What’s in a Name?

Since moving to DC I hear the question a lot: “which neighborhood do you live in?” More than anywhere I’ve lived, people in this city seem very conscious of their choice of neighborhood and what it says about them. In my case, and I suppose for many of the people who live near me (at the corner of 3rd & P NW), the ubiquitous “where do you live” question is problematic – our neighborhood has no clear identity.

When I first started answering what I refer to as “the question,” my response was to say that I lived in “Shaw-Howard.” I guess I got this from the name of the nearby Metro stop, but after several puzzled looks, I came to realize that nobody uses this nomenclature.

So I shortened my response to “Shaw.” The problem is, Shaw is a really big entity and, as I later found out, technically does not extend beyond New Jersey Ave.

According to the DC housing authority, my neighborhood is called “Old City II.” That’s just plain silly and there’s no way I’m going around telling people I live in Old City II.

In search of an identity, I began looking for answers in the blogosphere. I found what I was looking for – a name that is majestic, historic, and well-defined all at once: “Truxton Circle.” Stemming from the long-gone traffic circle at the corner of N. Capital and Florida Ave., the Truxton Circle neighborhood is essentially a triangle bounded by New York, New Jersey, and Florida Avenues. The circle was named after Thomas Truxtun, an erstwhile Commodore in the U.S. Navy who made his reputation chasing down pirate ships off the Barbary Coast and knocking the British and French down a few pegs when they needed it.

The historic Truxton traffic circle, gone since 1947
The historic Truxton traffic circle, gone since 1947

In short, Commodore Truxtun was a resourceful, industrious, tough-minded, yet little-known historical figure. I would use these same adjectives to describe our neighborhood. Sometimes, a name just fits.


18 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Thanks for this opportunity for discussion on an important topic. Those in this part of east Shaw, also called Truxton Circle, love our area and our neighbors. And so we must understand and recognize the concern of many who bring up the fact that Truxton the man was a slaveowner and so naming a neighborhood so prominent in black history may be disturbing. I have not done the research myself but would like to hear from those who have. And perhaps open the discusiion on alternative less offensive names.

  2. Done the research and it’s all in a pile somewhere.
    The Shaw area, originally called the Shaw School Urban Renewal Area, particularly it’s borders were established in the 60s, but I have the legalize from the 70s. The law behind it is the Redevelopment Act. See http://www.inshaw.com/blog/2008/04/april-2-1970-borders-of-shaw.html and http://www.inshaw.com/blog/2008/04/some-make-stuff-up-some-bring-proof.html

    Shaw is large. In it is a family of smaller neighborhoods, like Logan Circle, U Street, Naylor Court & Blagden Alley, and the center which occasionally calls itself Mid-City. Truxton Circle is one such neighborhood falling in the legally established borders of Shaw. NJ is the line between Ward 2 and 5.
    Washington was a slaveholder too…, but people have the right to be angry with the dead. The name Truxton Circle does reach back to the turn of the century, with the circle. Even with the removal of the circle the area held the name somewhat with a Truxton Circle Post Office on Florida Ave NE, and in the 80s with the City trying to sell houses, and the 90s. It’s not a popular name but it is more established.

  3. I can’t agree more that this neighborhood needs a name, and needs it own identity. Regarding the posting above, I have several comments:

    1. This area is part of Shaw, according to the Shaw Urban Renewal Plan of 1969. The border of Shaw does not end at New Jersey, it ends at North Capitol. Regardless of which name or no name is used, we should not be confused about the fact that we do all live in Shaw.

    2. Call it a pet peeve, but I do not like the name Truxton Circle to a large part because the circle does not exist. When people go visit a neighborhood in DC named after a circle, they expect a real circle – e.g. Dupont, Logan, Scott, etc. So to name this neighborhood after a circle that has not existed in over half a century, and when it did was physically located in Eckington and not Shaw, does not make sense to me. We are going to have visitors to this neighborhood driving or walking around trying to find a circle and wondering where the heck it is – like I did when I first moved here. Years ago, when I mentioned the name and explained to people in other dc neighborhoods that there is a name but no real circle, they just looked thoroughly confused ..….awkward social moment….

    3. I have heard a lot of people express concerns over naming this neighborhood after Truxton, a man with a very disturbing racist past, given the African American heritage of the area. It is offensive to many. I recognize that one should not deny history just not to offend anyone, but on the other hand, it is not something to celebrate or cherish. However, I don’t feel like I know enough about Truxton and the history itself. He might have been a Navy hero who fought off pirates in the old days, but I am not sure what his relationship is to this particular area.

    I prefer the name “Dunbar Shaw” for this neighborhood because it truly celebrates the unique scholastic and inspirational aspects of the African American heritage of this particular neighborhood. For those not aware, Dunbar High School was the nation’s first African American high school and truly has a remarkable history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar_High_School_(Washington,_D.C.) ). Its faculty and alums include some of the most famous and accomplished African Americans of the 20th century, who were considered pioneers and trailblazers in arts, civil rights, culture, education, history, women’s rights, etc. The list reads like a Who’s Who of African American history, and all this happened at our doorsteps. As such, I think “Dunbar Shaw” as a name says a lot about this neighborhood, its history, and its aspirations, that is truly unique and very relevant today. It also draws attention to the fact that this neighborhood historically was home to a lot of educational institutions for African Americans, a rarity in those days – e.g. Armstrong, Slater etc.

    Further, “Dunbar Shaw” as a name is consistent with how some other residential pockets of Shaw identify with the nearest educational institutions (e.g. Howard Shaw, Cordoza Shaw – remember the schools were there long before the metro stations!).

    That said, every one is entitled to their own opinions.

  4. These are good points about establishing a more acceptable (and widely-recognized) name for the neighborhood. I like the Dunbar Shaw (or Shaw Dunbar) suggestion a lot.

    I came across an interesting article yesterday about a block of 9th St. between T and U that some citizens recently wanted to have formally recognized as “Little Ethiopia,” in recognition of the many Ethiopian restaurants there and the many Ethiopian immigrants living and working throughout the city. The proposal met with a great deal of opposition, though, both from longtime non-Ethiopian community residents and from Eritrean business owners on the block, and is a good example of the complex issues that underlie establishing a name for a place. It’s pretty relevant to the discussion at hand.

    You can check out the article here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/24/AR2005072401136.html.

  5. This is a great blog post because it highlights that we need a name! For those of us at the 3rd and P St area, we are a community within Shaw that lacks a community reference. I’ve heard Truxton, Dunbar Shaw, Shaw East, and a few others. It’s confusing.

    When naming a street, area, building, etc. it is certainly a common practice to look to the past as a way to celebrate the present and future. This is why I also like Dunbar Shaw. Dunbar High has a storied history, and because it still exists is truly history in the making. In this regard it symbolizes a progressive character of the community, one that is centered around people and children. Perhaps there are other good possibilities as well.

    I remember how I felt when I fist moved here. The first name I heard was Truxton Circle. It sounded great. But then I asked, where is the circle? After learning that there isn’t one I just thought the name sounded like we were trying to copy Logan or Dupont. Truxton Circle stands for a storied past, but it is an architectural anachronism, one that’s void of a present and that lacks a compelling call to the future.

    So what’s in a name? A lot, I guess. I think it is normal for a dynamic community to have an identity problem. Still, at some point it would be nice to see the community rally around one name.

    1. I believe it is through Google Map Maker. Users make custom maps and Google randomly considers custom map edits for inclusion in the source data layers. So if two people make a custom map with something on it, that data might pop-up on Google’s map. It might be validated against the internet volumes for that word.

  6. I’m personally not crazy about the name Dunbar Shaw. I understand the proud history of Dunbar Highschool, but I’d rather our part of Shaw by named after a no-longer-existent circle than the dump that today’s Dunbar is. It’s UGLY and should not be the main landmark of our neighborhood.

  7. JD, I don’t think the school is going anywhere. Maybe as we persevere to make the neighborhood improve, so will the school. It’s an important school, as others have pointed out.

  8. Why don’t we just put the location back together?! Ok, we cannot rebuild the circle w/out the District’s money, but we can draw a line from 3rd and M NW over to 3rd and M St NE, then north to 3rd and T NE and back west to 3rd and T NW. Call it all Truxton Circle and incorporate as an association or business improvement district. If we expect the circle to be in the middle of the neighborhood like else where, then eventually the District gov’t has to cave in and rebuild the circle. It might even calm the traffic and save lives!!

    1. The city did a feasibility study long ago to consider restoring the traffic circle. I think a lot of people in the immediate area supported it as a way to calm traffic, though the originators were probably just as interested in getting a landmark (re)built. But from the little I’ve heard and read of the plan, it would be a hot mess and is never gonna happen.

  9. Dunbar the school is named after Paul Laurence Dunbar, the famous African American poet from the late 19th century. Dunbar was a DC resident for a time (Ledroit Park) and attended Howard University. And so the name Dunbar Shaw refers to a historical figure with an actual tie to DC AND a school with a rich history. I’ve heard our neighborhood referred to often as the black education corridor, which also helps explain the interest in preserving some of these old schools and illuminating their history.
    The current Dunbar High School is not the original structure, obviously. So I’m not sure that anyone has in mind that it be a landmark in our neighborhood. But the name Dunbar does evoke that history in a way that most other names don’t.

  10. Despite a pesky circle not being there, the name has stuck in various ways over the years. Somehow, for some reason, without fanfare it appears the city assigned the name to the area in the 80s. When trying to sell off houses the city called it Truxton Circle in its ads and its program. “‘Subsidy Program’s Nuts and Bolts’ The Washington Post (1974-Current file). Washington, D.C.:Aug 2, 1984.
    p. A15 (1 pp.) And it’s on a city planning map from the 80s as well.
    In this decade the name has remained with the city when describing Ward 5 neighborhoods. On the city’s interactive map it’s Truxton Circle. Some Realtors may call it Truxton Circle, when not calling it Logan East, Old City 2 or Eckington. Then there is Google maps. However, Shaw, is a perfectly good name to call it as well.

  11. On a side note, I would rather use the name of a fine outstanding US Army Veteran like Bates in my daily conversation then some damn Navy squid named Truxtun. Please, do not allow my digression to divert us from the topic.

  12. This is fascinating. There’s this argument that “new” folks move into a neighborhood and try to rename it, robbing it of its history. Of course that’s usually used as a slight against “new” people.

    What I see in the comments is a conflict between those that want to rename the area for the mid to latter half of the 20th century and those that want to stick to a name designation from an earlier period. The TC name appears to have a documented and longer standing history, for what it is worth. “Dunbar Shaw” not so much.

    I vote to reach for the stars and keep the Truxton Circle name while working to get a circle back in the intersection. The neighborhood could use both the traffic calming of the circle and the aesthetics of one too. Just because DDOT stalled after an initial study does not mean it could not ever be reintroduced.

    “Dunbar Shaw” sounds too much like the “Death Star” — which is really what the high school looks like these days. I shudder to think of making that building the landmark the neighborhood wants to be recognized for.

  13. Also, can someone site a source for ties between Thomas Truxtun and slavery? I don’t doubt there could be a tie, I’m just curious of the extent and source for it. I know there is a Navy ship named after him so I’m curious what the ties are.

  14. It would also be nice to see how it went from Truxtun to Truxton. In the end, I would encourage residents to look forward, not necessary towards history. The name for the neighborhood should be what we are and what we will become. What is our common goal? Is it to be not only the black education corridor but the home of public education for all children? Is this the Flower District because we have The Flower Power? I am not asking you to ditch your past. I am just asking that you honestly take a moment and think outside the box. It would seem the paradigm is to name places in Washington DC based upon their past. Let’s be the first to be known for our future. If there is a Green Revolution and families move back into cities to save energy during their commutes, our neighborhood will be full. Our parking spaces, green spaces, and bedrooms will grow in value. As NoMa and Northwest 1 draw jobs, shoppers, and students we will be the benefactors right next door. We are surrounded by three Metro Rail stations and crisscrossed by Metro Buses. We are surrounded by parties, block parties, arts, and music. In the very near future, we will be the lucky ones. We might want to think of that as we seek a common identity and label that we all can embrace.

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