Friday, August 8, 2008

A Street called Arbitrary

We have found the absolute shortest (I think) route from our home in Plainfield to our oldest daughter in Iowa. It involves going through part of rural western Illinois, through towns like Farmington, Roseville and Raritan.

Driving through Roseville, I spotted an interesting street sign. I double checked on Google maps to see if I saw what I though I saw. There it was - "N. Arbitrary St.":

View Larger Map

In fact, Roseville has the only Arbitrary St. in the Google map database.

There must be a story behind this, and it reminded me of my street-naming career.

I served two terms on the Pleasant Plain, Iowa town council (I was the highest vote-getter when I ran for my second term. Fifty-four people voted for me!). The council met once a month to review the street repair budget, listened to complaints about dogs and messy property, and commiserate about how little power we had over any of these things.

The county was setting up a county-wide 911 emergency response system and in order to make it work, all streets had to be named and each house had to have a number. Our Rural Route box numbers would have to go.

The only guideline was that we had to come up with street names that were not already in our Post Office's delivery area (Our Post Office was three miles away in Brighton). The County Road that ran along the east edge of town had an official designation - W57. The road that connected us to the County Road and the State Highway was unofficially called the "Pleasant Plain Blacktop." Under the new system the county labeled it 110th St and we decided we should keep that name on the part that goes through town in order to avoid confusion.

We had seven other streets that needed names. We had some old maps that had names on some of the streets. We talked about some local history references that might work. And we came up with our list:
  • Penn St. - Pleasant Plain is in Penn Township, named by its Quaker settlers)
  • South St., North St., East St., and West St. - Not very original, but descriptive.
  • Midway St. - A historic name for a section of road that connected the old County Road to the new County Road. It was "midway" between them
  • Railroad St. - On the west side of town there was a narrow-gauge rail line and stock yards. The railroad was moved about 100 years ago, but you can still find rusty spikes if you dig along the railroad right of way. It could have been called Mill St. for the remains of the old mill that still stood at the south end of the street.
The Post Office was happy, the County was happy, and most of the people in town were OK with the names.

It was all pretty arbitrary. So maybe the people of Roseville, IL should be applauded for their honesty about this whole street naming process. And maybe most of the streets on our maps are in fact "Arbitrary Streets."