Road Rules

Is there a logic to Arlington's street-naming system? More or less.

Arlington’s streets are a contradiction. They follow a naming scheme that rivals D.C.’s numbers-and-letters grid in common sense, and yet that means absolutely nothing in a county where a road will dead-end onto a bigger road, then reappear blocks or even miles later; where 37th Street, 37th Road and 37th Place exist side-by-side-by-side; and where structures like I-66 and the Pentagon impose their own geographic reality.

But take heart: It used to be a lot worse.

Under the current naming system, Arlington Boulevard (U.S. Route 50) forms the dividing line between North and South Arlington. Numbered streets run from east to west, parallel to Arlington Boulevard—from First Street South to 36th Street South, and from First Street North to 44th Street North. When a number repeats, it’s in the order of Street, then Road, then Place. Named streets are alphabetized and run from north to south, starting at the Potomac River and proceeding westward—one-syllable names first, from Ball to Wise; followed by two-syllables, from Adams to Woodrow; then three syllables, from Abingdon to Yucatan; and finally, a single four-syllable name: Arizona.

Historic roads, such as Military Road, Arlington Ridge Road and Columbia Pike, “typically follow early winding routes,” according to the Arlington County Street Naming System Guide, “and are excluded from the alphabetized pattern.”

Things weren’t always so logical. The county began paving the way toward the current system in 1932, when it formed a street naming committee that was tasked with imposing order on Arlington’s increasingly chaotic grid. Between 1900 and 1930, the county’s population increased by more than 350 percent, from 6,430 to 23,278, according to research conducted by the Arlington Public Library. New neighborhoods and subdivisions proliferated, more or less at random, with no central planning. Ditto the new streets that served them; they had no cohesive naming system, which added to a historic tangle stretching back centuries.

While some routes (such as Glebe Road, which was built before 1800) have maintained their original nomenclature, “other early roads have changed names several times,” says Mark Whitenton, former president of the Arlington Optimist Club (a community improvement organization), who has studied the early history of the county’s main arteries and lesser byways. “For example, although it was a minor wagon road between Rosslyn and Falls Church as early as the mid-1700s, a new road was built on that route in 1852 [and called] the Aqueduct Road. That road also has been called the Georgetown–Falls Church Road and is now named Wilson Boulevard.”

During the great renaming, many roads were consolidated. Poplar Avenue, Bellaire Avenue, Railroad Avenue, First Street, Ash Street and Lincoln Avenue collectively became North Fairfax Drive. Bingham Road and Center Avenue became South Fillmore Street.

What prompted this? The county was worried about firefighters getting dispatched to the wrong addresses; delivery trucks and visitors getting lost; and the possibility that Arlington, whose mail was being routed through Washington, D.C., might never get its own post office. The Street Naming Committee’s proposal—something very close to the current system—was approved in August 1934. Two years later, the county got its first local postmaster, followed in 1937 by its first post office (and first federal building), which is still in operation on Washington Boulevard in Clarendon.

Thanks to those new street names, the mail went through. And, believe it or not, you don’t get lost as often as you might.

Categories: Local History
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