If you have ever visited an old city, that grew organically before the advent of cars or other systems that mandate standardization, such as the towns of New England or Europe, you know that their streets are winding, tangled mazes, full of narrow passages, one way streets, and dead ends. Neighborhoods are defined by central knots of roads, intrinsic to identity, often derived from historic districts or separate towns that have been swallowed over time in the sprawl. One of America’s labyrinthian cities is Boston, and is networked by roads originally defined footpaths and filled with squares that are often squares in name only. Cartographer Andy Woodruff moved to Boston relatively recently, and seems to have become obsessed (in the good way) with exploring, defining, and mapping these geographic peculiarities, including the unreasonable complexity in driving from point A to B, and the geometrically arbitrary squares that are important enough to local identity to warrant their own shirts, like the one at the top of this post.
These squares are emblematic of Boston, part of the city’s culture as well as geography.
Unlike many places where a square is most often defined by a public open space or civic structure, here a square is typically defined by an intersection of two or more—usually closer to 4 gazillion—thoroughfares and/or other streets. The square’s name further applies to a business district around that intersection, and sometimes to an entire neighborhood. Thus the squares strongly define much of the local geography and organization of Boston and its close surroundings, as you can see in the diagrammatic Unmapped Boston poster. They are many things, but rarely are they square. [...] They’ve all got their own geographic, residential, and commercial character, and if you live near one it’s your square. And the charm, oh the charm of the confusing intersections and navigation from square to square instead of compass directions.
The Unmapped Boston poster Woodruff references is a beautiful map that identifies all of these regions and areas that are often omitted in standard maps.
Neighborhoods and communities are as defined by their layout and buildings as by their people, and urban planning can encourage a community to flourish, or by used as a tool to destroy them. It is not just the houses, but their arrangements, placements that can have historical origins and implications, and tell the story of others cities swallowed whole.