Where Is J Street? Three Competing Theories.

This will be a nice twist on our “Three Things…” theme. GoDC buddy Wayne emailed last week and asked the question that everyone asks. Where is J Street? Because it’s not where it’s supposed to be, between I and K streets.

There are quite a few theories on this, and below are three of the most popular ones.

1. A political rivalry?

Many believe the missing J Street is due to Pierre L’Enfant’s disdain for John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Why would L’Enfant hold such contempt for Jay?

John Jay
John Jay

Many amateur (and not very good) historians claim that it was due to the Jay Treaty, negotiated in 1794. The treaty averted the reignition of war between Great Britain and the young United States. Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and the Federalist Party, with the support of President Washington, settled issues regarding remaining British troops in the northwest (i.e., just west of Pennsylvania), the northern border with Canada, and trade.

The Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican party was strongly against this, fearing closer ties with Britain, while leaning closer to, and favoring the French.

Being from rival political parties, Jay and Jefferson were at odds. Jefferson’s adoration of the French, L’Enfant being a Frenchman, tasked with designing the new federal city, plus Jefferson’s involvement in the new city, all allow people to draw the conclusion that the rivalry between Jefferson and Jay is the reason no J Street exists.

This sounds like a nasty, but subtle, way to get back at a political enemy. And, one that lasts for eternity (or as long as the  Federal City exists).

Sorry to burst your bubble, but this theory is false. Pierre L’Enfant had been relieved of his duties in 1792, basically due to stubbornness and inability to work well with others, and the job of designing the city was turned over the Andrew and Benjamin Ellicott. That’s a full two years before the Jay Treaty.

2. K is for kilo

The east-west streets of the new city, as laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, were to be in alphabetical order. The vision was already laid out for a grand public space, 400 feet wide, which would become the National Mall. Another grand boulevard was to travel between the house of Congress and the house of the President, to be named Pennsylvania Avenue.

Another grand street was made out of the 10th east-west street, north of the Mall. This street was to be twice as wide as the other streets and since it was the 10th street, it should have bore the letter J as its name. But, this is the street (and main thoroughfare) we now call K Street.

Maybe the instead of the 1000 block of any north-south street starting at J St., it should start at K St. After all, K is the universal symbol used to abbreviate the number 1,000.

Well, this too is false. K is short for kilo in the metric system, a the prefix derived from the Greek word meaning thousand. What debunks this theory is that the metric system was not introduced until 1799 in France, well after the L’Enfant Plan was formalized.

A theory that makes you sound really intelligent while telling it at bars, but … sorry, false.

1791 L'Enfant Plan of the new city
1791 L’Enfant Plan of the new city

3. Blame it on the Latin alphabet

Okay, ready for the true story behind the lack of a J Street in Washington, D.C.? It’s not nearly as creative as the previous two, but people will be impressed, nonetheless, when you share this with them.

The real reason behind our missing J Street is because in the English alphabet, the letter J looked too much like the letter I. The alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet, and there is no letter J in Latin.

On occasion, during the Middle Ages, a j would be used as a substitute for the final i in Roman numerals (e.g., iij for 3 instead of iii, or xxviij for 23).

So, the real story for the lack of a J Street is due to the similarity with the letter I, and to avoid any confusion, it was omitted from the city grid.

To add one more interesting J-related bit of trivia, in order to avoid the same letter confusion, there is no company J in a U.S. Army battalion. Interesting.

We should note that there is a Jay Street in Northeast. Also, read the Wikipedia article on the letter “J.” It’s pretty interesting.

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