Thursday, March 15, 2012

How can we Function in Society if we Don't Know Where we are?


"If you don't know where you are, that's probably because you don't belong here". My mother told me this was an old New England credo referring to visitors venturing forth through the Boston area. I could see this being true. Streets are curvaceous; signs are sparse or non-existent; there can be many one-way roads and rotaries all up in your grill. The Boston area is tough to get around and I think this causes more problems than we think and I think we could find a creative way for everything just to make a bit more sense navigationally speaking.  

We have our MBTA system which can work despite it's massive deficit. However, any lateral movement is strikingly difficult as the subway only goes inbound or outbound. I can't begin to fathom taking the T  to Brookline, Allston or Dorchester as those coordinates are sideways to my current position, nor would I ever want to begin to set foot on the notorious B-section of the green line which is slower than Satan. There is also the complaint that the city's public transit system shuts down at the ripe hour of 12:30ish (you can't actually peg that final departing to a exact T). Like Cinderalla needing to return from the ball, having a night out afar from home will have you watching the clock with a fervor knowing that if you miss that midnight train, you'll be ragged, alone and deathly. 

Never get on this color train if you can avoid it!

Navigating by car or walking can be nothing sorts of treacherous. Overall this city is incredibly windy and at some point you just end up on Storrow drive when that was the last thing you ever wanted to do. Signs for major roads and highways are present but sometimes they seem to merely tease you as some other obstacle overwhelms your every whim and thwarts any chance of trying to reach I-90. There are one way streets that not only take you one way, but also manage to trap you in an area you didn't intend. Signs can often not be seen, and roads seem to morph into a different avenue like a developing tad pole that starts to grow legs and lose it's tail. I once circled around the Charles River 3.5 times; hugging and cursing it as I went in between Cambridge and Boston like I was playing a goddam game of duck-duck goose. I don't like that game.  Then for some reason I ended up in Dorchester. I don't know how I got there and nor will I ever know. 

You can't get there from here - Harvard Square
"You can't get there from here" situation in Boston.., 
I can get lost a lot. I've probably spent 3 - 7 years of my life trying to navigate things ineffectively. I absolutely lack a sense of direction and will be the first to admit that. However, my millions of minutes spent going the wrong way, going in circles, or actually going inside myself like a turtle is not completely the fault of my poorly developed cognitive maps. Our region does this to people, maybe deliberately. Not only is New England hard to navigate, but it also has the ability to sully any meaningful chance to develop a sense of spatial intelligence. Nothing makes any sense, at all. Our puritan ancestor released cows in different directions and there movement is what determined our current roads. Thank you everyone and all parties involved.

It is my belief this is something that we jest about, but it's more of a problem for society than we give it credit for. When I am getting lost in this city, what I'm most shocked about is not the amount of time it takes me to find my destination, but its the fact that most people around me seem to have no clue where my destination is either.

Doesn't know where is right now...
 I'll ask people, lots of people because boy am I sure lost, but often they won't know where a street, school, restaurant or baseball stadium are and they're walking dogs and stuff! Surely they live in the area if they're walking their dogs and surely if they live in the area they'll know where Putnam avenue is in Cambridge. It's a major street or artery but nobody seems to know where it is! One guy sent me the wrong way and another guy told me I should just give up, he can't help me and I won't make it to my job interview on time and won't amount to much with my life. Ok, that's an exaggeration.

I just think that this robs us of so much potential movement. Bostons not that big of a place. However, if you're continually getting lost, or can't conceptualize how to get somewhere it seems far larger than it should be. We can't have as much of a sense of community because we can't trust that we'll get to where we need to go. I don't see friends because I don't think I can find where they'll be. It's harder than you think to find Bridgie's house in Savin Hill, Dorchester even though I'm at Ashmont in Dorchester and I'll probably end up on 93 by accident. I have ice cream in my backpack as I bicycle along  Kendall Square, trying in vain to make it to a casual get-together, but this square is just too loopy and the Ben and Jerrys has now melted into goop. Davis Square had me walking the shape of a trapezoid for 43 minutes one New  Years Eve and missing that ball drop. I didn't care, but it was just the principle of the thing. The confusingness of our roads, and the lack of labeling causes so many missed moments and a lack of confidence in engaging with our communities.

Davis is not a square for for the tame of heart...

Obviously I don't think we should have another massive construction project to make our roads logical. As smooth as the Big Dig was, we might want to take a break from rebuilding a quarter of our city inefficiently. What can we do then? Well I think back to a book called "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. Now, I can assure you that I didn't like this book but basically it espoused that often there are very easy steps that cause a massive amount of change for how simple and easy they are. What a delight! The author gave some reasonable examples, but I think in Boston, we could find a tipping point in our city by drastically improving the signs, labelling, maps and aides that would help us know how to get from point A to point B.

At the very least, spending a concerted effort labeling our roads consistently and clearly would help. Whomever doesn't take part in this endeavor and should maybe could be punched in the face. But maybe thinking about the types of signs necesarry to navigate our stupid streets would be good. More visuals. Way more labeling of the building numbers would just be very easy and doable. There could be significantly more landmark signs... good ones. More street maps could be everywhere, not just at T stations but bus stops, restaurants and everywhere. Store owners should be fined if they're unable to provide citizens with directions (ok that's stupid).

If you want to get fancy which you don't have to, you could even have computer kiosks at major intersections and streets. That might be neat. People could operate a little kiosk loaded with google maps and on those days when I'm rushing to an educational program that I don't even know exists I might be able to actually get a sense of where it is. Pretty soon we'll have wonderful robot drones navigating the american landscape with us. As these robots take the time to photograph us and infringe on our civil liberties, maybe they could at least be programmed to help give us directions! What possibilities!

Could help me navigate Somerville before it destroyed everything we've accomplished as a civilization

So I don't know how to deal with this. I'm not Cecil-the-city-planner over here or something. Nor can I be certain that other people feel as strongly about this as I do as they're probably more reasonable than I am and know which direction North is when they see a map. However, just maybe, this might be a tipping point that could improves our commerce and sociability with one another. This could maybe be a cheap fix that could actually improve the livability of a our city and make us less like the miserable abominations we've been acting like all these years.


Josh Graciano said...

Your link to Putnam Ave links to Putnam St in Fitchburg. I know where Putnam Ave is, but I can't tell you how to drive there because I don't know where you're going- it is narrow and there is no parking. It's useful to avoid Harvard Sq or to route a U Haul van around the parkway section of Soldier's Field Road. And that long detour around Cambridge Common is evil.

And here's a tip- when I go someplace new I look it up in my Boston area road atlas, check parking availability with the Google Street View, and draw a simple map on white paper with a black pen. I've never been "lost" more than a block or two, except once, way out in the country when I went west instead of east.

DefEnjoyment said...

Thank you for your delightful insight.