Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cannonball Read #32: Grand Avenues, by Scott W. Berg

I love well-researched historical works about how tweaky the people who put this country together were. These were men destined to be lionized, and of course they have been -again, they made a country from scratch in a way almost no other nation has had the opportunity to do - but I think it's a wonderful reminder that in the end, they were men. Brave men, rigorous men, brilliant men, but also flawed and confused men in an alien situation. I think it's a shame that we don't talk more about the humanity and the foibles of the Founding Fathers. To me, the idea that anyone can aspire to be as great as these people is nice, but it's even more wonderful that in this country, the common man can become the new generation of these great men through bravery, rigor and attentiveness. They weren't perfect, nor are the rest of us, and that's what makes achievement possible.

Grand Avenues is the story of one of these slightly whacked, incredibly dedicated and absolutely brilliant men, who is probably less well known to those living outside the Beltway. Peter - or Pierre, or some other random manifestation of the name he chose - L'Enfant appeared in Washington, DC ready to create the most glorious city the world had ever seen...starting with the streets. He envisioned city planning that would display the full weight of Washington's importance, with great rolling streets intersecting at circles holding monuments to American achievements. He brought with him visions of Paris and a wildly stubborn dedication to his dreams.

It's unusual to have a completely clean slate for these kinds of endeavors. In many of the large cities in America, particularly on the East Coast, you see the kind of deranged road design that can only be attributed to growing pains over a very long period - cow paths that became dirt roads that became paved streets that became that super weird side street that weaves in and out of the highways built decades later. The ten mile by ten mile expanse of farmland bought and designated for the Capitol, however, was so young by the time that L'Enfant appeared in town that he had a shot at that rare clean sheet to start with. In the end his work was wildly successful - not always easy to navigate, perhaps, but it produces a perfect blend of the avenues of the South and the efficiency of the North, all held together with the dynamic monuments that pepper the city.

When you go to DC, it can be hard to navigate, but that confusion is largely a product of modern demands on the infrastructure - motorcades, barriers, additions to L'Enfant's plan. The city is set out in a grid of numbered and alphabetical streets with the city quartered into northwest, southwest, northeast and southeast sections. Over all of this, Avenues named after States cut diagonally throughout (NB: New York Avenue is wherever you are when it's rush hour or after midnight and you want to be on Massachusetts Avenue. This is just fact.), and rotaries with statuary mark each intersection of these avenues. Once you get outside of the main grid, you can figure out how far you are by the number of syllables and alphabetical order in the street name, and occasionally by certain name clusters, like the use of tree names in Northwest. Sounds complicated, but once you're there it's remarkably simple. It's an intiutive system and gets you where you need to go. The greatest achievement of L'Enfant's is his ability to develop a system that would allow nearly unlimited growth in the area without cramping the streets.

I love the blend of politics and niche topic in this book. There's just enough of the day's politics on the fringes of the story to keep me interested, but the spotlight is on L'Enfant and the epic scale of the project he somehow managed to plan and execute in spite of a somewhat ornery personality and a bevy of quirks and odd habits. Really interesting guy, really interesting project, well researched and well presented.

282 pages

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