The seat of democracy doesn't get a vote – and seven other ways in which Washington, DC is constitutionally weird

The Capitol: heart of the Washington street plan. Image: Getty.

“This is a weird town,” an American friend of mine told me a few years ago, after he moved from New York to Washington, DC.

He was referring to the company town aspect of the American capital: the fact a substantial chunk of its population works in or around the government, and stands apart from the rest of the city. The disproportionately white Beltway Bubble even looks different from the largely African-American city that surrounds it.

But Washington is weird in its very form and structure, too: in its boundaries, its politics, and its relationship to the country that surrounds it. Consider.

Washington, DC was created to make it less likely that revolutionary politicians would get shot by their own troops.

When, in 1776, the 13 colonies first declared their independence from Britain, their representatives met in a succession of different cities, and their most frequent meeting place was Philadelphia. That didn’t last, though. In 1783, a bunch of soldiers, pissed off by the fact they hadn’t been paid recently, besieged Independence Hall, and the governor of Pennsylvania refused to call in the militia to clear them out.

This had two results. One was that Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey, thus putting a sizeable dent in Philadelphia’s claim to be the natural seat of the US government. The other was that its members started to think that maybe they could do with being based somewhere where they weren’t dependent on the goodwill of an individual state government.

So the constitution included provision for the creation of a city governed directly by Congress. Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution permits the establishment of a

“District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States”.

Washington is where it is because of a row over debt.

The constitution, though, didn’t specify where the new city should be located. This inevitably became a matter of some debate, with several different states coming forward with their own proposals.

The northern states generally felt the new capital should be located inside one of the new country’s existing urban centres – Boston, New York, Philadelphia – all of which, oddly enough, were in the north. The southern ones, by contrast, wanted something in the south to ensure the new government understood and appreciated their specific economic interests – in short, farming and slavery.

The latter won out. The “Compromise of 1790” saw the federal government assume the states’ debts from the War of Independence. In exchange, the southern states, which had largely already paid off their debts – were, in effect, agreeing to bail out the north – got the capital.

We may not think of DC as southern now, but both Maryland and Virginia – the two states it was originally carved out of - were slave-owning states. It was founded as, in effect, a new southern city.


DC used to contain Washington; now Washington contains DC

The land set aside for the new city was a square, 10 miles on each side, carved out of Maryland and Virginia on either side of the Potomac River.

Two communities already existed in this space: Georgetown, Maryland, slightly to the north west, and Alexandria, Virginia, at the southern corner. The new Washington City was to sit between them on the Maryland side of the river. 

In other words, Washington was originally a small city in the much larger landmass of the District of Columbia. But the city has since grown rather a lot: its urban area now holds 5m people. Today, while the city of Washington and the District of Columbia are officially contiguous, DC is effectively just a small part of the functional city of Washington.

It’s three levels of government in one

This isn’t that unusual, of course. London used to be a city in Middlesex, a county it’s long since swallowed entirely. New York City, meanwhile, used to be a town on the southern tip of Manhattan; but the island has long since been just one part of the city.

But DC’s peculiar constitutional status – a city without a state – has a knock on effect. In most of the US, responsibility for public services is split between several different layers of government (city, county, state). In DC, though, one body has to do everything.

Its modern boundaries are ludicrous

The Virginian half of the District always felt a bit neglected. The federal government, you’ll recall, was on the other side of the Potomac – had, in 1791, amended the law to ensure that no public buildings could be constructed except on the Maryland bank of the river – and had been less than enthusiastic about making necessary investments on the side of the river it didn’t use much. 

But as the US began its long slide towards civil war the issue became rather sharper. Alexandria was not only poorer than Washington: much of the economy it did have was dependent on the slave trade. As calls for abolition became louder, the Alexandrians started to panic that Congress would ban the trade within the District altogether, thus wiping out their livelihood.

And so, they petitioned the state of Virginia to take them back.

Yep: the reason the District of Columbia is today a square with a huge bite taken out of it is in large part because those who lived in the southern bit really, really lived slavery.

The territorial progression of the District of Columbia. Image: EpicAdam/Wikimedia Commons.

Anyway, however unpalatable this is in the 21st century – or, y’know, to anyone with basic humanity – it worked. In 1846, the 31 square miles of DC territory that had once been part of Virginia were returned to it, in an event known to history as the Retrocession.

Today, several of the things you probably associate with Washington, DC – Arlington Cemetery, the Iwo Jima Memorial, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, even the Pentagon – aren’t actually there at all, but on the other side of the Potomac in Virginia.

So, incidentally, is the suburb of Roslyn, which you may remember from that West Wing cliffhanger in which someone gets shot.

The middle isn’t the middle

What’s left of DC is divided into four quadrants (NE, SE, NW, SW). These are used as geographical markers, in the same manner as postcodes, but they’re more important than that, because of the way the street grid works.

In DC, numbered streets run north-south, while those with letters run east west. But the counting starts at the centre point – and there are two 14th streets, for example, one to its east and one to its west. There are two D Streets, too, one north and one south. Each quadrant effectively has its own street grid: ignore the letters telling you which quadrant you’re heading for, and you’ll get very, very lost.

Given the fact DC was once a square you’d be forgiven for assuming that the centre point of the grid system was the centre of the square. But you’d be totally wrong: it’s actually the Capitol Building which is slightly to the south east. This, combined with the retrocession, means that the four quadrants are of radically different sizes. NW is by far the largest; SW is tiny.

The quadrants as seen from space and coloured in. Image: Postdif/USGS satellite image/Wikimedia Commons.

It has taxation without representation

The District of Columbia is home to around 670,000 people – that’s more than two states (Vermont and Wyoming, since you ask).

But its residents didn’t get a vote in the electoral college which elects the president until the 23rd Amendment to the constitution – which didn’t pass until 1961. Its mayor was appointed by Congress until even later: the mayor of DC, and its 13 member legislative council, have only been elected since 1974.

Even today, DC is not represented in Congress: its residents get no say in who gets to make federal law. In other words, despite being the seat of government for a country that prides itself on its commitment to democracy, DC’s history has mostly characterised by the complete absence of it.

It’s not empowered to solve its own problems

The result of all this – the odd constitutional status; the under-bounding; the conflation of county and city and state – is that DC has a vast range of responsbilities and remarkably few tools to tackle them. To get anything done it needs the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the support of Congress.

It’s unlikely that this problem will get fixed any time soon – but it’s not impossible. Two options are on the table. One is the campaign for DC Statehood, under which DC would become the 51st state of the Union. The main objections to that are political: each state automatically gets two Senators, regardless of size; DC is reliably Democratic; no Republican is ever going to vote two create two more Senate seats which they know they are never going to win. God bless America.

The other option is a second retrocession, with the remainder of DC folding neatly back into Maryland. This would avoid the Senate problem, though it would still add another Democratic Congressman or two to the House of Representatives, which could be a barrier for Republicans. (Statehood would do this too, of course.)

In some ways it seems silly to deliberately redraw the boundaries so the urban area of DC – one jobs market, one transport system, and so forth – is divided down the middle into two separate states. 

But the functional areas of other US cities are divided between multiple states (New York, Chicago, Kansas City). And it’s no crazier than the current situation: less crazy, indeed, since DC is currently divided into three- and then deprived of a vote in Congress.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.