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A long and winding road; Eassay: Meandering paths drove Roman emperors around the bend, but Old World cities remained blissfully out of line. And today come signs from the American suburbs that the dictatorial grid no longer holds sway.


A group of good citizens planted about 30 young trees in Stony Run Park, near where we live. They were put in the ground in such a way as to form a grove, with enough space between them to give each room to grow and expand, but close enough to eventually form a nice canopy.

Such unrequested benefactions from strangers are welcomed by people such as myself, who worry a lot that the mortar of cooperation that holds our civilization together is eroding, has been eroding for years, and may by now be nearly all gone. Once or twice I strolled by the trees with my dog, and each time felt reassured that a stout prop had been put in place against absolute collapse. Silently, I cheered them on. The dog did what dogs do.

Before long the trees were thoroughly rooted; all had sprouted new leaves, and only one had been vandalized. That seemed promising, though a problem was evident: The designers of this arcadia had sought to reroute the path through the park, which ran more or less straight along the stream bank.

They had planted one of the larger saplings on the edge of the old path to mark a detour that veered away from the stream. The new trail followed a wide, gentle arc through the trees, then came back to the original trajectory. This new path they covered with wood chips not only to define it, but to make it more inviting. Wood chips absorb rainwater and retard mud and puddling.

To further encourage people to take the meandering path, they rolled a thick tree trunk over the old path. I think that's where they went wrong. Maybe some found that a bit authoritarian.

Being of a cooperative, maybe even conformist, nature, I immediately took to the new route, lured by the promise of future delight. One day when the trees had grown it would direct us through a dappled bower, one of the things people go into parks and woods to experience.

The curve suggests leisure, the momentary abandonment of schedules and agendas. The straight line, the direct path? Well, it's not at all hard to say what that suggests. Ambition? Purposefulness?

And yet, through the winter it became evident that we - Trevor and I - walked alone. Most of my neighbors, and possibly their dogs as well, continued to plod directly forward. They simply went around the trunk, or climbed over it. One could see the old path grow deeper, the puddles expand, ridges solidifying in the drying mud thrown up by the squish of Reeboks and Nikes and the occasional pair of practical Wellingtons. My neighbors for the most part, I concluded, were goal-oriented, and as a group probably did well in the world.

Everybody's heard the theory of the cow's role in early urban planning. Long, long ago, in some sylvan place inhabited by a race of people not yet aware of who they were, a cow is drawn into a wood by the scent of a far water hole, or fragrant grass in a clearing beyond. Trundling along, the cow snaps off obtruding branches, breaks the loam with its sharp hooves. Later the cow is pursued by his minder who follows its faint path, thereby widening it, deepening it. Once or twice this happens and the route to the water hole or grazing spot is established.

Possibly the water hole becomes a ceremonial grove, or some such. Eventually a town begins as the rustics decide that safety is more easily secured by becoming a community. The erratic path through the wood becomes the town's, and later the city's, principal thoroughfare, its marketplace, its souk, its public space, sacred and secular.

This helps explain why in the older parts of the older cities of Europe and other places where urban civilization had its beginnings, it is hard to find a street that runs straight for any appreciable distance. Paris, London, Barcelona - in these old towns, if you don't know your way you can get lost. In fact, tourists from America often delight in getting briefly disoriented in the twisting, turning older neighborhoods of Europe's cities, neighborhoods such as The City (financial district) of London, the Gothic section of Barcelona, the Latin Quarter of Paris.

In cities much older still than even these venerable connurbations - places like Damascus, in Syria, where people have lived continuously for about 8,000 years - a straight street is so rare it calls attention to itself. The principal thoroughfare in the old city of Damascus is The Street Called Straight, because that's what it is. Straight.

The Romans liked straight streets. Imperialists and tyrants tend to. They are perfect for military parades. They offer a field of fire. Poets have different tastes. The nostalgic English essayist, Hilaire Belloc wrote, with relief, that "the curse of the Straight Street" never fell upon the City of London, "so that it is to this day a labyrinth of little lanes."

Paris, he wrote, barely escaped. "It was determined three centuries ago to rebuild Paris as regular as a chessboard, and nothing but money saved the town - or rather lack of money." The city fathers, it seems, ran out of it after driving a straight street only 200 yards from the old Place des Vosges, and all the crooked streets were saved to delight today's tourists.

To get oneself purposefully lost in an unthreatening place is fun. Why else would English gardeners have created those elaborated hedge mazes? Why else would people pay to enter them and deliberately lose themselves? Why else but to find themselves again, to emerge flushed and giggly but triumphant from what is really only a virtual adventure.

The American version of this is a labyrinth carved in a cornfield. Last year, one of these corn mazes advertised itself in a rural district of the Eastern Shore. I planned to take my grandchildren, but it rained. No matter, it will probably reopen this summer, once the corn grows as high as an elephant's eye.

A corn maze is more than a cheap imitation of the English hedge maze, though it is that. It is also as American, as New World, as corn is itself. Unlike the hedge mazes, which take decades upon decades to grow, and are expected to have nearly the same permanence as the great houses of England they were designed to ornament, the American corn maze is a thing of a single summer, no more. It is not built for the ages, cannot be. This has compensating qualities.

The corn maze can be redesigned every year, made more or less dense and complicated, or simple and easy to escape from. All you need is a lawn mower and a design on paper. It can be reinvented year after year, and what is more American than that: the fresh start, the new plan.

The first people to settle the New World were the Spanish conquistadors. They were America's first city planners, authoritarian men with an idea that they applied to every town they founded. They would create a more rational use of space, free from the anarchy of streets and avenues going every which way that characterized the Old World.

They had no love for crooked streets, as Belloc came to have. Their operational principal was the grid. Every town began with a square plaza, its four sides lined up with the cardinal points of the compass. Streets ran north and south, or east and west. It was a new idea for a New World, an imposition of European rationalism upon a tempestuous frontier. It was also unimaginative, unromantic, boring.

The grid gained favor throughout all of North and South America. There are exceptions, of course, but most American cities present straight streets, East and West, North and South. Monotonous. So tiresome did this design become that at the end of the Second World War as Americans set out to create the suburban paradise we all enjoy so much today, the realization came upon a few of the more creative planners that maybe it would be a good idea to go back to what worked so well in the far distant past.

James Rouse wasn't the only suburban pioneer taken by the allure of crooked streets, but he was one of the more influential. The curving ways of Columbia by now have been replicated throughout suburbia. Has this made everybody happy? Not entirely. Why not? That is a mystery.

Maybe it is because most curving suburban streets go nowhere, and offer nothing to see on the way except houses, more or less the same, one after another, full of families more or less the same age and composition. Nothing but architectural and demographic repetition. Sameness.

Then there are the names of those streets. Could that be where the disenchantment lies? Belloc's love for the crooked streets extended to the names they bore, "which are as individual as they are with all our own human reality and humour," names such as "Three Little Heaps of Wheat Street," or the "Street of the Trumpeting Moor," or "Street of the False Heart."

Such street names usually derive from actual occurrences. Even today in Mexico City, there is a Chicken Street, so called because that's where people buy chickens. It is much like Lombard Street in Baltimore used to be, though nobody ever called Lombard Street Chicken Street, though it was informally named Corned Beef Row because that's what one went there to eat. This informal name evokes a fond memory and gets closer to the natural way streets get called.

In any event, whenever anybody mentions Lombard Street in Baltimore, how many people do you suppose call to mind the moneychangers of Lombardy in Italy?

In Hampden, now, there has been an attempt to formalize with little blue signs the term by which Hampdenites refer to 36th Street: "The Avenue." Quote marks around The Avenue are probably not appropriate. They are usually employed as an ironic or sarcastic device, to question legitimacy. In this case, The Avenue may be more legitimate a name for the street than the number.

Since suburbs do not grow organically, but are brought forth almost instantly in a farmer's field after all the grass is stripped off and the old trees chopped down, the streets have no time to manifest their inherent characters. The task of naming presents itself, and usually falls to the planners.

Thus, in Columbia, the city of the future, you have Curtsey Court, Ginger Bread Court, Barefoot Boy Street, Friar Tuck Court, Last Sunbeam Place. It all recalls Dorothy Parker's response after her first reading A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh." Which is to say, she "fwew up."

Maybe the ernest citizens who planted the new trees in Stony Run Park suffered a touch of the hubris that afflicts so many city planners, drawers of streets, and courts, and places, crooked, curving or straight. Instead of building around the existing path, they sought to make people walk this way or that. Maybe they should have just gotten a cow.

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