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A century of change in the nation’s capital, in maps

The USGS/Esri

To be up front about this, I don’t have any grand policy takeaway in this post — just a gift for you before the holiday if, like me, you're still sitting at your computer right now, and, like me, you love maps.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Geological Survey released a fantastic Web site, built with the mapping company Esri, digitizing some 178,000 of the government's topographic maps dating going back to the 1800s. These old paper products have all been georectified, so you can layer maps from different eras on top of each other, and toggle back and forth between, say, an 1890 survey of the area that would become the Northern Virginia suburbs and the road-veined map we'd recognize today.

You can visit any corner of the country this way, see Shenandoah before the national park was created, or little Los Angeles as it existed in 1894, or Brooklyn in its last year as an independent city.


Below, we've made a couple of GIFs with the Washington-area maps that show both how the region has changed, and what the shape of the land looked like before we built so much on top of it.

This first one uses an 1890 map of the "Mount Vernon" area west of the District, fading into today. Arlington is barely visible. The Beltway doesn't exist. While there are people living in Vienna and Herndon at the time, their outposts hardly look like part of a contiguous "metro" region.


Here is Washington in 1900, before the Memorial Bridge (but after the creation of Arlington National Cemetery):


And this map comes from 1945, before Interstates 66 and 395 came into town:


Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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