Washington is a modern city, well sort of. It was built in the 18th century and designed by a French planner Pierre L’enfant and is largely based on the recently redesigned Paris. The founding fathers liked what they saw in Paris as the planners had cleverly avoided showing them that the the Arc Du Triomphe was actually an 8 lane, motorists’ nightmare of a death trap. They just saw the nice grid pattern design and the wide boulevards and decided they’d like that for their new capital city. The thing is that it’s not really a grid pattern.
In my last blog I was talking about my OCD for symmetry, so a city based around a grid pattern should be perfect. But Washington is a grid pattern with random roundabouts. Now this is a similar pattern for Paris. Rumour has it that when Pierre was designing Washington he had no ideas, so in a bit of procrastination he thought he would mark up his design paper. He very carefully spent the morning drawing horizontal and vertical lines on his paper in preparation for his design for Emperor Napoleon’s new city. But he still had no ideas. But it was lunch time, so in true French fashion Monsieur L’enfant cracked open a bottle of red for his 3 hour lunch and decided to come back to it later. As he absent-mindedly looked out the window, thinking about which mistress’ turn it was this evening, he was rudely awakened from his daydreaming there by a knock at the door. Such was the shock he spluttered and drops of wine fell from his lips and landed on his beautifully drawn graph paper. The wine splashed and left radiating patterns on the clean sheet.
When he answered the door there was the president who had made an impromptu call to check up on his plans. He went over to L’enfants drawing board and saw the beautiful grid pattern with the radiating streets. Washington declared to the Frenchman in his native tongue “C’est Bon” (which translates as “this is sick dude”) and the grid pattern with streets radiating from roundabouts was formed. If Pierre had been eating a Pot Noodle when Washington knocked, our cities may have looked very different. (This is all true by the way. I haven’t just made it up to kill time on a boring flight or anything like that).
The other problems that old cities had were street names. London is awash with various named streets, lanes and roads. Most UK towns are. Some of them are logical eg Wigan Road in Ormskirk leads to Wigan and Ormskirk Road in Wigan leads to Ormskirk. The problem is that they aren’t necessarily the same road and the road has about half a dozen name changes along the way. The system devised for Washington was simple; the streets that run North South are all numbered from one upwards (starting at the Capitol) and all the streets running East West are letters. There seems to be something slightly impersonal about naming a street just a letter or a number. I know that Washington is not alone in this system though. They tried it out in Washington as well. Washington Tyne and Wear that is. When they developed the new town area in the 1960’s they just gave area numbers to the 15 new villages. They soon gave that up as a bad job and now they all have names, but Washington DC still has the the numbers and letters only system.
The problem with the grid iron system is that whilst it’s very organised, it’s also a bit dull, as there are no shortcuts. The only way you can navigate the system is in straight lines up, down or across like an etch-a-sketch. There are no little back lanes to avoid the traffic; no secret routes, just up, down or across. The other down side to all this is that every junction is the same, and there are a lot of them. We did seem to spend half the time we were in Washington waiting at intersections to cross the road. But the worst thing about the system are those flaming radial roads. Throwing a diagonal into the mix means that some blocks aren’t squares but triangles or rhombuses or other non uniform shapes and suddenly it’s chaos. After only a few hours here I was institutionalised into the etch-a-sketch system and pow! it suddenly went all spiroscope. I was stood at the junction of P, 18th and Massachusetts Avenue (oh yeah, the diagonals have names) stumped as to where I was going.