Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where the streets get their name

Hardly a post goes by that I don't tally up the time I've been living in the DC area (surely a sign that I need to stop living here)! But in all this time of being a quasi-Washingtonian, in all this time I've spent strolling up and down the streets of our capital city, I never once noticed that the convention of naming streets alphabetically continues past W street!

Why the city does not see fit to have an X street is beyond me--surely it would be no more confusing than having a street whose name looks both like a lowercase L and a number 1, causing people to actually write its name out as "Eye" street, which thoroughly offends some as-yet-unidentified sensibility in me for some as-yet-unidentified reason--and certainly it would be no worse than putting a 51st Avenue right next to a 51st Place, and then dividing both of them in zigzaggy halves like they do in College Park -- but I guess that's beside the point.

Why the city thinks it's a good idea to have the streets be named with the same letters both north and south of Capitol St. is also beyond me. Do you know how disorienting it is to be trying to find your way out of the Cherry Bowl (I mean the Tidal Basin) and back to L'Enfant Plaza which you know is at the corner of D St. and 7th, and to see that you're at C street, and go north where you know (because you used to work at P street and were quite comfortable with going north to get there from L Street) you should find D street, but instead find B street, and be utterly bewildered and turn around and head south again, but then follow D street until it dead ends without finding L'Enfant Plaza, and turn back north and decide to take the Smithsonian Metro, but then see a tantalizing sign pointing you toward L'Enfant Plaza, and follow it, not realizing that -- Oh, I guess that's beside the point too.

But for that matter, why do they name the streets with the same numbers both east and west of - get this - Capitol Street! How can one street be both a north-south divider and an east-west divider!? It is because the city planners in Washington liked to play elaborate practical jokes on future generations! But that's beside the point too, because the point is really that the streets are named alphabetically beyond W street, and that only happens in the north direction. I'm sure it would happen in the south direction, too, if there weren't a river and the state of Virginia in the way after you hit V Street.

A few weeks ago (yes, it has taken me that long to get my thoughts on this subject into coherent form), while trolling the blogs of friends' friends in a desperate bid to not be bored, I read that after W, the east-west streets begin to be named with 2-syllable words in alphabetical order. When the supply of 2-syllable words has run out, the names continue with 3-syllable words. Shocked, I checked it on my map of DC which is really too big to be used in DC, but is apparently a very effective at-home reference. Amazing: Adams St., Bryant St., Channing St., and on and on it goes. I'm so appalled that I didn't notice this, because I myself long ago came up with the notion that it would be a lot cooler if streets were not named merely by letter, but by words fitting a theme, such as: Apple Road, Banana Road, Cherry Road, and on. Washington DC follows a theme, but a decidedly unexciting one of "surnames."

At least, that's what I thought, until I put away the cumbersome paper map and resorted to Google Maps, which showed me that north of Whittier Street, you will find find Aspen Street, then Butternut Street, then Cedar St., then Dahlia St., then you get the picture. The theme is trees! They've done what I always wanted a city to do but never actually thought I would see! Of course, beyond that, the nice gridlike layout pretty much falls apart, and you get messes like Walnut street curving northeast and becoming Elm Ave., which branches off into Pine Ave., and then it's to blazes with the alphabet, let's just name some streets after random Civil War era generals and political figures!