In The Island of Lost Maps, Miles Harvey recalls a game played with his parents on family trips. His father would wake him from a travel nap and quickly ask “Which direction are we driving?” Still fogged with half-sleep, Miles could reply “North” with assurance. “See?” father would say to mother, “I told you.” Young Harvey had (and still has, he believes) a built-in geo-positioning sense that rarely fails. It may just be a “guy thing”–never admitting to being lost–but I have a similar gift.
Maps simply become a part of my database. Feel free to test me some time.
Mental mapping can be a revealing exercise. Ask children to map their world and you’ll discover what matters in their lives: friends’ homes, playgrounds, school (maybe), landmarks of every sort that vary with gender and age. Our lives are regulated by a Tinker-Toy-like assemblage of nodes and links. I recall a speaker several years ago who had done some neighborhood planning that began with a 1960s-style workshop. On huge sheets of newsprint stretched across a gymnasium floor, neighbors drew the places that had personal meaning; negotiated their relative importance; and, in the process, learned a great deal more about one another, I suspect.
As I have watched the plan of Agincourt evolve, it’s easy to role play; to be a letter carrier, a school kid, a shopper–even a Jehovah’s Witness–as they go about their business. As I walk from home to the public library, what path will I take? What shortcut will save time? What detour will permit a stop at the candy store. And on the way, what will I discover that was lost or thrown away? What might I see that I shouldn’t? Who might I encounter that could alter the course of my day or, perhaps, even my life?
Agincourt’s original townsite came to me quickly–a last gasp of Enlightenment ideals tempered by mid-19th century railway pragmatism. There have since been two major changes to that plan: the replacement of numbered avenues with the names of New England authors (some very welcome civic meddling by the Ladies’ Literary Society) and the recognition that alleys can be at least as significant as streets.
Folk singer Pete Seeger wrote a song about “The House with the Queen Anne Front and the Mary Anne Behind.” Think of your hometown: recall easily who lived on either side of your own home, but I’ll bet the folks across the alley were more familiar than the people across the street. Twenty years ago, when I first moved into a downtown Fargo ghetto, my closest acquaintances were Minnie Rehnquist and Marcella Depute–garbage can buddies from just across the alley. Perhaps this is why I couldn’t live in the ‘burbs: no alleys.
The reconsideration of alleys became an opportunity to enrich the texture of neighborhoods. A block-long length of alley beside Adams Restaurant, for example, was named by petition to honor the passing of Mrs Maud Adams. The lane behind First Baptist Church became Roger Williams Alley as it morphed into a de facto retirement community. Carousel Alley grew from the city’s acquisition of a circus merry-go-round, installed on The Commons in the 1930s.
A half-block length of alley was created about 1900 from two ten-foot strips shaved from original lots. Developers of the Blenheim Hotel got a fourth side for rooms and Mrs Annabelle Miller received enough cash to build a whore house. It was a win-win scenario.
So, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s map of Treasure Island, the developing plat of Agincourt has generated both characters and the narratives of their lives.