TT: Directionless in the Big City

ALAN: Before we carry on with this week’s tangent, did you realise that this is our 200th conversation. Good heavens, aren’t we chatty!

JANE: That seems incredible…  I’ve had so much fun.  I salute you and invite you to ask me a question to get this historic 200th Tangent started.

Washington D.C.,:Past and Future

Washington D.C.:Past and Future

ALAN: One question that springs immediately to my mind is that if a city like Washington is so carefully planned, who actually did the planning in the first place? Was it done by committee or was there a presiding genius? And another question – just how rigidly do the builders stick to the plan? Do the realities of construction ever force changes to be made to the plan?

JANE: As is so often the case with history, the simple answer and the one that most closely embraces the truth differ substantially.  The simple answer regarding Washington D.C. was as follows: George Washington chose the site for the city.  He then appointed a committee who, in turn, selected a Frenchman, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, to design the city.  L’Enfant did.

Reality is a bit more complex.  L’Enfant was chosen to design the city.  He laid out a lovely plan that involved streets radiating out from the Capitol – then called “The Congress House.”  This, in itself, shows how in the perception of the young United States of America, the Legislative Branch, rather than the Executive, was viewed as the most important.

L’Enfant had grand, sweeping ideas, including what – especially for that time – were astonishingly wide streets.  From the start, he encountered protests from existing landowners.  He annoyed various important – and sometimes only self-important – people with his tendency to want to keep control of the plans.  Eventually, he was fired.

ALAN: Poor chap! So he got fired for doing what was asked of him. That’s not very fair..

JANE:  Since when are politics ever fair?  And, believe you me, building the capital city for a brand new nation – at a time when brand new nations were not at all the usual thing – was a very political event.

So, from the start, the plan for Washington, D.C., was distorted by the desires of people who were thinking of their immediate goals, rather than of creating a perfect planned city.

Some years ago, I wrote a short story called “Tigers in the Capital.”  It’s a free-flowing narration in which L’Enfant, still alive in the story’s present day, talks about all the changes his beloved city has undergone and how those alterations to his original plan have led to many of the nation’s problems.  All the facts about D.C.’s evolution, well – at least all of those except those that applied to the futuristic part of the story – are accurate.  In the end, I was beginning to convince myself…

ALAN: So the actual answer to my original questions about how it came to be designed is “all the above.”

JANE: Thou art supremely correct, my friend!

I realized we have – in the best fashion possible – tangented away from your original question as to whether roads in cities in the United States are named in such a fashion that you can tell which direction they run simply by whether they are a street or an avenue.

ALAN: Yes – I was most impressed by that scheme. Directionally challenged people such as myself would find it a great help. I never know what direction I’m facing in and I need all the help I can get!

JANE: As I said earlier, sadly, this is not the case.  Sometimes a street won’t even have a same name along its entire length – much less keep the same designation.  A good example of this is Montaño Road, which runs east to west through most of Albuquerque, which changes its identity at where it crosses Interstate 25.  At this point it becomes Montgomery Boulevard.

Please note, neither of these are “streets” or “avenues,” thus violating the neat provision you mentioned earlier that all, uh, roads that run north-south are called “avenues” and all those that run east-west are “streets.”

ALAN: We sometimes have the opposite happening. There’s a street in Auckland called Great South Road which passes through several suburbs. It keeps the same name all the way, but every time it reaches a new suburb the buildings start numbering again from the beginning. So, 42 Great South Road (for example) may well exist in half a dozen locations…

JANE: Oh!  That would be completely maddening.  We do sometimes have streets (or roads or avenues) with the same name, but they usually possess some additional designation, like “SW” or “NW.”  Zip codes (which I believe you guys call “postal codes”) can also help clarify which particular street is indicated.

Is there anything to help you figure out which 42 Great South Road you want or do you need to drive up and down, staring at signs and saying “Ah-hah!  There’s the sign for the eye doctor’s office.  This must be the 42 Great South Road we want!”

ALAN: No, there’s nothing to help you identify the 42 Great South Road that you want. You just have to keep going until you find one that looks right. And if it proves to be the wrong one, you just get back in your car and keep going. However, since the numbering starts again with each new suburb, one possible solution is to wait until you reach the appropriate suburb before you start checking the numbers. Unfortunately this turns out to be a much harder problem to solve because the suburbs aren’t sign-posted…

JANE: That sounds like purest insanity…  I recall an Agatha Christie novel in which the mystery hinged on an incorrectly delivered piece of mail because, at the time the story was written, houses had names, not numbers.  I’d thought that would be impossible these days, but I see the concept could easily be updated to happening in Auckland.

 I think you’d like living in Albuquerque – at least from the question of having an easy solution to being directionally challenged.  Directly east of the city is the great up-thrust bulk of the Sandia Mountains.  This makes it very easy – in fact, nearly impossible not – to know which way is east.  After that, all other directions are easily deduced.

When I first came house hunting here, I was very puzzled that my realtor would give me directions based not on “turn right” or “turn left” but “turn east” or “turn west.”  When I asked her to please clarify, she enlightened me as why she gave directions that way.  After that, I rapidly joined the confident navigators of Albuquerque.

My mother, who, like you, has never been certain about directions, was very impressed when she’d hear me saying things like “Jim, the place we want is just a bit further south.”  We let her in on the secret and, to this day, when she visits us, she will occasionally chirp up with “We’re going north now, aren’t we?” or similar comments, just for the pleasure of it.

ALAN: Oh, your mother is a lady after my own heart. I’d say exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason. Please tell her that we are soul mates.

Meanwhile, there’s an author you mentioned recently in your Friday Fragment who I’d really like to talk about…

JANE: Whisper in my ear… [Listens.]  Oh!  Absolutely!  That would be wonderfully fun.

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9 Responses to “TT: Directionless in the Big City”

  1. Peter Says:

    The best city in the world to try to navigate is arguably Caracas. In the older parts of the city one needn’t worry about remembering whether avenues are N-S or E-W, streets changing name, or multiple streets with the same name. None of these issues ever arises, since the streets have no names at all (there have been efforts to name the streets, but they’ve never stuck); instead, each corner has a name.

    My favourite example of urban planning run amok was the (now-demolished) Tour Drummond on Maisonneuve Boulevard in Montreal. In 1966 when the then-mayor decided to combine five non-connecting downtown streets into a single major throughfare one building was missed, with entertaining results.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      Odd, there’s a similar cut-out federal building in downtown San Diego. Isn’t it stylish?

      In terms of perfectly logical directional systems, there’s the mauka/makai system in Hawai’i. mauka is the uphill (mountain) side, makai is the ocean side (kai is salt water, while wai is fresh water). For people living on the flanks of large volcanic mountains in the middle of the ocean, this is a perfectly sensible way to orient. North, south, east, and west are more for sailing.

      Then there’s the system of the Hupa and other Indians up in northwest California. Their directions are upstream and downstream. The place is extremely mountainous, and the rivers wind like snakes through some deep canyons (think West Virginia with steeper slopes and taller trees). Going in a cardinal direction is an exercise in masochism, so following the streams up or down is one of the best ways to get around. There’s a reason some people think Bigfoot still lives there too. One famous book on the area is called The Klamath Knot.

      • Peter Says:

        Since you brought up the cardinal directions, I thought I’d mention something I saw in a museum recently – a very early (11th century) Chinese magnetic navigational compass (they’d been in use for divinatory purposes for over a millenium at that point).

        It’s called the “south-pointing needle”, so named because the arrow always points south.

        No matter how sensible and logical your directional system appears to be it’s going to give fits to an outsider who doesn’t share your core cultural assumptions.

  2. Katie Says:

    Oh, there are still plenty of ways to confuse the mail carrier in this day and age!

    For instance, Tulsa streets are arranged, for the most part, in a nice grid. They are even logically named, with all East/West streets using numbers that advance from the main railway line (kind of–the railway doesn’t follow the grid, so the numbers only advance from there downtown. A road named Admiral serves as the dividing line farther east). So the first street south of the dividing line is 1st Street, then a tenth of a mile further is 2nd Street, etc. The main roads occur roughly every mile and are the numbers ending in one, so one mile south there is 11th Street, two miles south there is 21st Street, three miles, 31st, etc.

    However, this leads to two points of confusion. First, this numbering system is the same both north and south of the line. There’s a 21st Street North and a 21st Street South. The N or S is included in an address, but rarely in spoken conversation.

    The second confusion is that, if there is more than one road per tenth of a mile, all the roads are given the same number, but different designations. So for instance I live on 27th Place, but there is also a 27th Street and a 27th Terrace. We semi-regularly receive mail addressed to XX 27th Street and have to put it back out to be redelivered. One hopes our neighbors on Street and Terrace are similarly thoughtful!

  3. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Our little iPhone devices can be helpful these days, with their navigational apps.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Actually, we had an odd encounter just last week because of someone navigating via GPS. She’d entered a completely different address than ours, not even the same Zip Code, and she ended up brought to our house.

      Rather delicate situation, as she was escorting someone to a Correctional Facility…

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Hmmm… I hope you have a Get Out of Jail Free card handy. Could be awkward if they won’t let you out your front door anymore.

  4. Roger Ritter Says:

    There are two towns in Massachusetts (unfortunately, I don’t remember their names) that share a street as their boundary. The towns number their houses with the even numbers on the opposite sides of the street, with the result that each number is duplicated on this street. You have to know which town the address refers to in order to identify the actual house.

    On the subject of cardinal directions and maps, many medieval European maps showed East at the top, since that was the direction (more or less) to the Holy Land and Jerusalem.

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