Friday, November 30, 2012

Wide Streets - Revisited

As with much of my scholarly work, I come away from this project with more questions than answers.

One question that I still grapple with is how do Salt Lake's residents and visitors respond to the intent of its founders?

Brigham Young's directive, that Salt Lake streets be wide enough so that teamsters could turn around their wagons without resorting to profanity, tells me that his focus was looking forward to those who would drive the city and not those transiting it on foot.

Many visitors to Salt Lake, while impressed with the orderliness of the grid system, do not appreciate the wide streets and long blocks. Here is one blogger's recent account:

The streets seemed to be deserted. It was almost spooky how few people we saw on our walk. Granted it was after 9am, but still someone should have been walking, running or something. I almost felt as if we stumbled into a horror movie...

Salt Lake City has very wide streets and sidewalks.  Take an average city street and lay another one right beside it, that is how wide the streets were in SLC. As we were bumbling along we noticed some flags attached to a pole. Being nosy, we had to go see what they were. Since the streets are so wide and the blocks are freakishly long, the flags are in the middle of the block to stop traffic. Yes, you read that right. If the ends of the block are too far away, you grab an orange flag, hold it in front of you, and cross the street!! I felt like a school crossing guard. Jenny let me be the flag bearer so she could take a picture. When you get to the other side, you put the flag in a holder across the street. Odd, but fun!...

It seemed like we walked for miles. At every intersection I would say, “Man, can you believe how wide these streets are?” I sounded like a broken record.

One tenet of Actor-Network Theory that I did not address in my last post is that agency can be expressed by nonhuman actors within the network. That means that the "Actor" in Actor-Network Theory refers not only to human actors, but also to nonhuman forces that can express sufficient agency to alter the behavior of those human actors.

In the context of Salt Lake, the founders designed and laid out wide streets and a grid system. Human walkers, riders, and drivers altered their behavior because of the influence exercised upon them by this unique city design and system of streets.

The wide streets, while annoying to walkers, have elicited efficient solutions from the early days of Salt Lake. Besides accommodating wagon traffic very nicely, the streets have done the same for automobiles, streetcars, buses, and light-rail trains, with two traffic lanes in both directions, and in some cases a turn lane or train tracks down the middle.

Norms, laws, and expectations of one belief system (in this case, Mormonism) push everyday life in Salt Lake in one direction, and contrary forces push back, seeing increasing accommodation for diverse viewpoints, rituals, and cultural practices in race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and politics. 

Digital rhetoric has accelerated this give and take, and as Losh (2009) argues, it "operates at a number of different registers and includes messages to, from, and within the personal, the governmental, the academic, and the scientific public spheres. However, these registers do not represent discrete, hermetically sealed realms of dis­ course, because discussions about civic participation, community membership, and appropriate timing inform each other across the multiple levels of disciplinary expertise" (p. 95).

Whether or not Salt Lake's founders intended its wide streets to include room for diversity and disagreement, that is exactly what the digital sphere has made possible.



Losh, L. (2009). Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes. Boston: MIT Press.