Three Maps That Show Why Gawker’s Map Is Wrong About Washington

Why it's okay to say you're from Washington even if you come from the suburbs.

A while back, the New Republic’s Hillary Kelly wrote a brief, compelling essay against people who say they’re from a big city when they actually hail from the suburbs. Kelly, a Philadelphia native, argued that her Main Line neighbors are doing nothing more than spoiling conversations when they attempt to lay claim to the City of Brotherly Love.

Kelly made a fine case, but two months later, here comes Gawker throwing verbal gasoline on the city-versus-suburb dynamic with a collection of maps it says are the definitive borders of several major cities. And, boy, did they blow it on Washington.

Gawker defines “Washington, DC” as everything circled by the Capital Beltway, a land mass that includes the District, Alexandria, Arlington, and parts of Montgomery, Prince George’s, and Fairfax counties. While that might seem acceptable to a bunch of clever bloggers in lower Manhattan, that’s actually a pretty shoddy geographic description of the nation’s capital region. Most of the big cities on Gawker’s list are easier to pin down, but Washington’s pan-jurisdictional figure is a lot more complex than just tracing a highlighter around a highway. Here are three maps that show why:

1. “DC” = District of Columbia.

Screenshot via Google Maps.

This is the easy one. See that outline of red dashes? That’s the District of Columbia, a geographic quadrangle that does not, Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, exceed a size of “ten miles square.” (That’s ten miles on each side, not ten square miles, in case your familiarity with 18th-century terminology is lacking.) If someone claims to be from DC, let them back it up with a District-issued birth certificate or driver’s license.

2. “Washington” = DC plus the suburbs.

Map via Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is where Gawker’s argument really falls apart. While it says people in Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda, and Silver Spring can identify themselves as “Washington, DC,” Gawker omits Bowie, College Park, Fairfax, and Rockville. Washington’s boundaries are a lot more fluid than the average US cities, thanks to the District’s dual statuses as stateless city and federal seat. In fact, the city of Washington has been more of a figure of speech rather than actual geographic subdivision since the Organic Act of 1871 merged the discrete cities of Washington and Georgetown into a unified District of Columbia.

And as far as the feds are concerned, Washington isn’t just a company town, it’s a company region. Fairfax, Rockville, and Tysons Corner are just as vital to the political-industrial complex as DC, Arlington, Alexandria, and Bethesda. The Office of Management and Budget defines the borders of Washington’s metropolitan area as far as Jefferson County, West Virginia, but that’s way too loose for casual conversation. Still, “Washington” can be more generous toward its suburban parts than other places. Someone from Charles Town tells you they’re from Washington? Yeah, laugh them back to the far side of the Shenandoah Valley. But someone from Vienna says they’re from Washington? Let it slide; they’re probably sucking on the federal teat in some way.

3. Gawker also needs a geography lesson about New York City.

Map via Wikimedia Commons.

The secret motive behind Gawker’s attempt to redefine city maps seems to be excluding Staten Island from the rest of New York City. Sorry, but no dice. Aesthetically and culturally, Staten Island is a glorified Bayonne, New Jersey. Hell, it would have been part of the Garden State it not for Christopher Billop, a 17th-century British captain who claimed it for colonial New York by circumnavigating New York Harbor in less than 24 hours. Until Williamsburg supremacists figure out a way to pysically separate from the rest of Brooklyn, Staten Island remains one of the five boroughs of the City of New York, and no amount of internet snark will change that.

Also, did anyone at Gawker even read Jordan Sargent’s description of what he thinks New York City’s borders are? “Manhattan County, Bronx County, Kings County, Queens County.”

There is no “Manhattan County.” Manhattan is New York County. Any yokel born in New Rochelle and raised upstate knows that.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.