Preparing to turn right onto 7th Avenue NE in 800 ft. I took a trip out to the coast this past weekend, and during that time I employed the direction/navigation capabilities of my phone quite often. At one point during a hike, I checked to see where I was via GPS. To which it responded that I was forty feet out to sea. Now, I’m guessing that was inaccurate because I wasn’t swimming or sinking at the time, but I didn’t really stop to verify. Mostly because I was drowning.
I could’ve used a map. In fact, I probably should’ve used a map. I say this because it felt like I just followed directions for 500 miles. That sort of direction learning works for others, but decidedly not for me. To get a good feel for a location I need to look over a map and discover all of the lies within it (no, that street does not connect to that street if you’re coming north you deceitful piece of paper). Baring that, I need to get lost and have to figure it out myself. For instance, I will never forget that Woodward and Telegraph do not ever connect. I know this because Manish and I spent nearly two hours in high school proving that point by driving and being utterly lost.
GPS and digital maps provide a sort of shortcut. They assist in getting around immediately, at perhaps a longer term cost of navigation. Now, I’m not going to get into a big love-in with the majesty of the GPS navigation/mapping here. Nor am I going to rail against the numb-nuttery and misunderstanding associated with the technology. Mostly because others have already done it better. What I do want to discuss is the nature of a city as it relates to geography, navigation and one’s integration into it.
Every city is unique in its layout and underlying transit philosophy. These can vary from the relatively sensible, to the “compromise leaves no-one happy” schools of thought. What I find the common theme to be is, that in order to feel connection and belonging to a city you need to understand how to navigate it. There are a lot of aspects to this, but I’m most interested in the social and psychological portions.
Socially, and this may be because I’m from Michigan but I don’t think so, navigation and directions are a huge conversation topic. Everyone has their favorite way to get somewhere and their road that they will avoid at 4:30 on a Thursday because they spent half a goddamn hour there and they couldn’t understand what’s so hard about getting over before the road narrows but apparently other people couldn’t master it so there you go. Same thing goes for traffic and how long it takes to get somewhere. The discussion of how long it took because 267 is backed up, or that Frank and Liz will be late because the bridge was up for Fleet Week are an important part of socializing. Belonging somewhere is all about comfort and if you’re not comfortable bitching about traffic, transit, road closures and bus delays then I don’t think you’ve achieved belonging with a city.
Furthering on the belonging is comfort and exploring another connection to navigation is the way in which we “know how to get around”. There’s a lot to be said about the anxiety of being lost, or not knowing to get to/back from somewhere. Now, GPS does a lot to alleviate this. It gives a lot of people the ability to get somewhere they’ve never been confidently. However, I don’t think it’s enough. I think there’s a certain physical change that occurs when you “get” a city, when you know your way around it. A feeling like when a key makes in a lock. That knowing, that comfort with a city has a lot to do with belonging to it.
I don’t belong to Seattle yet. It’s a little standoffish, as cities go. Portland was welcoming, Northern Virginia delightfully batty and Detroit was just blood knowledge. Seattle though, I think I’m gonna have to try. I guess this was a long way of saying I’m going to get coffee in Bell Town and if you don’t hear back from me tell my mother I love her. Also, that it’s probably best to just through away the yellow toolbox without opening it. I’m just saying.