Metro, Featured Column, Column

The Elegance Of A Twisted City

New York is famous for its gridded, orderly streets. Boston, well, isn’t.

Little of the city layout is logical. While understandable, the explanation that the Boston streets only follow the former paths of cows and travellers is still maddening.

If the Big Dig was any indication of how impossibly Boston street’s are reimagined, it hasn’t stopped graphic designers from taking the problem into their own hands.

Stephen Von Worley, a scientist and artist, tackled Boston—along with several other major cities around the world—in order to create a way to conceptualize and beautify street layouts.

Streets are color-coded based on direction, all glowing in mesmerizing neon. It may be a small victory for Bostonians, but the logical grids of New York and Chicago paths only show one or two monotonous major colors.

“To use an old-school woodworking metaphor, it’s as if we brushed some digital lacquer over the raw geographic transportation network data to make the grain pop,” Worley said of the creation on his personal website.

Boston’s map is a braid of purples, oranges, yellows, and pinks—a beautiful web of the maddening, twisty roads we all love to hate. It doesn’t necessarily make the streets any easier to navigate, but it makes a beautiful picture.

On Monday afternoon, I found myself marginally lost in Boston. It was a simple navigation from Boston College to Dorchester and back, a trip I’d made dozens of times. I’ve lived here my entire life—I thought I knew where I was going. I let my guard down, putting my trust in my GPS (which I always turn on, just in case) and wound up at the wrong 140 Commonwealth Avenue. Evidently, there are two of them.

I was frustrated and tired. I really just wanted to be home, but my friend in the seat next to me just looked around and noted, “Isn’t this just one of the greatest parts of Boston?” And it was. Brownstones and Boylston surrounded us, the sterling gray sky hung low above us. Men in buttoned-up dress coats and women with scarves up to their noses bustled past. It was Boston as it should be.

There is something about the twists and turns in the streets that collect the oddities of the city. They catch the runoff that gets lost in the grids. It’s naive to think there aren’t peculiarities in New York or Boston—of course there are. But there is something inherently more satisfying of truly stumbling around a corner and finding something cool. Or, even better, hearing about something interesting in the city and then conquering the MBTA and the streets that may or may not be marked as they should.

This is what Von Worley’s project embodies. It isn’t just a map of cities: it becomes of a map of the cities’ personalities. When mapped in neon, New York looks hopelessly efficient. Boston appears full of character. It is far from perfect, but that is what makes it beautiful.

Von Worley writes, “I’ve been known to scour maps for quaintness, and on a road trip, I’ll happily choose the Byzantine route just to experience the charms of a bygone Broadway.” And in this scouring, he believes he finds stories. “Lots of stories in there: of cities waxed, towns waned, territory absorbed, and terrain negotiated.”

His map of Boston shows exactly that—the boundaries that have forced themselves farther and farther outward, only stopping because of the sea. The twisting paths of those who came before. The neighborhoods claimed by those who needed to make a new home. There is a quaintness in the chaos.

Boston is famous for its twists and turns: its character that collects in hidden corners. New York, well, isn’t.

Featured Image courtesy of Stephen von Worley

December 10, 2014