Though geographically compact, Washington is a city of many neighborhoods, each with a particular character, sometimes changing after just a few blocks. I call this the “mental geography of Washington” because it informs our sense of distances in the District that may have nothing to do with the actual physical mileage between places.
However, it definitely has something to do with the physical geography of the District. Linguists studying regional dialects have long identified natural geographic barriers like mountain ranges and rivers as creating dialect borders or even dialect “islands.” What are those corresponding barriers in the District that create different mental places? Ethnic boundaries obviously play a role in creating different places, but in this column, I’m primarily concentrating on physical boundaries–whether naturally occurring or man-made. The physical barriers that influence mental geography are hills, creeks, rivers and valleys.
If it takes more effort (or time) to cross one of these barriers on foot or by motor or by boat, you will tend to think of that destination as being farther away, even though the mileage may be less than some other destination you can easily and quickly reach unencumbered by one of these natural barriers. Obvious examples in the District are any parts of town separated by the Anacostia or Potomac Rivers (why do Southeast and Southwest seem so isolated?) or Rock Creek (why does Georgetown seem set apart on its eastern flank from the rest of the District? In fact, it was a separate city before 1871.)
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