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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

What's In a Name?


THERE'S A DAVID FOSTER WALLACE ESSAY I like in which he describes--with typically copious footnotes and side thoughts that rival even my ability to digress--the detriments and graces of growing up in the rectilinear world of Southern Illinois and Indiana.  The Northwest Territories were set out into blocks of equally-sized counties by Thomas Jefferson, and the land provides no distinguishable feature outside of acres and acres of corn.  Wallace said he got thrust into his first year at Cornell in the rustic hills of Ithaca New York essentially unprepared for the geography of the real world.  In the essay, he attributes much of his interest in higher math to his rural surroundings, as if calculus and trig had been writ-large on some giant computer grid with homes and farms.

EVEN OUTSIDE OF NEW ENGLAND, everyone knows that the region has haphazard streets, and so I'm not entirely surprised to find that, after my first full-year here, there's been a similar adjustment period from leaving Philadelphia.  The most prominent example of this regional meandering is Boston, with its cow-paths-turned-boulevards.  It's lucky that Boston has a good train system, because trying to get around by any other means could be lengthy and confusing.  Boston's layout, just like Providence's, follows the organic growth of its people more or less just as they happened to decide to put down houses or mills. 

Organic growth is a decidedly un-Philadelphian thing to do.  Not very Quaker, for sure.  William Penn, who was full of utopian zeal about freedom of religion and the rights of the individual (sound like anywhere else?) took his thoughts a step further into the realm of public space.  He named his City of Brotherly Love the next "Greene Countrie Towne" and sought to erase all mistakes of past cities from its face.  Despite plenty of trees, wooden structures were banned in place of much more costly brick to banish the possibility the still-remembered Great London Fire.  City streets were set out on a grid of perfect squares, with equidistant quadrilaterals of park space at intervals.  North-south arterials were numbered--a completely new thing--while all the cross streets were named after tree species.  Very orderly, very silence-on-First-Day, very Society of Friends.

The William Penn utopian in me says, "What is this mess?"
EVEN OLD NEW YORK WAS ONCE NEW AMSTERDAM, and at that time until the construction of the Erie Canal, Philly was the second largest city in the English-speaking world and experimenting with things urban NYC hadn't even thought of.  New York copied its now more famous grid from us.  That's why, when you wander below Delancy Street in Manhattan, you suddenly feel thrust into Europe.  Suddenly there are no avenues and streets neatly numbered to let you know where you are.

And Philly takes its grid to a level that New York never did.  So unprepared for life did my home city leave me, that I got lost in Bed. Stuy. one night because the street signs didn't politely inform me of their arterial direction and "hundred" block in a way that could alert me ahead of time of how long a walk I was in for.  Even in the suburbs of Philly, people are inclined to say things like "I grew up on the twelve-hundred block of Roosevelt Drive" which instantly gives everyone around an exact sense of what part of that street you grew up on even if the person lives several miles away on the other side of town (Rachel and I even had some fun with this the other day, when she mailed a postcard to our friend Amy.  Amy's address on Crease Street was someplace I'd never heard of in the city, but I could figure out by the fact that it was name-street and the number in front of it exactly where it was in the city.  Nerdy, but fun!).  

Not in Bed. Stuy.  235 might be the end of a block, only to have 245 start the next one.  The two-hundreds might stretch for a mile, and then the threes will pop up and disappear like crocuses in spring, to have the four hundreds rear their head and stay for another mile.  I found myself, a humble Indiana boy really, trying to figure his way through Ithaca hill country.

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GRIDS ARE NOT FOR EVERYONE.  Places as different as Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Paris were built on wagon wheels, of all things.  Venice was built on marshes that constricted it into canals. Clearly, if there was nothing fabled about having cowpaths for roads, people wouldn't keep coming back to New England to vacation.  That said, I would like to suggest one thing that can be easily changed to merge the advantages of grid with cowpath.  When a street does happen to go the same direction contiguously for some time, it should keep the same name--at least until town borders arrive.  In a city like Providence, attempting to build on its walkability, having streets that are more navigable goes a long way.

For example, is there any good reason why Smith Hill's Oakland Avenue should change its name first to Raymond Avenue, then Dean Street, then Cahir, Stewart, and finally Prairie Avenue?  Like 'Gansett swampahs that nevah go nahth of the Towah, the habit of naming one continuous street several different things for no reason leaves us unnecessarily provincial and lost.  It's no wonder that the average Rhode Islander I talk to knows his or her highway exit, but not how to get to their house on a back street.

Why does Empire suddenly change into Chestnut Street?  Is that to inform us that we've left the Earth and gone to the Moon (admittedly, the potholes might give you this impression)?  Can't Chestnut just be called S. Empire (or for francophile flare, Second Empire)?

Steeple Street has enough charm without its own name.
Is there a reason for us to have a Washington Street that turns into a Waterman?  They're the same street! 

Westminster, since I-95 was built, has been cut off from itself, but manages to name itself Westminster again on the other side of the highway.  But the completely continuous journey it makes to College Street--which is only a few blocks long in its own right--nonetheless requires a name change.

The oddest example of this phenomenon is Angell, which near its eastern terminus is two streets, N. and S. Angell, then merges to one street, briefly becomes Steeple not at the top but in the middle of College Hill, then Exchange, only to change yet again a block later into Sabin, and then Broadway.  

We should just call Broad Street Weybosset the whole way.  Weybosset is a much cooler word, and having a Broad Street so close to Broadway is confusing.

Now, when you tell people they should change their street names, you're going a bit further than advocating for mere bike lanes or better bus service--which is why, even though I've wanted to write some version of this article for a while, so far I've kept my precocious thoughts to myself.  Advocating name changes to landmarks feels like suddenly asking people to drop their dialect, or stop speaking a native tongue, or throw out their grandmother's rosaries.  So, maybe in some cases, like where a street name defines a neighborhood, we could keep two names.  I don't particularly want to find my house on a side-street of Angell.  It just doesn't feel right, not even to me.  And I'm sure many Brown students wouldn't like waking up on Broadway.  But why Steeple Street?  The idea, I'm sure, is to create a "sense of place", but if the place being honored is only a block long, why not just do so through the still-standing structure rather than confusing tourists who might want to pass through?

The other reason people might feel resistant to change is that conquering a poorly-managed road system feels like a feather in one's cap.  A friend related to me once that she had visited a Japanese village in which all of the houses were numbered not by geography, but by how old the house was.  A person who didn't know the whole history of the town couldn't get through it.  And that was exactly how the residents wanted it.  Just like the seasoned RIPTA rider who knows the transfers between one number bus and another, this inches-to-feet-to-yards-to-fathoms conversion adds wrinkles to the gray matter.  And since Rhode Island prides itself on never leaving Rhode Island, provinciality may not be something it minds being criticized for.

My guess, though, is that people will stop telling me to turn right at where the Dunkin Donuts used to be if we add--some, just a little--order to this chaos.  Hey, maybe we could even fade-in arterial direction markers on the signs as they're replaced.  After all, it's a lot harder to figure out which way is north here.  It might help the traffic, the pollution, and the tourist revenue.


Small Correction:  Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile blog, who grew up in rural Indiana, said that the southern part of the state has a topography similar to Rhode Island.  It's possible, then, that the DFW essay I referenced might have been about some other parts of Illinois/Indiana--maybe the central parts?

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