A recent visit to our nation’s capital brought many design delights: the museums, the pleasing feel of the Mall, the human scale of the buildings. . . and the delightfully named streets. But after a week of walking and looking, we noticed something unusual—there is no J Street in DC.  In all four quadrants, the street that comes after I Street is K Street.  What happened to J Street?

A little sleuthing and research brought up one theory: some folks believe that the city’s planner, Pierre L’Enfant, left out J Street as a slight to John Jay, the American statesman and first president of the Continental Congress. Legend has it that L’Enfant hated Jay for his 1794 Jay Treaty, an unpopular agreement that settled some sticky issues between the new Americans and the British, which seemed to favor the British. The French were mad too because as allies during the Revolutionary War, they were now were fighting Great Britain on their own. L’Enfant, as a French-born American, must have been doubly upset.

The only problem to this theory is that L’Enfant’s plan was finalized in early 1792, and the Jay Treaty didn’t happen until 1794. Another myth proposes that John Jay stole Pierre L’Enfant’s wife or girlfriend, but that also falls apart when you learn that Pierre L’Enfant was gay.  So there’s really no truth about the omission of J Street as a slight to John Jay.

So…back to why all the quadrants skip from I Street to K Street. The answer appears to be typographic! Back then, “I” and “J” looked very similar when written and were largely interchangeable, so there would have been major issues having two streets named the same. So J was left out, along with X, Y, and Z Streets.

In fact, our nation’s capital is a typographic hotbed. The whole network of east-west streets in the District follows an alphabetical pattern. After single letters are exhausted, the streets are named alphabetically with two syllables, then after those, it changes to three syllable alphabetical names, and then finally (only in the upper reaches of the NW section) streets are named after plants and flowers alphabetically (Aspen, Butternut, Cedar, etc). Of course there are exceptions, but generally the rule is followed pretty closely.

So there you go, the real reason why there’s no J Street is the solution to a design issue.

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