Thursday, May 18th, 2006

The streets in the neighborhood aren’t very wide. I’m not sure even if street is the right word. Maybe road.

A friend of mine many years ago told me stories about moving from Toledo to the southwest where the big travel roads are called freeways. Where she came from they were called highways. These aren’t the same things. A freeway is about freedom of movement. A highway, on the other hand, is about elevated travel, moving high. She talked about trying to get from one end of town to the other and having trouble finding directions.

“How do I get onto the highway from here?”

“What’s a highway?”

So she had to use the new term to get where she wanted to go.

The notion of a freeway and a highway demonstrate different ways of describing, differentiating, and codifying travel and space. But they also mean different things in different places. My friend and I would talk about this, ask questions: “Why do they call them highways?”

“Why do you call yours freeways?”

Do road, street, freeway and highway imply more than tags or everyday terminology? We know that roads mean more than asphalt. Remember information “superhighway”? “Superfreeway” doesn’t sound right, but we know what the string was meant to do for the listener. We also know now that “superhighway” was the incorrect metaphor.

In linguistic history, street has structural, formal, and administrative meaning: an official road, made road, something built with a purpose beyond the simple directional path, which was simply the way people went. Road has random texture, a “we go this way, usually,” whereas street is direct manipulation. In Latin a street (strata) is a paved road. Thus in the Connecticut suburb, paved surfaces will be called roads not streets because the suburb is meant as country, a pastoral expression. In the suburb there are no street lights. Why? Because there are no streets.

We interact with freeways and highways. Both imply an expression of what people value. On the freeway, we are expressing a value for movement; on the highway, we express our ability to travel above ground.

Typically, a street is a thing over which people we don’t know travel. The road, a more intimate object, is used by the neighbors. The surfaces that help us get to farther places faster are denoted by abstracted, yet value-rich terms: free and high. State and position, being and technical accomplishment.

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