Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Street Signs

An open letter to our new Dublin friends and neighbours-

I am an American recently relocated your great city, and what a great city it is. My wife and I have sincerely enjoyed our time here so far. The people have all been welcoming, friendly, and eager to strike up a conversation with any smiling stranger within earshot, the historic buildings and landmarks are inspiring, and the bustling city is a welcome and refreshing change of scenery. In fact, in Dublin, I am strongly reminded of my own American hometown.

Dubuque, Iowa has an interesting history. After being established on Fox Native American Tribal lands by French lead miners, a booming manufacturing community sprang up. This boom town was quickly populated by a large influx of German and Irish immigrants. This volatile combination led to some interesting community development. The two disagreeing clans built and maintained two separate communities with their own schools, banks, and churches. In fact, St. Mary’s (German) and St. Patrick’s (Irish) Roman Catholic churches were built within sight of one another and attended along strict national lines. The industrious and penny-pinching Germans settled and developed the North side of Dubuque with square single family homes with square gardens built on grid-patterned, numbered streets. The Irish immigrants, just as frugal and hard-working, built their neighbourhoods of multi-family row houses along cobbled streets built upon winding cattle trails established by farmers and ranchers decades earlier. The Irish families built lively social communities in the bird’s nest of streets winding through what Dubuquers now call “Little Dublin.” Happily, these nationalistic disagreements faded as-maybe sadly, certainly inevitably- the immigrants were assimilated into the modern American industrial culture. I, like many modern-day Dubuque natives, am proudly descended from robust Irish and German stock. The South End of Dubuque is a civil engineering nightmare, but it has something Dublin does not- consistently well-marked streets.

How many times a week is the average Dubliner stopped for directions by a wide-eyed, confused-looking individual? I myself have been stopped more than a dozen times in two months. Even when wearing my Iowa tee shirt and white Auburn University baseball cap- might as well be a full-size American flag- I am waved down on the street by these lost souls. The fact is, no one from out of town (or even from a different part of town) can hope to find their way around this wonderful city. The reason, of course, is the street sign plan.

Back to Dubuque, and every other old American city. Confusing tangles of streets are, of course, not unheard of, but all roads and intersections are clearly marked on all sides with a brightly coloured sign, well lit at night and high above street level. The more confusing intersections have large signs 50 or 100 metres before them on all sides, warning and preparing drivers of roundabouts, multi-road intersections, and unusual turning lanes. Drivers and pedestrians in America can depend on these high-up, bright signs at every intersection, period. When driving in an unfamiliar city, anyone who doesn't know the name of a road need only proceed to the next intersection and look up. There is never a doubt, and lost navigators never have to go more than one block out of the way to get a reading on their location.

In Dublin, the road signs seem to be placed wherever and whenever convenient. Garden walls, brick buildings, and wrought iron fences at corners are all candidates for signhood. Signs are pretty, to be sure. Always printed in both Irish and English, they have proven invaluable to us learning snippets of the Irish language. Practical usefulness to drivers? Not very often. Too many intersections have inadequate signage for drivers and walkers. Many signs are stuck low on garden walls and overgrown with hedges. Many intersections are marked by signs that are visible from only one side. Cars going north can see a sign, but the southbound travelers have to go with their best guess. Many intersections have no street signs at all. None.  Not one. To Americans (or any visitors), these are maddening. Drivers may have directions such as, “follow This Road, turn right on That Lane.” Simple enough, except when the corner of This and That has no sign for either. Drivers on This Road won't know they've gotten to That Lane and vice versa. Confused yet? So are we. And maps? Forget maps in a car. What good can a map be without the satisfying physical reinforcement of a sign? 

Even out-of-town Irish drivers seem to have a difficult time here in the Big City. During the Dublin Horse Show at the RDS, I nodded solemnly as I saw car after car with Irish license plates driving aimlessly in Donnybrook. I recognized the faces of hopeful show goers in the cars. I saw the hope drain from their eyes while frustrated and scared adults desperately scanned the surrounding buildings, fences, and trees for any trace of a road sign and impatient youngsters cried for mercy and freedom in the back seat. On the main suburban roads heading into town, the routes are wide and well-marked. The lanes are marked by route names and numbers at every interchange. Getting into the city is not a problem, it’s navigating within the city that gets drivers in trouble.

Maybe our new Irish friends and neighbours enjoy being asked for directions. They are certainly always eager to help strangers from what I've seen. Maybe they depend on confusing signage for entertainment! My best guess is that they are going with the old line, “it’s worked for centuries, why stop now?” It’s a fair point, I must admit. The city seems to function just fine with things just as they are. Why make expensive changes to a usable system?

Of course, by pointing out these differences, I am pushing a perfect example of American excess onto our European friends. What else is new? Putting up signs on every street corner in Dublin would cost a fortune. Signs are expensive to produce, maintain, and keep lit. Maybe I'm spoiled. I guess the only thing I can do is get used to it. Get used to making wrong turns and discovering new and interesting places. Get used to asking friendly strangers for directions, usually leading to a great conversation. Get used to always being lost in this big, busy, smiling, breathing, fascinating old city.

…Maybe the street sign plan isn't so bad.

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