on the east side, it does seem that Capitol Hill residents are fairly self-contained. Even if they don’t work there, they seem to play and eat there on the weekends. And often they will stay in Capitol Hill when it’s time to move up or downsize to accommodate their changing family size.

So when you’re looking for new real estate, find out what the mental geography of your targeted neighborhood is. Hang out there after work a couple of evenings and on a weekend or two. Talk to people you see walking the neighborhood. Make sure that the mental geography of your targeted neighborhood is consistent with your own values about what you like to do with your leisure time—you’ll feel much more at home sooner than later. Happy hunting!

Ted Smith is a licensed Realtor with STAGES Premier Realtors specializing in mid-city D.C. Reach him at and follow him via, or @TedSmithSellsDC.

  • Great article Ted! When I used to live in the burbs I would drive into DC to play on the weekends and mentally, it didn't feel that far away even though it was 15 miles one way mostly highway. But now that I live in Hill East, going out on U Street takes so much effort, and don't even thing about Cleveland Park! That place is at least 20 miles away – mentally that is :-)

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