Front yards in the Federal City: even the close-knit rowhomes feature green plots for garden gnomes. Or (since it’s Capitol Hill) political signs.

In these polarizing and emotionally fraught times, it has ostensibly become far more common for people to announce their political loyalties from the front yards of their homes—not just by promoting the campaigns of preferred candidates, but (at least in recent years) to overtly declare one’s stance on a certain issue, or even to declare one’s overall worldview…at least as much as it might fit on a simple yard sign.

political signs in front yards in Capitol Hill, DC

A neighborhood such as Capitol Hill in Washington DC is likely to feature a higher-than-average number of such signs—maybe the highest density of such signage anywhere in the country.  And why not?  The picturesque, affluent gridded network of colorful 19th century rowhomes is literally a stone’s throw from the US Capitol, and a disproportionate number of households have at least one member with direct ties to Congress.  (A lot of members of Congress claim an address in the neighborhood, and they probably spend considerable more time there than in their home state.)  This congressional concentration is in large part why Capitol Hill is synecdochic with the political landscape of Washington DC.

political signs in front yards of DC

Front yards in DC seem tailor-made for individualized political expression.  The fact that the city’s rowhomes have generous setbacks from the street, allowing for these often meticulously landscaped front yards, sets Washington DC apart from many other Northeast big cities.  The rowhouses of Philadelphia and Baltimore, at least in their oldest, densest neighborhoods, have no setbacks; only a sidewalk separates the street and curb from the stoop leading to a front door.  Most of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s brownstones offer little more than a patch of landscaping in front of the window next to the stoop.  And while the archetypal high-density housing style in Boston, the triple-decker, isn’t really a rowhome, the city’s oldest neighborhoods like North End, Beacon Hill, and Back Bay all feature a similar entrance typology to NYC: a patch of landscaping in front of the window, but little more.  DC’s front yards may pale in comparison to those of suburbia, but for a community of high-density attached housing, they set the place apart.

And, aside from a few minor block-long stub streets (basically alleys with less expensive rowhomes facing them), most streets in Capitol Hill host small but verdant front yards.

setbacks for front yards in Capitol Hill, Washington DC

DC’s front yard phenomenon was part of a broader plan, yet, counter-intuitively, it wasn’t completely intentional.  As DC’s Office of Planning noted some years ago in its Landscaping, Landscape Features, and Secondary Buildings in Historic Districts, the original Design for the Federal City under Pierre L’Enfant included a vision for a national capital of expansive boulevards and broad, majestic streets.  While L’Enfant clearly envisioned the US Capitol atop what surveyors at the time called “Jenkins Hill”, the street network for the adjacent neighborhood proved unnecessarily broad over time, and not in keeping with the intimate, quiet, mostly residential district west of the mighty domed seat of US Congress, where most of the rowhomes were only two or three stories tall.  By the 1870s, Congress successively passed the Parking Act and the Projection Act, which essentially shrunk the local residential streets, creating broad setbacks in front of the homes, which essentially was still public right-of-way, designated for private use.  “Parking” in this case had nothing to do with vehicles—they would have been horse-drawn at that time—but instead the promotion of “park-like” features for a narrower road suited to private residences.  And the “Projection” permitted homeowners to extend porches, bay windows, or other features (towers and turrets were popular in the Victorian era) into those newly created front yards.  In most cases, the quasi-private front yards are 14-18 feet, but sometimes they extend as much as 40 feet.  Since it remains public land, the City can regulate how homeowners can landscape it, and hedges cannot be over three feet high, the front yard cannot be excessively paved, nor are vegetable gardens allowed.  (I’m 99% confident the City does not enforce this latter standard, unless the gardens become a pest-attracting nuisance.)

setbacks for front yards in Capitol Hill, Washington DC

That said, the City obviously does not restrict signage in these yards, and given the political-junkie nature of so many residents of Washington DC (and especially Capitol Hill) it should come as no surprise that so many patricians profess their political preference right next to the brick walkway that connects the sidewalk to their front door.  But this one really caught me by surprise:

The rainbow rows of coloring on a black background resemble a sign we see here all the time.  Most likely you know the one I’m talking about; it’s in one of the previous photographs.  But this time, the community credo is a laundry list of best practices in urban planning.  Density.  Mixed tenure (ownership and rental).  ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units, AKA carriage house apartments or “granny flats”.)  Triplex and fourplexes.  Whoever live at this home, they are the ultimate anti-NIMBY (not in my back yard).  They’re encouraging the exact sort of strategies for densifying a neighborhood that NIMBYs typically reject.  In other words, they’re YIMBYs (yes in my back yard).  All the more ironic, given the distinguishing feature of DC rowhomes are those leafy front yards.  (But most rowhomes in Capitol Hill have little back yards too.)

There’s not much to add to this sign, except that it seems to hint at going against the tide.  That is, despite the fact that Capitol Hill is unequivocally an urban neighborhood with a density considerably above the national average, it still harbors the mentality we might expect far more  in suburbia: a collective resistance toward housing types that might promote densities—or (most telling of all) income levels—outside of what is typical for the neighborhood.  Although people in Capitol Hill clearly generally share a political persuasion that professes open-mindedness to new trends and ideas, NIMBYism can manifest itself in any milieu, red or blue, green or gold.  People achieve the wherewithal to get in to a desirable area, and once safely ensconced in their comfy domicile, they seek to raise the drawbridge before outsiders can sully the place…outsiders seeking the exact same character that made the drawbridge keepers decide to move there; they just arrived there a bit later. The denizens of Capitol Hill have a way of signaling what their values are.  Or maybe they don’t need to signal at all.  A front yard sign is good enough.

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5 thoughts on “Front yards in the Federal City: even the close-knit rowhomes feature green plots for garden gnomes. Or (since it’s Capitol Hill) political signs.

  1. AvatarJerry M.

    Your wrap-up statement expresses my impressions throughout: most yard signs are clear examples of virtue signaling. Sign = me!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Definitely. And, even if the trend shows a certain partisan slant in DC, this sort of signaling is no less prevalent on the opposite side of the aisle, whether it involves certain flags flown (including the US flag), an ichthys on the back of a car, or even a cross necklace (or the Hebrew chai, or an ankh, etc etc).

      Reply

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