Chapter 15
Don't Be Such a Square

Lessons in the new geometry.

Cities like Cambridge are often divided into neighborhoods that are named by the central business district in that area. Some of them were, in the old days, the central "squares" of smaller settlements that have grown into a town or city. Here in and around Cambridge, for instance, we have Harvard Square, Central Square, Kendall Square, Porter Square, Brattle Square, Union Square, and Davis Square, among others. The intersection that our building is on is called Putnam Circle. Sorry, not a square. The odd thing about most of these places is that the true shape of the intersection does not match the shape implied by the name. At least not anymore. Did our city fathers fail high school geometry?

In order for a square to be square, you would think that two roads would cross at right angles and, right there in the middle of that, one would declare the place to be square. Nah. Most useful squares in this area are actually triangular. Three roads. Oddly, Central Square is an exception, with five roads coming in. See the previous article on "five points" intersections. But I digress. For instance, Kendall, Harvard, Porter, and Davis Squares are largely triangular. There are big concrete islands in all of them, clearly three sided and not four. Three major roads coming in. Well, sorta. Actually, Harvard Square is so complicated, it is misleading to call it a square. Or any singular anything. There are four distinct road intersections within two hundred yards that connect the central triangular square, the triangular Cambridge Common, some semicircular Y-craziness called Brattle Square a few yards to the west, and the northbound road. . . ah, the northbound road, a Gordian knot that branches *five* ways, only one of which will get you from Mass Ave. (south) to Mass Ave. (north). The other four branches lead to dragons, falling off the edge of the map, and madness for the unsuspecting. This intersection is soooo complicated that the GPS says, "No f-ing way! You're on your own, pal!"

Many years ago, a young couple in a pickup stopped me on the street to ask for directions. We were on Mass Ave. north of Harvard Square at the time, and they had to get to some place on Mass Ave. south of the Square. Oh no, going south is even worse than going north. They were headed in the right direction. It should have been easy. But in a few blocks, the one-way system would have them in its grasp and send them to the Twilight Zone. They drove all the way from Michigan to get lost in the last mile? I despaired of just giving them verbal directions after trying once or twice before. I had to draw them a map with circles and arrows. I hope they made it.

While we're at it, I should mention that Putnam Circle is not particularly circular. It might have been at some time in the past, before I got here, but today it is the confluence of five streets, three of them one-way, and yet somehow it is still largely triangular. But to make up for it, Fresh Pond Circle is *two* circles. (It used to be *three* circles, but one of them was turned into an elaborate Y intersection with seven concrete islands, most of which are, you guessed it, triangular.)

Oh, and did I mention that there are precious few signs.