Getting to Grips with America’s Grid System

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Chicago is set up in a grid system which is illustrated in this bird’s-eye view. (FB)

When I lived in England, if I had told you my street address, you’d need to be familiar with the town to know where I lived. My house had a number and the avenue had a name, but there were no clues as to its whereabouts. Indeed, if you accidentally forgot the “avenue” part, and looked for “street” instead, you’d have found yourself about a mile off. (Americans – it’s for this reason that you should never omit the street/lane/crescent/avenue nomenclature when sending stuff to the U.K.)

In many (but not all) parts of the U.S., a handy dandy grid system is in place, with streets running at neat right angles to each other. (That’s “neat” as in “neat and tidy” rather than the American “neat.”) People have a pretty good idea where you live when you tell them your address.

New York has perhaps the most famous grid system, while Philadelphia has the oldest. Chicago’s grid system is fairly bog standard, apart from the diagonals to throw you off once in a while. It has the intersection of State and Madison as its zero points, and all Chicago addresses are basically co-ordinates representing how far north, south, east or west they are from the zero point. If someone lives at 1440 North State Street, they live 14 blocks north of the zero intersection. Each street, road, avenue etc. has a numerical demarcation on the map, so you’ll hear people ask “How far west is Halsted” and the answer (800, or 8 blocks west of State Street) will give them a precise indication of location and distance. This explanation of Salt Lake City’s grid does a great job of de-mystifying things.

Because the blocks (buildings between one street and another) go up in hundreds, you can get to some pretty heady addresses quite quickly. In the Salt Lake City example, East 134,000 South is a street that’s mentioned! Within Chicago city limits, the farthest north you can live is in the 9000’s. Although they’ll call it “the nine thousand block,” Americans typically say “ninety two hundred” for example, rather than “nine thousand two hundred,” when naming the actual door number. (More on America vs. Britain in numbers in a future post.)

As mentioned, Chicago throws a curve ball with its diagonal streets, just like D.C., which has diagonal streets, connected with traffic circles. It all looks fairly straightforward on a street map but it’s quite the challenge when you first come to a six-street intersection!

Things can go a bit pear-shaped for us Brits, however, when faced with a grid. Used to receiving directions such as “Left at the Crooked Windmill, past the village green and a sort of right at the Post Office,” directions containing anything to do with a compass aren’t second nature. Especially when you don’t know which way you’re facing to begin with. Americans typically tell you to go “east on Main Street, head north on Lincoln and then west on 5th,” which is all well and good if you have a compass on you, but can be a disaster if you head off west as a first move.

Now that most cars have a GPS or Sat Nav system, navigation isn’t the challenge it used to be, but when all else fails, find yourself a landmark or geographic point to which you can drive if completely lost. In the early days of my Chicago residency, I frequently found myself driving round in circles (or squares). Since I had a digital compass in the car, I often bailed and headed east for Lake Michigan where I could a) not drive any further, and b) find my way home.

If you’re on foot, and not sure of yourself, walk to an intersection and take note of both street names. Locating them on a map is half the solution but you still need to make sure you head off in the right direction. You can either walk to the next intersection, find that on the map and establish your direction — or ask a local! Americans are nothing if not helpful.

Do you find grids easy to navigate?