STREET SMART IN THE STATES
December 5, 1999
"Go up about four blocks. It is on the corner of Peachtree and Ralph McGill." What might such a person be talking about? They might be giving you directions to a building in downtown.
As I travel around the world, I notice different types of plans for laying out cities. The French like important landmarks encircled by roads, and other streets connecting the circles. The Germans prefer their streets in orderly grids. Bogota, Colombia had the most interesting city street system I have encountered. The city was laid out in a grid, with diagonal streets called (what else?) Diagonales, slanted across the squares.
Since the USA was settled by different nationalities, it is common to see different types of road arrangements in different cities. Many flat cities like New York are laid out in grids. They are easy for you to navigate! Streets might simply be named "First," "Second," "Third," etc. A visitor would immediately know if he was going in the right direction, and how many more streets he had to travel to reach the destination. Streets running in the other direction (say East to West) might be named by letters of the alphabet, or might be called avenues instead of streets.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa is a lovely Midwestern city arranged this way. The streets are even the same distance apart. You Czechs have German neighbors, and are probably acquainted with their orderly and regimented ways. I find American towns that were settled by Germans often have streets named in this fashion.
Down here in the South, things are much less organized. A street may be named a Lane, Trail, Circle, Boulevard, Avenue, or Way. There does not seem to be much reasoning behind it, except that a Circle is always circular.
Atlanta is the big city close to me. It is very confusing to navigate. One street may have more than one name. As you are driving along it, it suddenly takes on a new name. A traveler may think he took a wrong turn, but really did not. We also have streets that keep the same name while changing directions many times. The traveler may start by going North, but is confused when the same street suddenly starts to veer west! I find that in hilly cities like Atlanta, streets do not continue in a straight direction for long, but have all sorts of curves.
Compared to other nations, it is rarer in the US that streets are named after famous people or important holidays. There are exceptions, however. One could hardly travel to any major city in the US and not find a street named after Martin Luther King, Jr. In Georgia, it is more usual to name highways (enormous roads) after heroes. In Atlanta, we have the "Larry McDonald Freeway." It was named after a congressman killed when the Russians shot down his airliner over Korea.
Have you ever wondered who names our streets? It is usually private businessmen. Here is how it works. Most new houses are built in clusters called subdivisions, because the owners subdivide the land to sell to builders. My parents are building their third community of new houses or "subdivision." One of the duties of the developer is to plan all the streets, pave them, and then name them.
One might think this would be fun, but after a while it exhausts one's imagination. Many people have fun naming streets. Once I saw a street named "Lois Lane." Of course you might remember that a woman named Lois Lane was the girlfriend of Superman! Often developers utilize a common theme in naming streets, reflecting the name of the entire subdivision. (The entire subdivision, or group of houses, usually has a name, although it is not a city.) One subdivision I visited was named "Sherwood Forest." It had street names from the English literary classic "Robin Hood." My parents are using all Native American names for the streets in their latest group of houses. Their subdivision's name is "Ocoee Woods."
Of course, later the people can petition the city to rename a street, if they do not like it or wish it named something else. Near my house, a street named Stewart Avenue aquaired a terrible reputation. It became known as a street associated with prostitution and murder. So to calm the peoples' fear about that neighborhood, city politicians merely renamed the street "Dogwood Trail." You see, that was so much easier than stopping all the crime on the street!
Here is a picture of the street corner nearest my house in Hapeville. So if you ever fly in the Atlanta International Airport, please stop by and see me in the little brick house, #3211, near the corner of Lily and Hope Streets!
by Kim Henry - USA, writes a lot of political and social commentary
© December 1999 English on the Internet www.aj.cz