From where the church used to be, 2 blocks south, 1 block east
January 20, 2018 10:32 AM   Subscribe

Reminds me of this gem, too.
posted by cthuljew at 10:46 AM on January 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

I am living in Nicaragua right now, get lost a lot, and this is useful information. Thank you.

It also may help explain why my landlord thought it was useful to tell me that a certain convenience store was a theater 30+ years ago.
posted by aniola at 10:50 AM on January 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

Reminds me of this gem, too.

I was going to mention Japan as well. Printing little maps on everything goes a long way.

Though, to be frank, as someone from Chicago, which has a genuine coordinate system, I'm baffled by Manhattan. Someone made a numbered grid but didn't think the address numbers should relate to the grid in some way? As a result, you get people saying things like "3050 Broadway, between 120th and 121st". You'd maybe have to have skipped a bunch of numbers to get things to work with the streets that predated the grid, but still. On the other hand, Queens does have addresses that fully convey location.
posted by hoyland at 10:54 AM on January 20, 2018

As a heavy contributor to the OpenAddresses project (“the free and open global address collection”), this article is making the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. I love the interaction between well-understood local references that Nicaraguans have no problem finding and our WEIRD form of addressing optimized for automated, machine-readable wholesale delivery. There are many not-so-subtle shades of James C. Scott in this article:
This sounds kind of easy. There are some more complicating factors, though. First of all, east and west are not always used. Instead, the words arriba and abajo function as substitutes. Arriba, which means up or above signifies the direction from which the sun comes up: east. Abajo, on the contrary, means down or below and it is used instead of west. The words oriente (east) and poniente (west) are other substitutes that are sometimes used.

In addition to these words, another interesting word is used in certain places: al lago. This means to the lake, and it is used in cities like Managua and Granada which border a lake. Although it can be helpful to know that you have to go towards the lake, it can be hard to figure out in what direction the lake is situated when you are standing in an unknown street somewhere in the middle of Managua!
In a nod to the needs of package delivery companies, efforts like What3words (previously and previouslier) have sprung up to rationalize spatial locations to a global grid, with the added bonus of a proprietary translation layer thrown in. I’m personally super-bearish about W3W and its grid-based cousins, because the Nicaraguan system shows how important networks and paths are to addressing. An address is not just a point in space, it’s also a point in a hierarchy (country, state, city, postcode) and in a network of streets and landmarks. The redundant and directional information in an address makes it durable.
posted by migurski at 10:57 AM on January 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

I was looking for an airbnb in Orange Walk, Belize. After walking for half an hour in the scorching noon sun, I realized that google maps had no idea where the place was, and had just sent me to the midpoint of the street. There were no numbers on any of the houses. I asked someone on the street for directions: they had no idea. Then I called the airbnb contact. Using the cross street names was not helpful to him, until I said there was a school and a green house, which was enough for him to find me. He later told me he had to look up what his street was called and what number his house was when listing it on airbnb!

And let's not even start on the Japanese address system...
posted by Jobst at 10:58 AM on January 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

This seems like a good application for What3Words addressing [previously]. I find it to be an interesting and occasionally amusing addressing system, but so far it hasn't caught on.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 10:58 AM on January 20, 2018

All I can think is "have fun with your mail merge!"
posted by rouftop at 10:59 AM on January 20, 2018 [5 favorites]

This kind of directions-based addressing is very common in places that haven't had some centralized addressing system imposed from above.

I'm curious about the use of arriba and abajo for east and west; are those really synonyms? Or do the terms have more complex meaning in context?

The use of al lago as a direction term is also common in many places. Balinese uses kaja and kelod for "towards the mountain" or "towards the ocean". And in Hawai'i there's mauka / makai. It makes sense as a navigation framework if your geography is dominated by one giant mountain in the middle of the ocean.

To the derail, what3words is last year's proprietary VC-funded nonsense. The cool kids are using What 3 Emojis and the misanthropes are using What 3 Fucks (warning: offensive slurs). All of France is georeferenced by 🗃🍽🐊, for instance. Or trollop cockroach poofter stain dick, if you prefer. (The French use English swear words to navigate, surprisingly.)
posted by Nelson at 11:10 AM on January 20, 2018 [9 favorites]

Interestingly, Facebook is doing some of the best research these days on the topic of automated addressing for places without machine-readable location. Their work on Robocodes relies on parallel efforts to build spatial hierarchies of regions, roads, and blocks from road networks in satellite imagery. They’re applying it to both cities in mapped areas and in developing countries:
Recent initiatives (e.g., what3words [12]) try to accomplish this task by automatic geocoding. Although these solutions can encode and compress spatial data, geocodes do not contain the inherent properties held by street addresses. For example, they are not intuitive for directional and proximity queries, they tend to be decoupled from the actual road topology and often may not be coherent with human perception. … In order to realize this, we constructed a generative addressing system to bridge the gap between grid-based digital addressing schemes and traditional street addresses.
posted by migurski at 11:14 AM on January 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


This reminds me so much of Pittsburgh, minus the actual official codification of the system. When I was growing up, we didn't really have street signs (the 70 s and 80s were a rough time for Pittsburgh). Getting directions from a longtime Pittsburgher still is often "turn right where the movie theater used to be [the theater is not only no longer there, the building has burned down, the lot razed, and a whole different building is there now] then go up a big hill, and what you're looking for is across the street from the old St. Whosits School." No street names ever mentioned. We have street signs now, but old habits die hard.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:15 AM on January 20, 2018 [10 favorites]

Sounds like how direction are given in Vermont:

Take the road there then take the right fork past where Usle's farm used to be (the farm burned down in 1965) go up over and around then head down past where the sotre was (went out of business in 1990) till you come up to the 5 corners then take the left-left to head down to our camp.
posted by koolkat at 1:22 PM on January 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was recently looking at address related programming stuff and ran across using open location code.

Basically an encoding for lat/long that you can use like an address even if you live in a place that doesn't use addresses.
It's an open spec with a free working implementation. The most impressive part is that it seems like it was designed/built by (at least one) member of the google maps team so they appreciate the complexities of such things.
The other neat feature is you can use a reference in it (ie 58GR22WM+PW or Belo Horizonte 22WM+PW) so it is more human friendly and still as precise.
posted by msingle at 1:24 PM on January 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have a job where I have to mail Very Important Documents That Cannot Possibly Be Lost In The Mail, and then they are always, constantly, lost in international mail. DEAR GOD I HOPE NOBODY MAILS ANYTHING TO NICARAGUA.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:37 PM on January 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Hey pal! How do I get to town from here?"
And he said:
"Well, just take a right where they're going to build that new shopping mall.
Go straight past where they're going to put in the freeway.
Take a left at what's going to be the new sports center,
And keep going until you hit the place where they're thinking of building that drive-in bank.
You can't miss it."
And I said:
"This must be the place!"
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:43 PM on January 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I once told a customer to take a "soft left" at an intersection and got a very puzzled look and a laugh. He came in the next day and said he understood at once when he'd gotten to it. And like Philadelphia and Vermont, we natives and long-timers often direct by landmarks that aren't there any more.
posted by MovableBookLady at 1:44 PM on January 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my very brief experience as a tourist, Indian addresses and wayfinding are similarly organic. The thing that delighted me when I visited was that Google Maps has tried to take this into account. If you look at these driving directions and expand all the sections, they instruct you to turn right at Anjuna Fast Food, and you'll pass a church in about 1.5 kms. I'm curious how they select the landmarks, it seems like something that must be automated, it often looks like they just picked the business closest to the turn, but not all of the landmarks are obvious places on the map.
posted by yeahlikethat at 3:15 PM on January 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

Local directional stuff is great! It’s true that Japan GENERALLY doesnt have named streets, though Kyoto is kind of the major exception (and Sapporo has a similar grid-based system, where every block is named for the distance from the central point designated by Sapporo Station, if memory serves). Kobe, being built on the long, narrow sliver of land between a coastal mountain range and the sea, will often use “mountain side” and “sea side” in place of cardinal directions (e.g. to refer to department store entrances).

I remember, too, when I went to Penn State, there was a sort of general unspoken agreement that, on campus, “north” just really meant “uphill,” which led to a lot of befuddlement whenever you would point out that the East Dorms were actually farther north (in the magnetic sense) than the North Dorms (and then there was a fifth cardinal direction, Pollack, defined as “south, but kind of to the east”).
posted by DoctorFedora at 4:08 PM on January 20, 2018

It's fascinating how people hold on to old absent landmarks for giving directions, and how local nick-names can achieve parity or even dominance over official names. Some of my local examples:

Last week an acquaintance gave me directions mentioning "the old traffic circle", a road feature that was torn out almost 45 years ago, before I was even born. So many people use the non-existent traffic circle as a landmark that I know perfectly well where it used to be.

Kingston's last lakeside grain elevator was demolished ~1988, and replaced with condos. Nonetheless people routinely refer to things being out by or out past the grain elevator, or by Elevator Bay. Just now I had to Google what the legal name of the bay is because I had a niggling feeling that it isn't Elevator Bay, and sure enough it's not. But good luck getting the "real" name out of a local old enough to remember the elevator as a landmark.

The neighbourhood near the University's main campus has been known colloquially as the "student ghetto" since the 1980s. The City & University have been trying to rebrand it as the "student village", "student district", or "University district" for more than 20 years without it really sticking. A few years ago they dropped a bunch of money on 112 new street signs, explicitly labeling the area the University District in an attempt to influence people to use the new name.

McBurney Park, was established over a hundred years ago on top of a neglected graveyard (moving the bodies was a failed endeavour so they just toppled the tombstones and plowed them under). It earned it's nickname Skeleton Park for the grave markers and bones that still surface from time to time. I was amused to discover that Google Maps has adopted our local nickname.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 7:04 PM on January 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I got this secondhand several years ago, so maybe a current Miami resident can correct me:

Apparently in Miami there was a highway and people used to give directions by referencing the highway. Then they built a new highway, and people started saying "the new highway" or the "old highway" to distinguish them. Then the old highway got rerouted. At this point I can only assume that they were having too much fun confusing the tourists, because apparently they started calling the original highway "the new old highway" and the other highway "the old new highway."

Also, I think this was all happening in Spanish among the Cubans in Miami.

Has anyone ever heard of this?
posted by d. z. wang at 8:43 PM on January 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I chatted recently to a bright young American startup type person who told me sadly how he had proposed a better addressing scheme to a government official who gently explained that people don't want nice easy consistent addresses that make it easy for strangers to find them because honestly, a lot of the time people who are looking for you are people you don't want to see (like police, tax inspectors, extortionists, etc).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:57 PM on January 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

As a lifelong small-town guy, I find myself occasionally giving directions in this way. "Oh, that place? Head on up the street to where the A&W used to be, then go one block east." Or, "That trailhead? It's about oh, two minutes out of town, in between where the Johnson farm was, and where the old dump used to be."
posted by xedrik at 7:35 AM on January 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

You have just solved a hilarious mystery for me of why my family gives (for me) frustrating directions every time I ask them about where something is! I assumed it was just a maddening personal quirk.
posted by corb at 8:50 AM on January 21, 2018

It's fascinating how people hold on to old absent landmarks for giving directions, and how local nick-names can achieve parity or even dominance over official names.

Indeed, or how official names sometimes never manage to take hold. Here in Munich, one of the squares just outside the old town is called Stachus, after an 18th-century restaurant which has long ceased to exist (records show that in the 19th century, people had already forgotten how the name “Stachus” for the square came about). In 1797, the square was officially named “Karlsplatz”, Charles’ square, for prince-elector Charles Theodore, who was apparently massively unpopular. So, to this day… Even the underground train station underneath the square still carries the old name.
posted by wachhundfisch at 9:02 AM on January 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

Beirut has similar problems.
In Mar Mikhael, a recently gentrified area formerly known for its mechanics’ workshops and now characterised by a string of hipster-friendly bars, it’s common to hear people arranging to meet beside the fat old dog that sleeps all day on a particular stretch of pavement outside a nondescript newsagent. When the Mar Mikhael dog goes to the great kennel in the sky, people will no doubt start saying, “I’ll meet you where the fat dog used to be” – much to the bewilderment of tourists.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 11:32 AM on January 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

When I moved to ATL from the West, where everything is a grid, it took some getting used to.
This is not a small town, and it has got to be one of the most confusing and difficult places in the country to drive. Most of the time people still give directions by landmarks that may or may not still exist.

Businesses, when I called and explained that I was new and didn't know the area, would tell me "We're right next to where the old WalMart used to be". When I said that didn't help they became flustered and didn't know how to explain it. I couldn't figure out how to get to one business, even looking at the map, that was right off a small highway. When I called and asked them they said they didn't know what that highway was, or how I could get there. It was less than 5 miles away. I never got there.

Online maps and GPS will often go to the wrong place, or take a completely ridiculous route.

I quit asking for directions a long time ago.
posted by bongo_x at 2:32 PM on January 21, 2018

Maybe someone can confirm this for me, but I was told by some rural Irish people many years ago that their address was simply "Name-County Cork" and that's how their mail was delivered.
posted by bongo_x at 2:39 PM on January 21, 2018

I like how well this mirrors how I actually navigate. I live in a city with a grid and numbers that correspond to street numbers, but I turn right at the fire station, left at the T intersection, and then just barely a right to wind up that hill, and so on.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:50 PM on January 21, 2018

Costa Rica has (or at least had back in the '80s) directional addresses. Such as 100 meters south of the church. Most times the family I was living with would have stuff delivered to the post office, where they had an apartado (po box).
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:27 PM on January 21, 2018

soren_lorensen: "Getting directions from a longtime Pittsburgher still is often "turn right where the movie theater used to be"

Surely, it's "where the Isaly's used to be."
posted by Chrysostom at 8:06 PM on January 21, 2018

I grew up in a couple of different places in west-central NM, from 8-18 in the village of San Rafael outside the town of Grants. Our family was Anglo -- the area was mostly old land-grant families and their scions, and ex-uranium miners and their scions.

We lived in a short gravel-eventually-asphalt road coming straight off the state highway, immediately opposite a building that was periodically purchased by someone who would try to run a convenience store out of it before closing up for lack of any customer base for the next couple of years until the next go 'round.

What I learned as an early adolescent, though, was that if I wanted to tell people how to get to our trailer, the best, most succinct directions to give didn't reference mile markers or the ostensible name of the road ("Circle Drive").

No, I should tell them to take Highway 53 south and turn right at the "Old Odie's". There was no new Odie's.

I didn't find out the full history behind those directions until I was nearly 18, but as it was related to me it basically went as follows: at some point circa 30 years before we moved into that dwelling, the mostly-empty building across the highway was a bar, called Odie's (I don't know if that was the name of the bar or just what it was called), and someone underage died in a DUI, resulting in the revocation of the liquor license. This being NM, all this meant is that they moved shop down the highway a couple of miles: that being the "new" Odie's. The new Odie's closed in a similar manner approximately 10 years before we moved into the area.

So as a 14 year old I was giving directions to people based on landmarks that had ceased to exist not just prior to my birth but very nearly my parents'.

And this is to say nothing of directions to destinations in the Navajo Nation.

Which is to say, this all sounds deeply natural and unsurprising to me and I applaud the Nicaraguan postal system for aligning themselves with people's actual usage.
posted by PMdixon at 10:04 PM on January 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

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