One Street but Two Different Worlds: 16th Street is Sharp Divide for Income and Other Key Factors

In DC we often hear that neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park look different than the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, with higher income residents concentrated in the west and lower income residents in the east. Yet, a new map of DC neighborhoods by income shows that the distinction is far sharper, with veritable line running right down the middle of DC, along 16th Street NW. Geographical income disparities are not new, but it’s worth investigating why such a clear distinction exists on either side of a single city street and what are the implications of this dividing line are in the context of other indicators, such as test scores, single parent families and juvenile crime.

Recently The Washington City Paper mapped income by DC neighborhood and demonstrated a startling fact: people living east of 16th Street have much lower incomes than people living to the west. (See the map below, where green indicates high income and red is lower income.) In our DC KIDS COUNT e-Databook, we found similar contrasts: the map of families headed by a single mother closely resembled the City Paper map, with a sharp division at 16th Street. Take a look at maps of reading and math test scores by school location, and you find the same pattern emerging.

DC Lawyers for Youth has mapped another division stacking up at in this same place. Almost all (95%) of youth in the juvenile justice system live east of 16th Street, where poverty is higher and two-parent families are fewer.

Research shows that family income is a strong predictor of success in school and other outcomes for children, so the correlation among these indicators is hardly surprising. But why do the divisions begin in this particular place? To start, let’s take a trip up this street: 16th Street starts at the White House, continues north through Downtown and residential neighborhoods of Northwest. It divides the Dupont area from Logan Circle, Adams Morgan/Mt. Pleasant from Columbia Heights and Crestwood from Petworth.

It’s likely that several factors contribute to the 16th Street division, including changing demographics, urban development and simply the boundary lines of neighborhoods. The City Paper speculated that in few years, the 16th Street line will move further east. Incomes in the city are rising and the Washington region is experiencing an influx of new residents, many of whom want to live in the city. With very little affordable housing west of 16th Street, many low- income residents are priced out. Combine that with changes in the housing stock as condos and high rises spring up, especially near 16th Street, and it begins to make more sense why we’re seeing this dividing line.

Boundaries for data collection likely have a role, as well. Eddie Ferrer of DC Lawyers for Youth notes that many census tracts, ANCs and other local boundaries line up on 16th Street, which probably helps make that dividing line even sharper.

Though speculating about the 16th Street divide is fascinating on its own, we think the bigger story here is what this means for children who are growing up in our communities right now. The neighborhoods where children learn and play are critical to their well-being and success, and every child deserves opportunity, no matter which part of the city he or she calls home. As a city, we must continue with this conversation because we have a duty to ensure that assets and opportunities are plentiful on both east and west of 16th Street. This means quality schools, places to shop for healthy food, playgrounds and many other community resources.

What do you think is behind this division at 16th Street? We encourage you to look at the data and the maps for yourself on our DC KIDS COUNT e-Databook.

More importantly, how can we make sure children growing up in every part of the city have the opportunities they need to succeed?