WASHINGTON – For every state in the union, there is an avenue in the nation’s capital that bears its namesake.
Pennsylvania’s is perhaps the most famous; its 1600 address is home to the president. New York’s snakes through downtown, stopping short of the White House. The streets named for Massachusetts and Connecticut feed into historic DuPont Circle. Maryland Avenue runs into the Capitol Complex and past the Supreme Court. Ohio Drive runs along the scenic Potomac River. Even Wyoming Avenue features the embassy for Macedonia.
Minnesota Avenue is not one of these high-flying streets.
Instead, the street that represents the North Star state is far from the seat of power, tucked away just east of the Anacostia River, where it provides a Metro line and a major thoroughfare to neighborhoods of modest homes. The population that lives, works, learns and travels along its 4.5 miles is largely black, mostly working class and among the lowest paid in the District of Columbia.
The street passes by no landmarks, no icons, but serves the needs of everyday life with convenience shops, storefront churches, schools, health clinics and the occasional liquor store.
In the early days of Washington, D.C., civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant used a grid pattern overlaid with diagonal avenues to make direct routes around the city. Those diagonal streets were to be named for states, roughly according to their geographic location in the union.
Then politics entered the picture, with those in charge pushing their favorites. According to Amy Alotta’s book on the layout of the city, “George Washington Never Slept Here,” L’Enfant put the Capitol and the president’s house on the street he called Washington’s most important: Pennsylvania Avenue. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia — who named the streets after L’Enfant was dismissed from the project because of his infamous temper — found that his state’s avenue was shorter than the others, so he extended it across the city, Alotta wrote.
As D.C. started to grow, she explained in the book, residents started using their own routes to cut from their homes to the city’s center, often naming these new roads themselves. The city became a muddled mess as roads in different parts of the city had the same names, making mail delivery and travel difficult, Alotta wrote. So in 1899, Congress implemented a new system of street naming in the capital city. Among these stipulations was that all diagonal streets would be named for the states.
States like Minnesota, which didn’t become a state until 1858, did not quite fit into the layout L’Enfant began in the 1790s. There was no way for the city’s original planners to know how many states would come later, said Matt Johnson, a contributor to D.C. blog Greater Greater Washington and a research associate at Maryland’s Montgomery County Planning Department. East Coast states have a higher profile, their streets running through the city’s center. Streets representing states in the Midwest, prairies and West Coast are generally farther from the city’s center.
Minnesota Avenue has been around since at least 1893 — that’s when water improvements were being made on the street, said Alcione Amos, museum curator at the Anacostia Community Museum. It extended north and added to its length in 1913.
Frederick Douglass lived the last years of his life on Minnesota Street in the Anacostia neighborhood. The Washington Navy Yard, on the banks of the Anacostia River, became one of the nation’s most important shipbuilding facilities. The Washington area has been historically black for centuries, and many lived near Minnesota Avenue. The community rocked through changes, from the years of slavery through the civil rights unrest of the 1960s.
D.C. now has a street for every state. But Johnson said street design could be changed if the country adds another state.
“Who knows?” he said. “The number’s not necessarily fixed.”