Hey, Mr Pizza Man!
by Vivian Williamson-Bryan
Turn right where the big tamarind tree used to be, then pass the house with the blue roof and the red truck in the driveway (and just hope that the owners of that truck are home and it’s parked there!)…
Sound just a dash obtuse? Not too if you’re a local of long standing. But for island newcomers and tourists (and pizza delivery persons) those enigmatic but typical directions can lead to teeth gnashing, muttering of foul imprecations and the smell of burning clutch linings (wrong turns on this island of precipitous terrain usually take one onto “roads” that tend to propel one’s heart into one’s mouth).
One of the quaint features of living on our island is an almost total lack of a formal address system. Of course we have addresses – they’re just not very helpful when it comes to finding a residence or even a business. No such nicety such as an orderly, logical numbering system is in use here (not yet anyway – there are, however, rumours that our cavalier attitude towards this particular aspect life might soon become a thing of the past). Our addresses are really just the designations assigned by the surveyor of the property (!) according to estate and lot number – and his whims. A practice that works fine for the tax assessor but is pretty tough for emergency services, taxi drivers and pizza men.
This system dates back to Danish days. Who would ever credit that methodical and precise (typically northern European traits) nation of leaving such an anarchic legacy behind when they rolled up their tents and went home. Well, it’s not really their fault. Actually their mapmakers were extremely painstaking in their accuracy. Things just kind of fizzled in the major growth that’s taken place since they left. We’re no longer grass shacks and coconuts, now we’re more condos and caviar.
Back in those aforementioned times, so called addresses were pretty much limited to the small area in and immediately surrounding the town of Charlotte Amalie. Streets were given the standard names like King’s St, Queen’s St, Prince’s St. – but in Danish, i.e., Kongens Gade, Dronningens Gade and Prindsens Gade. All these gades remain (along with quite a few more in the town area) more than 75 years after the Danes left. Besides the interesting sounds of these street names to American ears, there are some unique (and this is not a word I use loosely) numbering patterns (this is why it’s as hard to find an address in town as it is “out in the bush”) in those streets. This was partly due to the Danish mapmakers, most of whom plied their trade a good 5000 miles from here without ever stepping foot on the island. That dependence on second hand information made for some rather unusual twists and turns, streets stopping and then picking up again later some distance away or even streets that were in reality flights of steps. One example of this is Dronningens Gade or, as it’s more commonly known, Main St.
As we ambled down Dronningens Gade, about three quarters of the way along, we passed AH Riise at #37. Continue along another block and a half and there’s Cardow at #39. Ten minutes, 2 blocks and what seems like thousands of steps later, there’s the Reformed Church parsonage at #42. (And before we leave Blackbeard’s Hill, which is where we’ve reached, there’s one more oddity in the address foible department that you might find interesting. The next house, #43 Dronningens Gade, has its front gate directly across the street (the street is actually Lille Taarne Gade) from the front door of #1 Prindsens Gade!) If you find all this confusing, you’re not alone. Just pity the poor postman.
Before you dismiss the whole situation as pure chaos, though, let me tell you the secret method behind this seeming madness. Instead of zigzagging down a street, with odd numbers on one side and evens on the other, the Danes instead started numbering on one side, continued to the end on that side, and then, on the opposite side of the street, proceeded back to the starting point. Whew. Remember Cardow at #39? They have a branch store directly across the street – its address is #1 Dronningens Gade.
Is it any wonder that with a system like this that landmarks play such an important role in island directions? And once you leave the relatively normal layout of the town area (these streets do have names, after all, and even numbers though they’re rarely posted or make any sense) for the “country,” as we call it, you’ll find that landmarks are essential in navigating about.
A few years ago, the federal government made a stab at bringing the Virgin Islands into conjunction with the highway system as it is on the mainland. Good try guys. In theory it works. There are route signs posted all over the island. There are even some of those huge green signs like you see on an interstate (our tax dollars at work for one of the island’s larger jokes). But ask anyone who’s lived here prior to those signs being installed what route goes where (or even what route numbers are here) and you’ll no doubt get a totally blank look and some form of the word “ah.” (There might be one exception to this – after seeing the route sign a thousand or more times most people can probably tell you which one runs closest to their house. For instance, I can tell you that Hull Bay Rd is Rt 37 only because there is a sign stating that fact about 50 ft from my driveway.) Only newcomers and tourists know route numbers.
The entire island is divided into “quarters” (not the 4 that you might expect – there are more than 10 of them), and then into estates. Don’t confuse this with subdivisions. Estates are the old sugar plantations and most bear the names of the families that once owned them. They are not neatly contained rectangles with predictable boundaries. Some run from the top of the mountain right down to the sea; others are compact little areas of a few dozen acres. Estate names are often picturesque (Upper John Dunkoe or Estate St Peter both have a nice ring. And St Peter Mountain Rd sounds as if you’re heading to the pearly gates) – certainly more so than the names present day developers bestow. You can bet that anything that smacks of the aristocracy enjoying pastoral pleasures is fresh off the drawing board. Nothing St Thomas has, though, can compare with St Croix’s Estate Slob (I would have to consider long and hard before having that for my address).
This arrangement in and of itself is just fine (except very few people other than Realtors can tell you where all the estates are located) but it does lack a bit of detail. It would be like telling people what county you live in. It’s when you have to fine tune the address that the trouble starts. Sure there are main roads, some with names even (but without name signs), but there are also hundreds of smaller roads without names! Hence the significance of landmarks.
Directions here are rife with phrases like “go to X Bar then turn back” or “pass X Grocery and keep driving until a little ways before you start up the hill” or “just keep on the road till you see my car.” Or the directions that name long gone landmarks like cement mixers that were used in a now complete building project, chopped down trees, chicken coops from the island’s more rural days or trash bins that are no more. None of this presents a problem when all the parties involved are natives or long term residents. Imagine the confusion when that isn’t the case. Fifteen minutes is not an unusual length of time to spend trying to explain how to find your house. Learning how to draw a good map (and keeping photocopies handy) is a useful skill to develop.
But, supposedly, the powers that be have thoughts of change in mind. They think that perhaps we should be like the rest of the world with grids and sequential numbers and real addresses actually displayed on our houses for all the world to see. An ambitious undertaking, to say the least. Besides the monumental task of mapping and naming all the tiny roads that meander off through the bush – some of which are no more than dirt tracks – I wonder if they’ve taken into consideration the island’s loathness to change – for the better or not. (An illustration of that conservative nature: The postal address for St Thomas is really Charlotte Amalie – and has been for a number of years. A quick survey of island printers shows that less than 5% of their customers have taken that dictum seriously. The return address of choice is St Thomas VI. And don’t even ask about zip+4!)
It’s said that change is good, and there are many arguments that this change would be beneficial to all, detrimental to no one. I guess so. All except for the change in the character that makes this a quirky little island instead of a suburban outpost. And what’s so bad about keeping the memory of a beautiful old tamarind tree alive anyhow? I’m not quite sure that pizza at my doorstep is worth the trade.