Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
An interactive map takes down D.C.'s urban legends. Expanded, it could offer a hyperlocal look at the lore of cities across the country.
Maybe the most persistent myth about Washington, D.C., is the one that "explains" why there's no Metrorail stop in Georgetown. As the legend has it, residents rejected a Georgetown station because they didn't want the poors pouring into their neighborhood. Not terribly charitable to Georgetown—and not true at all.
As far as urban legends go, that one's pretty sticky. It's right up there with the one about how an Illuminati shadow cabinet of puppet-masters runs the government based on a secret Masonic scheme cooked up by our Founding Fathers (that old chestnut).
Wake up, sheeple! That's the simple message at the core of the National Capital Area Skeptics' mission. To help them diffuse urban legends local and global, founding skeptic Chip Denman launched a Google map compiling all of Washington's secret histories in one place.
Denman came up with the map a few years back to plot out an NCAS walking tour. But as board members and others from the 150-skeptic-strong association continued adding sites, it became something larger. Now it includes pins about astrology, UFOs, Scientology, the Garfield and Lincoln assassinations, Houdini, the Hope Diamond, and other tales of bunkum. There's even a pin explaining the history of "bunkum" (and its derivative, "debunk"): The word stems from a hysterical speech* given by Felix Walker of Buncombe County, North Carolina, on the House floor on February 25, 1820.
Note that the NCAS doesn't endorse the pentagram underscoring major sites in downtown Washington. That drawing is at the heart of conspiracy theories about ulterior Masonic motives in the L'Enfant Plan. Nor is there anything all that shadowy about the life of Shirley MacLaine, who grew up in the D.C. area, even though she features prominently in the map. Those pins are just related to the fact that she's a major New Age writer (or as Denman puts it, "newage").
"Dupont Circle is a rich area for connecting the dots," he says.
The best pins relate to the truly local legends, like the dread Bunny Man, an ax-murdering, well, bunny man. Or the things that aren't supernatural at all. Those are the truly urban legends—such as the stubborn belief that there's no J Street In D.C. because Pierre L'Enfant had some beef with John Jay (nope) or that a "hoof code" tells how the figures memorialized by the city's equestrian statues died (sorry).
The District's got more Masonic architecture than most cities, but not necessarily more urban legends. Pittsburgh's Green Man is kind of like D.C.'s Bunny Man (or vice versa_. The story about General Motors wrecking L.A.'s mass transit system or Mrs. O'Leary's cow starting the Great Chicago Fire or the 1:1 ratio between rats and people in New York are foundational myths for those cities.
But there are so many more neighborhood-level legends that people only ever hear about by living in a place for years. And even then, residents don't always recognize these stories as fiction. There are so many bogus stories about cities out there that it's hard to even catalog them all, much less debunk them.
A map is an ideal tool for separating the wheat from the chaff, but Denman says he isn't aware of a skeptical guide to any city beyond D.C. Every city could benefit from one.
"I think you could stretch this [map] out across the country and create a quilt of scrutiny," Denman says.
*CORRECTION: Walker delivered his speech on the House floor, not on the Capitol steps. The post has been updated.