The Washington, D.C., layout is based on four major quadrants that span outward from the United States Capitol Building. Understanding the quadrants of Washington, D.C., will help you better understand maps of Washington, D.C. The four quadrants are the Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southwest. These go by the abbreviations NW, NE, SE and SW.
As you understand the quadrants, you’ll better understand the way addresses read in Washington, D.C.
Street addresses always include the abbreviation for the quadrant. For example, the Australian Embassy is located at 1601 Massachusetts Avenue NW, which indicates it’s in the Northwest quadrant. If you aren’t mindful of the quadrant within an address, it’s possible that you will arrive at what you think is your destination only to realize you are in the exact opposite spot in the city that you wanted to go!
Within the history of Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia was originally nearly a perfect square. The Capitol was never actually set in the perfect center of the land mass, so as time has passed the size of the quadrants has changed. The end result is a quadrants that vary greatly in size. The Northwest is large, while the Southwest is rather small.
The addresses here are set on a grid. Streets that go east to west generally have names that are letters (A-W), while north-south streets are usually named with numbers. The city also has avenues that run diagonally. Many of the diagonal streets have state names, and many of these streets are primary thoroughfares in the city. There are numerous other factors that play into the grid that can confuse visitors. For example, you will not find a J street. This is because the letters J and I couldn’t be distinguished from one in the written form another until the mid-1800s. As a result, what is “I” Street is very often written as Eye Street. Q Street is seen as Que, Cue or even Queue.