I’m the first to admit I’m directionally challenged. I grew up in a neat post-World War II suburban grid in Southern California. The numbered streets—1st through 17th—ran in straight lines, bisected by named streets—Central, Electric, Landing—bordered by the beach to the west and Pacific Coast Highway to the east. I was never lost, not even walking the newer subdivisions with curving streets and cul-de-sacs.
The thing about the streets in all the towns I’ve called home is that the numbers never repeated and the vast majority of the streets had names that didn’t change as the road meandered. In college, I spent a summer in Washington D.C., studying its architecture. I learned about Pierre L’Enfant designing the city’s grid with its alphabetic streets (A, B, C) running one direction, numbers the other, diagonals named after states, and quadrants designating their location (NW, SE, etc.). It’s an idea planners have adopted throughout the country.
While the grid system might work well in D.C., with just the Potomac running through it, plunk that urban design onto peninsulas with coves, bays, fingers, spits, harbors and lakes, and you end up with the same street number making appearances miles apart as if the road ran underwater and we simply pop up in our submersibles, trundling down the same avenue.
And why would anyone think it a good idea for a street to change numbers every time the terrain curves? Once I type in my desired address, Siri often tells me that 322nd street makes a slight right and becomes 425th Avenue, only to revert back at the next curve. Why not give the long and winding road a name?
And compass points mean nothing to us directionally challenged. When I began driving years ago and visited my grandparents on my own, my grandfather would say, “Turn south on Nordoff, then east on Dearborn.”
“Grandpa,” I’d reply, “I need left or right.”
“Is that the corner with the old boat?” a longtime KP resident asked when I gave him directions to my house recently. I’m told that’s the way most folks who’ve been here a while navigate: by landmark. And why not? The red barn, the split-rail fence, the church on the corner—we can see them, store them in memory, find our way back a second time. But the grid numbers and compass points—there’s no image to latch onto.
Last month’s Key Peninsula News reported that Pierce County planners will be changing up to 10,000 addresses on the Key and nearby islands to aid in 911 response in our cellphone age. I’m all in favor of helping first responders find me. Is it too much to hope that the new system will help Siri and me understand the lay of the land?
Cathy Warner lives in Wauna.