Josh Gibson: Addressing DC statehood, one neighborhood at a time

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Sometimes it may feel like DC statehood is a dead letter that’s been lost in the mail.

I think there’s a way we can address that perception and, frankly, stamp it out: Let’s change how we write our return addresses.

Everyone else in America has a postal address that lists their city and state. But since currently our city and state boundaries coincide, all of our mail goes to “Washington, DC.” For us in DC, it feels a bit like addressing mail to “Florida, Florida.” The place before the comma lends no further specificity to the place after it.

One of the many things that cripples DC’s statehood efforts is the assumption by the rest of the country that the two faces of DC — federal Washington and what we locals call “the District” — are synonymous. Those who are not from here, or who are merely visiting, think only of government buildings, monuments, museums, and the Gucci Gulch of K Street (to the extent that they think of Washington at all).

When the rest of America pictures DC, they don’t picture neighborhoods. Neighborhoods mean neighbors. Neighbors mean people. People like them. It’s harder to overlook people, rather than just places, that lack representation in Congress.

The borders of the city of Washington and the District of Columbia have been identical only since 1871. Prior to that, and prior to the retrocession of part of DC back to Virginia in 1846, the District of Columbia was home to counties (Washington and Alexandria) and cities (Washington, Alexandria, Georgetown and Uniontown/Anacostia).

Current US Postal Service protocol associates with each ZIP code in America not just a “Preferred City Name” but also, sometimes, one or more “Acceptable City Names.” For every DC ZIP code, the “Preferred City Name” is “Washington.”

However, unbeknownst to most people, “Chevy Chase” is currently an “Acceptable City Name” in ZIP code 20015, and “Anacostia” is currently an “Acceptable City Name” in ZIP code 20373.

An internal Postal Service directive dated Nov. 18, 1999, stated to executives that “if you receive a municipal identity request and a reasonable means of full or partial accommodation can be identified, offer it … and move on.”

Additionally, a July 2002 update to the Postal Operations Manual, in Section 439.321, stated: “Managers should look for reasonable solutions to external municipal requests and implement them … . Districts will work proactively to resolve areas of concern between municipal and postal boundaries.”

Creating new “Acceptable City Names” couldn’t be easier. All it requires is a minor modification to the postal database, done at the request of the local municipality.

The benefits of such a change would be twofold. First, residents and businesses would be able to announce and amplify their neighborhood pride. As a proud Adams Morgan resident, I can tell you that not a single piece of mail would ever go out from our family without an “Adams Morgan, DC 20009” line at the end.

But second, subtly, allowing for such a change in mailing addresses would advance our argument for DC statehood ever so minutely. In a world where addresses like “Petworth, DC” or “Hillcrest, DC” were in steady public use, the blurred distinction between federal DC and “real” DC would be clarified.

Importantly, this change would be completely optional. Any resident or business could just stick with “Washington, DC” forever. That is — and would remain — the “Preferred City Name” for all of the District. And, given that neighborhood names and boundaries can be a touchy topic, it would be up to each residence and business to pick the neighborhood name it prefers.

All we need to do, as a municipality, is to forward along to postal authorities a request to modify their Address Management Service, making additions to the list of “Acceptable City Names,” including neighborhood names listed by ZIP code.

If we can get this done, it will be a red-letter day for the residents and businesses of the District, as well as for our ultimate goal — DC statehood.

Josh Gibson is a fan of DC history and a resident of Adams Morgan. He works at the DC Council. The views expressed are his own and not of the council, nor is he writing in the role of his official duties.


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The DC Line welcomes commentaries representing various viewpoints on local issues of concern, but the opinions expressed do not represent those of The DC Line. Submissions of up to 850 words may be sent to editor Chris Kain at chriskain@thedcline.org.

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1 Comment
  1. VK says

    This is a great idea. It allows us to illustrate that we’re actually a large collection of many different types of neighborhoods and people, and also distances us from official Washington, which hasn’t been an actual city since 1871, and is mostly just a metonym for Congress and other entities that don’t represent us figuratively or literally.

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