Sunday, 13 November 2016

The Great American Grid System

I recently had reason to walk up and down a lot of streets in America, with a list of addresses to knock on. Specifically, on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. I found the experience kind of fascinating.

You know how when you hear American addresses they always have at least four digits in them? Like, say, 7606 Jefferson Avenue, or, you know, 1600 Pennsylvania. It's always bothered me - why do they have so many numbers? I mean, I know American streets are long but surely there's nowhere in the country with sixteen thousand separate addresses on the same street? Right?

Probably not. But what I learned in Cleveland is that there is in fact a wonderful genius to house number conventions in America.

In England, you start at one end of the street with house 1, and you keep going upwards to the end of the street - that's it. Most times the odd and even numbers are on separate sides of the street, but sometimes they're not - either way it's very easy to find where you're going.

In America this simply isn't good enough for them. Remember - streets stretch for many miles with hundreds of homes - if you were given an address in English format you could be driving up and down for a long time before you found your destination (longer if you're walking, which of course you're not, because America).

So to start with, American addresses are coded by block - this is the first two digits of the four-digit house number. Many US cities have street names that are literally numbers, but even where they aren't, each street is secretly coded a different number. So if you're cruising down Pennsylvania, you're meeting cross streets at the end of each block - when you cross 16th Street, all the houses suddenly start with 16 (in DC there's only one house on this block, but in other cities there might not be!).

Of course, it's complicated by the fact that many cross streets have names that aren't numbers - then the first two digits are less obvious, but they still go up by one at the end of each block. Plus, they may be coded differently according to which direction of the grid system they follow. In Cleveland, all streets going east-west have five digit addresses, like my office at 14600 Detroit Ave, while the north-south streets have regular four digit ones. The extra digit is simply a 1 at the beginning and only exists to tell you which direction the street is going.

Then there's another complication that the numbering convention also manages to account for: many streets never intersect with some of their cross streets. Certain blocks are much longer than others because a given cross street might dead-end somewhere and then restart further along the city, owing, I assume, to the vagaries of city planning. In these cases, at least in Cleveland, the house numbers will suddenly jump at the point in the street where you reach the phantom cross-street. So you will be going along from 3618, 3622, 3626 and suddenly you get 3700, 3704 and so on, seemingly for no reason. This filled me with great dismay for many days until I worked out that the sudden jumps corresponded exactly to the longitudinal or latitudinal degree along which 37th street lies (continuing this example) somewhere in the city - even though it doesn't actually intersect this street. This is super satisfying because it means that, theoretically, someone with perfect geographical omniscience could determine with horrifying accuracy the exact position of your house on the globe based solely on four digits and a street name.

You may have noticed in the above example that the house numbers along one side of the street go up in fours. Again - totally bizarre at first but there is in fact a brilliant method to the madness. In England they go up by twos because odds and evens face each other. And Cleveland is very strict about this rule as well. But in America there is a lot of space, and houses tend to be larger and detached - there are often luxurious lawns between them, even in impoverished neighbourhoods, and the houses themselves are so big that many sometimes get split into two flats.

So counting in fours is a precautionary measure. Often, extra addresses need to be inserted between two existing houses - either because one house has been split in two or because a new house has simply been built in the wide spaces between them. In these cases, a new address is needed, and the jumping by four allows for it - if you need to number a new house between 3618 and 3622, you can just call it 3620 and there is no need to resort to any of this 3618A letter nonsense you see in England.

A final point: American addresses are very good at being in the right place. If you're at number 3618, chances are the house directly across the street is 3617. If houses on one side space out or bunch up more than the other side, then certain numbers are omitted to make sure that everything stays in sync.

Who came up with this beautiful, if byzantine, set of rules and systems for house naming I do not know - it's like they speak directly to my obsessive compulsive soul. What it perhaps reflects is a deep rooted Protestant bureaucracy in the country's founding DNA, the same neurotic impulse that lies at the heart of, um, racism and discrimination, the need for all things to be in their right places. But I will note that while the system itself is rigid, it also offers opportunities for more creative expression: the actual numbers on the houses are displayed in a wide variety of forms and fonts, occasionally hinting at artistic yearnings begging to be let loose. In England, the printed numerals are all discrete and uniform, but the system as a whole wanders hopelessly without the slightest ambition towards science or precision.

So we have the great American Grid System, laid atop the atomic populace like a glass sheet over neat rows of lifeless - but glorious - butterflies, each entirely unique. And one more thing: everybody in Ohio has a dog. Everybody. If that's not a sign of a very serious maladjustment at the core of American society I don't know what is.