Mental Maps and the District of Columbia

The Washington Blade newspaper has an outstanding article on the influence of our mental maps (the author uses the phrase “mental geography”) on our daily habits and lifestyle. The article is short enough that, if you have the time, you should give it a read. But to offer some of the most interesting tidbits. The article highlights the importance of geographic barriers, both physical and man-made, on separating people. Sometimes this is a literal separation, a highway or a mountain range. The separation can also be mental. Of course, both barriers can influence where we go and what we do. Beyond these barriers, add in your own biased notions of an area and you may or may not even venture to a different part of town, even if its a few blocks away.

A great example is my old neighborhood in Mount Vernon Square, see map below. Reasonably close to Chinatown (just north), the neighborhood was within walking distance of several supermarkets, a couple of cafes, and a laundry service. In addition there were a few hotels, bars, and two liquor stores (one of which had the metal gate). The area was dominated by condominiums owned by younger, rich, white families and the apartments were typically students, immigrants, and just-graduates. The immediate neighborhood just got a small city park too, complete with gate that shuts at night. The southern boundary would have to be Massachusetts Avenue, multiple lanes, if I had a kid I wouldn’t let him or her cross it without me. The northern and western bounds were trickier, I did really walk in those directions primarily because it was mostly residential and little else (perhaps the odd cafe or something). So probably part of the neighborhood. But the eastern boundary. Well, that would have to be the massive Washington Convention Center. 3 blocks north-south and 2 block east-west, it was a man-made barrier between the east and the west.

And it was an effective barrier too. While I lived in a gentrified neighborhood (as you may have guessed from my description), the eastern neighborhood wasn’t as gentrified. East of the Convention Center most of the shops had the metal gates and there was a half row of abandoned buildings. I’m generalizing a bit of course, there is a housing project west of the Convention Center within the neighborhood and plenty of well-to-do families in the east. But the general point I’m trying to make is that you can see the landscape change when you cross those two blocks going from west to east. In general, this is the District’s ethnic and class divide, east and west with gentrification following a easterly course. For my own daily habits, I was far more apt to walk south to Chinatown for hangouts and meetups than to walk east. In fact, the only reason I walked east at all was to go to the grocery store.

Geographic barriers often have subtle influences on your life. Reminded of the Convention Center by the Blade’s article, the influence of that place on my daily habits was clear as day. But at the time I was living there, it didn’t really occur to me. Its probably a similar psychological phenomenon to the Atlantic Ocean on medieval Europeans or space is to us. We take it for granted as a barrier so we don’t look past or beyond it. Then somebody does, and the world turns.

1 thought on “Mental Maps and the District of Columbia

  1. So true! I live in Mount Vernon Plaza Apartments on 10th and M and your story is absolutely within my realm of experience. Also, thank you for sharing our article (I am the photo editor of the Washington Blade).

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