The Social Hinterlands of Washington, D.C.: A Regional Framework for City History

Editor’s Note: This is an article length piece. What appears below is an extended abstract. For the full article, use the link to the Word document immediately below.

MS Word file: “The Social Hinterlands of Washington, D.C.: A Regional Framework for City History”

From its beginnings in the 1790s, Washington, D.C. has been a border city–famously described by John F. Kennedy as a place of “southern efficiency and northern charm.” The new American nation carefully chose a site for a new capital that balanced regional interests. The members of the first Congress under the new Constitution understood the federal city as poised balanced between the northern and southern states and also between the Atlantic seaboard and the continental interior.

Washington has also been a southern city from its origins to the present. Additional roles have been overlaid on its southern character, making it also a “northern” city (especially from 1861 to the 1880s), a national city (especially in the twentieth century), and a global city (especially since 1940). Nevertheless, it has continued to maintain a distinctive regional character that reciprocally supports the distinctiveness of the South Atlantic region.

In this paper, I explore what I call the “social hinterland” of Washington, as distinguished from an economic or commercial hinterland. In effect, I propose to use Washington to show the possibilities of emphasizing a social and cultural dimension to city-regional history. Washington has never had wide-ranging commercial influence comparable to a Chicago or Montreal. But it has been a focus for interregional migration, a draw for regional elites, and symbolic prize among rival regions.

Competing Cascadias: Imagining a Region over Four Decades

Editor’s Note: This is a footnoted, article length piece. Below is a brief introduction of the work. To download the full article, use the link to the PDF Document below.

PDF: “Competing Cascadias: Imagining a Region over Four Decades”

In 1997, the distinguished architect and urbanist Robert Geddes offered the suggestion that “Cascadia” would be the “shock city” of the twenty-first century, following in the pattern set by in earlier eras by Manchester and Chicago, Los Angeles and Calcutta. Come again? Cascadia? Where’s that, and why might it be more interesting to twenty-first century scholars than Shanghai or Mumbai or Sao Paolo?

For Geddes, as for Ethan Seltzer, Anne Moudon, and Alan Artibise, the trio of urban scholars who contributed “Cascadia: An Emerging Regional Model” to Geddes’s edited volume Cities in Our Future, Cascadia is a bi-national megaregion consisting of the Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver metro areas and the farms and forests in between.


The Cascadia Megaregion is the newest in a series of recent efforts to reimagine a regional identity for the northwestern coast of North America.

For a century and a half—beginning with the intrusion of Russian, British, and American fur traders, extending through imperial contests and boundary marking, through Anglophone settlement, and on through the dam-building and timber booms of the mid-twentieth century—the greater Northwest had a stable identity as region rich in natural resources and driven by their exploitation and development. Whether as the pre-national Oregon Country in the early nineteenth century or the U.S. Pacific Northwest and idiosyncratic British Columbia of the twentieth century, this was a remarkably constant region of the mind.

The vast territory has had subregions to be sure—an Empire of the Columbia, the inland sea from Olympia, Washington north to Campbell River, British Columbia, an Inland Empire (that’s the big one around Spokane, not the little one around Riverside). However, Wilbur Zelinsky’s now classic study of vernacular regions found the Northwest firmly in place in the 1970s. His study compiled and tallied the regional adjectives that appeared in business and organizational names in the phone books of the 276 of the largest U.S. and Canadian cities. “Northwest” was the dominant regional marker in Boise, Spokane, Eugene, Portland, Seattle and Tacoma, and made a strong 2nd or 3rd place showing in Missoula, Billings, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, and Anchorage (as Canada’s windows to Asia, Victoria and Vancouver gave first place to “Pacific”). The regional core along Puget Sound and the lower Columbia River also joined the Canadian Maritime Provinces and the heart of Dixie in having the greatest regional self-consciousness as measured by the percentage of regional terms relative to all terms.

Beginning in the same decade as Zelinsky’s study, however, that identity began to come unstuck. For the last generation it has been up for grabs with competing metaphors and definitions that suggest very different planning and policy responses. Journalists, boosters, advocates, and scholars have tried out a series of ways to conceptualize and shape a regional identity for the northern Pacific coast—as Ecotopia, as bioregional Cascadia, as boosterish Mainstreet Cascadia and as the Cascadia Megaregion. Think of the change this way: The old identity was like a reliable older automobile with lots of miles but well maintained and still perking along. Suddenly, however, it is too boring, too unfashionable, inadequately trendy, causing us to shop for an alternative—perhaps a Prius? A Smart Car? A Ford F-350 pickup? A Lexus? All have their strong points, but none seems to satisfy every need and expectation. Stepping back from the simile, the goal of this paper is to interrogate these changing ways for thinking about the regional identity of the old Oregon Country.