On Poetry and Culture Shock

The South is a state of mind

Something that I like a lot about Ithaca is how easy it is to find your way. There are areas in which all the houses look the same and you might think you are lost, but the streets are normally a grid, oriented north-south and east-west. There is a point to the northwest of the Commons (Are you in Seville? the local calle Sierpes, that’s The Commons) that defines where streets start. To your left West Buffalo street, to your right East Buffalo. Ahead North Cayuga, behind North Cayuga. The Cornell campus has areas according to location like that. North Campus, West Campus, and so on. It comes natural to give directions using the cardinal points.

Now try doing that in Europe. Ha! Seville is an extreme example because the North is to the left: the convention is that the river lies horizontally, and to do that, North is left. I cannot read a map of my own hometown if the cardinal points are in the right place. The way to say where things are is by neighbourhoods. I have a very bad sense of orientation, but I’m not the only one that thinks that in Seville, as in other old European cities, you don’t know where things are: you just know how to go from area A to area B. Say, I know how to go from Reina Mercedes or from Nervión to the city centre, but I cannot remember a direct Reina Mercedes-Nervión route.

Some cities take the north-south rationality to the extreme: In Washington DC, north-south streets are numbered, east-west streets are lettered (A for the southernmost, and it gos up), and diagonal avenues always have the names of states. In most of Manhattan, all north-south roads are avenues (three have names, twelve are numbered), and east-west streets are numbered. This doesn't just mean that you never get lost and that it is easy to find your way: it also means that the mention of an address gives you a clue to the sort of neighbourhood it is in. A restaurant of shop anywhere between, say, 55th and 100th streets is going to be expensive. Wherever you are, the further east is probably going to be more expensive. And so on.

British cities are a mix of the rational north-south mentality and the chaotic neighbourhood mentality: towns go by neighbourhoods (the big cities started out as small villages clustered together), and public transport is always forever radial (that is, you cannot go from Area A to Area B without crossing through the city centre), but the east-west axis is sometimes important because in general, the further east, the poorer the neighbourhood: a relic from when there were no sewers, since British rivers and winds go eastwards, and if you live in the west, they are cleaner. In any British town, a neighbourhood called "East Side" will probably be the dodgy one.

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