Monday, November 29, 2010

Way-Finding Without Maps

Aside from all the usual reasons why improving the available maps of a city would be beneficial to its residents and visitors, in the case of Monrovia it is especially important, because Monrovia's street address system is undeveloped and under-functioning.

At some point a few decades ago, the city seems to have had a numbered street-address system, which, at least downtown, is still nominally in place. There is no postal delivery service in Liberia the moment, so these numbers have use only in the sense of the general public way-finding in the city. Although numbers appear on business cards and signs for many businesses on the main avenues in the Broad Street area, it is rare to be told a specific street number when directions are provided.

This is partially a result of Monrovia's small size, there are only so many streets and buildings on them. But Monrovia, like many cities in West Africa, has an only partially-developed official street-naming system. Street address numbers are few and so locations are presented in relation to landmarks. This is especially true when the location of the dwelling or business is unofficial, or informal.

Thus addresses in Monrovia are rather vague, often just listing the name of the street and section of town. Businesses and residences are often listen simply as Smythe Road, Old Road; 12th Street, Sinkor; or UN Drive, Mamba Point, so that the location is specified to within several city blocks.

This is mitigated partially by the profusion of signs, labels, and graphics painted on or affixed to structures large and small, which almost universally proclaim the name of the street, area, or neighborhood. In many cases a post office box number is provided for mailing-- the only way to expect any type of letter-carrying in the country. In a limit-technology environment, such signage is often the only advertising a business has, and for a visitor, obtaining bearings is eased because of the proximity of signs proclaim the name of that particular street and neighborhood.

T. Choithram & Sons at Red Light, with four signs, address on the top.

What Monrovia lacks in street numbers it more than makes up for in landmarking. Most prominent buildings are named. In fact, a great many large buildings in the capital have more than one name. For the most part, these fall along the lines of the following:

(1) A name is given to the building by its owners, this is often a family name; (eg Parker House; King Building; but also perhaps first names, eg Diana Plaza; or the Rose Building. Presumably these are owned by such individuals or families.

(2) A name is given to a building based on the business that is presently there (eg Lonestar Building, Cellcom Building, Star Radio Building, American Laundry Building, Fedex Plaza). Often these are buildings built by that particular business.

(3) name given to a building based on the business that was once there, which includes such examples as Chase Manhattan Plaza, among others.

This last category can be especially confusing as it often presumes that the wayfinder has either been resident in Monrovia for several decades, or knows the commercial history of the town during this period well-enough. For instance, the DHL office on Broad Street is in the Old Mandarin Building, a named derived from an erstwhile Chinese restaurant in the stately, settler-era mansion, whose appearance suits the gradiose moniker.

The Sport Commission is a major landmark at the Crown Hill
end of Broad Street.

The King Building, on Broad Street at the corner of Gurley Street.
Note the P.O. Box number

Horton Avenue is only a block long. Note the street signs, still relatively uncommon,
and also the JSI sign designating the building name.

Exclusive's original in-town location is noted as Carey & Gurley Streets on the sign above the corner.

Farther out in Paynesville, these informal businesses are noted as simply "ELWA Junction"

Diana Plaza, Broad Street

The E.J. Barclay Building at Carey & Johnson Streets has also begun to be referred to as
the "Caesar Architects Building" due to this prominent sign. Note building number.

Archaic nomenclature can make things even more confusing; but can also be insightful to Monrovia's geography and history. For instance, I was once nearly very embarrassed by my tardiness to a Sunday service at a Baptist church across in the Freeport area of Bushrod Island. I had been invited by a colleague, eager to impress, and had been told to have the car "put me down at the Old Peugeot Garage." So I started looking among the many commercial signs in that stretch of road for a Peugeot dealership.

Little did I know that the Peugeot Garage was referred to as "Old" because it had not been there in about twenty years, so only the people who knew of its previous existence could use it as a road marker.

The situation is even looser when paved streets and concrete buildings with names and signage are not involved, which is the case for the majority of the city's residences. On my first visit to Liberia two years ago, I asked my new friend for his address. Here is what he wrote down:

Kpelleh Town, Rock Hill, ELWA Community, Paynesville, Liberia.

This may seem impossibly vague, like presuming that if you said Murray Hill, Manhattan, New York, someone could find the way to an apartment there. But here's how it works: first, go to ELWA in Paynesville, and generally head towards the northeasterly zone off the highway-- this is the ELWA Community. Ask around where Kpelleh Town is, and someone will either point you in a direction, or escort you to the general area. Once at Kpelleh Town, ask where the Rock Hill section is (or, as my friend told me, look for people breaking rocks, which is the equivalent of telling someone to go to the tip of Manhattan and look for people carrying briefcases). Once you are reasonably sure that you are on Rock Hill, ask for your acquaintance by name, and be pointed or escorted to the correct house.

Like many aspects of life in Monrovia, although it can be confusing, time-consuming, and often frustrating, it is also insightful into a way of orientation which hardly exists in the US, even before the era of GPS. There is often no way to find a business or person without the assistance of one or more of a series of locals, who are normally abundantly friendly and helpful.

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