Off the Grid

The grid is one of the oldest forms of urban development. The Romans, for example, used it across their transcontinental empire almost without exception. They plopped cookie-cutter cities in newly conquered territories to such exacting specifications that once you entered the gates, you generally knew which way you had to go to reach the important civic centers and public spaces. It was all laid out roughly the same.
America too once favored the almighty grid. Our historic districts are overwhelmingly grid-based, with only a few notable exceptions. Whether you live in Indianapolis or Phoenix, the serpentine subdivisions many of us call home often exist only as aberrations within a rigid, unending tessellation of squares and rectangles. From the sky, vast stretches of our country are revealed as an unnervingly precise patchwork quilt of farms and cities.
So what made us change? Why are we moving away from the grid? The answer is easy: the car. The modern American landscape is a chaotic mishmash of freeways, parking lots, cul-de-sacs and garages, all designed explicitly for or because of the automobile. It’s completely unprecedented, and yet, feels shockingly normal. It’s hard to imagine America before the car. It existed, sure – but then again, did it really? I mean… how? 
Cedar Falls, Iowa, my new temporary home as my fiancée completes her latest contract as an occupational therapist, is like a miniature of American development patterns. It’s a river city from the 1800s, with a classic brick Main Street surrounded by a neighborhood of quaint homes set to a tidy grid.
 Houses in Cedar Falls. The mix of styles and ideas is what makes the city interesting.
But then, as you move farther away from Main Street, strict adherence to the grid abruptly stops, and the winding subdivisions of the ’60s and ’70s take over. There’s a mall and big box stores.  Past that, armies of beige McMansions stand in waiting, determined to stamp out any last traces of individuality. 
The Ride of the McMansions. Cue the Wagner.
A city of about 40,000 people, Cedar Falls is the perfect size to take in the various stages of urban evolution without straining yourself. There’s even a university, and it too runs the whole gamut of development fads.
Downtown Cedar Falls. (Original photo by David Wilson.)
I, as you’d probably guess, favor the old neighborhood built on the classic grid. The blocks are short; it’s pleasant, slower-paced, and friendly to pedestrians. Atomic ranches rub shoulders with eccentric 19th century manors. The big Midwestern trees rattle and shine in the wind like jewelry. 
You never know who you’ll run into, either. 
There was the old lady taking in her garbage can that told me, mysteriously, “It never ends.” A truer statement about trash I’ve never heard.
Then there’s that dude that always loves the weather. “Hello! What a beautiful day. It doesn’t get better than this, does it?” Nope.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the erstwhile crossing guard that stoically mans her post as school lets out, probably no older than 10. “Which way?” That way. “OK!” She lowers a big yellow pole with the red “STOP” flag on it in front of the crosswalk, and I always make it to the other end safely.
You wouldn’t get that kind of life-affirming interaction driving – only the radio playing the same songs again and again, beating you mercilessly over the head with advertisements. If you notice any other drivers, it’s usually because that person cut you off. The other day, a motorcyclist almost careened into the back of our car because he wasn’t paying attention. It’s enough to make you lose faith in humanity. Don’t you care about the safety of yourself and others?
Of course, as a driver, I loathe the grid with a passion and avoid Main Street unless there’s a business there I want to visit. It’s like I have a split personality. The speed limit is annoyingly low, and you never know when a kid on a bike or skateboard is about to pop out of nowhere to  give you a scare. I can’t wait to reach the safe and fast suburban roads.
I’m sure the people living in the old neighborhood hate it when college kids race through, late for class. The residential streets, straight as an arrow, are ideal shortcuts for impatient drivers. Red lights are few and far between, only stop signs – and you can treat those like yield signs and get away with it 99.99% of the time. That’s why newer subdivisions look like mazes and cul-de-sacs are popular with parents. 
I can still remember my neighbor Jim in Sterling Heights, Michigan, screaming at the top of his lungs whenever a car whizzed by at 45 MPH. “HEY ASSHOLE, KIDS LIVE HERE! MY KIDS PLAY IN THIS STREET!” I’m sure in his mind, the more maze-like the neighborhood the better.
Now, as for all those freeways and huge parking lots? Hey, everyone wants to get to where they’re going as fast as possible, and no one wants to waste time hunting down a parking spot. Complain about the freeways all you want, but if you to drive somewhere far, you’ll take the freeway whenever possible.
You couldn’t have stopped the changes that transformed the development of towns like Cedar Falls no more than you could stop a speeding car by standing in front of it with your hand out. But are we as a species better off this way, disconnected from tradition and time-tested ways of living?
I’m not so sure.

5 thoughts on “Off the Grid

  1. I don’t have any recommended readings, unfortunately. I read, almost by happenstance, about Thomas Jefferson’s ideas for urban planning. That got me started. Then I bought Earl Swift’s The Big Roads, which explores the creation of the Interstate in full detail, which gave me some new perspectives. After that, I just devoured whatever I could find on Google.

    I do want to make another post on this topic. I want to compare an old 1800s panoramic map of a city to what exists now. The government has a nice digital collection of really nicely scanned historic panoramic maps:

    Unfortunately, the only panoramic maps of Cedar Falls and Waterloo appear to be hiding somewhere in the Cedar Falls Historical Society’s archives. I’m sending “the society” an e-mail about that today, actually. It’d be nice if I could undertake the project in my own backyard.

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