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A couple of years back, it fell to me to drive a new baby sitter home in Arlington. The sitter lived on Edison Street. Without much thought, I headed there—she had been recommended by another baby sitter who lived just off Edison, and I assumed the two were neighbors. They weren’t. It turned out, after much explanation and circling, that the new sitter lived on an entirely different Edison Street from the one that ran by the old sitter’s house, an Edison two miles away from, and unconnected to, the other.
I’ve always been challenged by the streets of Arlington. I’m from Chicago, a town whose streets were laid down one after the other on prairie soil, marching north and south, east and west, with lockstep precision. If I were to stand in the middle of 47th and Halsted (to choose an intersection not far from my last home there) and launch a bowling ball westward (barring interference from traffic or friction), it would still be on 47th as it rolled across Cicero Avenue and exited the city. If I launched it north, it would stay on Halsted for 13 miles before running out of road in the 3600 block north, a couple of blocks east of Wrigley Field.
But in Arlington, where I first moved eight years ago, the streets are spaghetti loops, twisting in on themselves in defiance of sense and grid. Raised on the cartographical equivalent of Dick and Jane, I found the map baffling. And nothing was more baffling to my right-angled Midwestern mind than Arlington’s dog streets—the ones that seem to wander all over the county: appearing here, looping around for a while, and then disappearing, only to crop up again somewhere else. Dinwidie, Wakefield, Edison…the list goes on.
As time went by, I came to think of the dog streets as an annoying but forgettable feature of life. But then, a few months ago, I bought a new house and became a resident of Edison myself—not either of the pieces I’d encountered before, but a different section, miles south of the other two.
The discontinuity nagged at me. So I decided to do something about it. If Edison Street is really a street, then it can be driven. In the tradition of the explorers, I resolved to navigate Edison in its entirety. I would discover its source. I would meet my neighbors. I would find the common pattern.
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Asking around, I was assured that there was sense behind the mission. Matthew Martin of the Arlington Police Department told me—and the Arlington Historical Society seconded the motion—that my perception of the streets as disjointed fragments seemed true only from ground level. Viewed from above, they argued, the pieces would form an obvious path.
This is true, to the extent that if you drew a line on the map from the southernmost piece of Edison to the northernmost, most of the twisted bits of Edison would fall within a half-mile of the mark on either side. But you would also notice gaps between the segments of a half-mile or more. And you would see that whereas most of Edison Street lies west of the (continuous) George Mason Drive, one of the longer segments is east of Mason. And whereas most of Edison runs north-south, the sections at the ends run east-west. The effect is not so much of a street as of a bunch of worms slowly marching, not always willingly, toward Fairfax.
On a bright Sunday, I designate my home as base camp and set out north, driving up Edison along calm suburban roadways. My first setback happens just after I cross Lee Highway. My own Edison, which seems to be the straightest section of them all, runs out. My map leads me to believe there should be more Edison nearby, but instead I’m pulled into the current of Emerson Street—a three-syllabled E street but not the one I want. I take repeated drives into the neighborhood from Washington Avenue but never find the fragment of Edison I believe should be there.
Concluding that this missing stretch must be impenetrable to modern automobiles, I head off to the next Edison, this one a stretch of modestly scaled but impeccably kept-up houses with wide lawns. Edison itself has grown fat and wide. McMansions are just ahead, but again the trail ends, terminating at Little Falls Road. I know there are two more pieces north of here. The first is off Williamsburg, a half-mile stretch that again flows into Emerson. The two feel like one street; why not one name? Emerson/Edison terminates at Williamsburg. I have just traveled in a loop. The birds seem to be mocking me.
Feeling I must get out of the car, I walk. It is a lovely afternoon and people are outdoors. They look at me suspiciously; one woman demands to know what kind of paper I’m writing for. Other Edisonians seem warmer. Don Hendrickson tells me that yes, life on a line segment can have its trials—particularly here, where some addresses are identical to addresses on the next chunk up. “Repairmen often can’t find the street,” Hendrickson says.
A short while later, I make my final northward ascent. From this slice of Edison, commandingly huge homes with sprawling decks seem to look down on all of Arlington. I’m proud to have these folks for my neighbors. Pat Eshelman, who grew up on the more modestly scaled side of the street, is here visiting her mother. “It was always hard explaining where we lived,” Eshelman says. “Dad worked for the Pentagon and had to do a certain amount of entertaining; he always had colleagues grousing about the location. Friends from out of town couldn’t find the place.”
It’s time to make my way south. Taking mostly bigger roads, I am zipping past base camp in no time. But again I lose the trail. This time, Edison gives way to Evergreen—another three-syllable E name. As I look at my map, humiliatingly only a mile or so from home, a passing driver stops and directs me to a piece of Edison I’ve never known about: a dead-end segment that goes past Arlington Traditional School before terminating at a BP station. It’s a street of big yards and small houses. I’ve driven past it, unnoticing, nearly every day.
More good news follows: Doing my standard sweep of the area, I find yet another previously unknown bit of Edison, one I had somehow missed when looking at the map. It’s a block away from the last piece, and it lasts only a block itself before it becomes Emerson. Reasoning that if Edison keeps turning into Emerson, the reverse must be true, I follow it—and I am not disappointed. Here is another unimagined Edison, with a group of prepubescent, ponytailed soccer players in the middle of it. They jeer at me as I drive past. This piece, too, comes to a dead end; where it stops, I can see the back of the BP station through a fence. Here, for a short while, Edison has circled back to itself.
The street system is absurd. But it developed, in part, to solve the problem that I thought it had created. Arlington grew up in the early 1900s as individual subdivisions, their roads named by private developers. The result, C.L. Kinnier wrote in the October 1959 edition of Arlington Historical Magazine, was a surplus of streets with
tree names, duplicated all over
the county. In the early 1930s, a county-government panel set about cleaning up the mess. Ignoring the pleas of disgruntled residents, the board quickly decided to scrap most of the names and impose a D.C.-style alphabetic system on streets that had previously been unrelated. Edison is made of pieces of the former Mulhall Avenue and Chestnut Street; Emerson was built out of Ridge and Betonia Avenues. Wakefield, the doggiest of the dog streets, was cobbled from DeAster, Ames, Royal, Hillcrest, Summit Curve, Glendale, Golf View, and Spring Drive.
Joe Durkee, a traffic engineer with the Arlington Transportation Department, defends this approach. “One of the advantages of the system is that we have a lot fewer different street names,” Durkee says. “If you look at the back of the map for some towns, you’ll see a huge list of names. With a system [like this], it’s easier.” The fact that Edison appears in a dozen different pieces on the map is, in Durkee’s view, a minor inconvenience: “You just can’t go to an Edison Street you’re familiar with. You have to know the hundred block—then you can go to the right one….If the streets were actually all connected people might commute on them rather than the central arteries.”
A little farther on in my southward drive, I find a second great contiguous piece of Edison. It meanders through the curves of Arlington Forest, across Carlyn Springs Road, and past Route 50. Without warning, I’m in South Arlington, on the first of two little snips of Edison on this side of the county.
Joe Deprato, who lives at 1 S. Edison St., just off of Route 50, said there is nothing remarkable about the life on his U-shaped section of Edison Street except that he’s seen a lot of cars burst into fire on it, just over on the other side of Arlington Road. Mail and friends find him easily.
Finally, I drive the kidney-shaped loop that forms the southernmost piece of Edison and intersects George Mason rather than running parallel to it. I had thought there would be some satisfaction in finding the beginning of the road, but there isn’t. It makes no more sense now that I’ve seen it whole, and spent more time driving between pieces, or looking for pieces, than driving on them. They seem to exist not as pieces of a street, but short suburban alternative universes, Edison snips as they might have been rather than as they are. Tired, I drive back to the Edison I know. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Robert Meganck.