What was Boston like before GPS?

Paletexan

New member
Joined
Aug 28, 2019
Messages
47
Reaction score
99
Serious question. I have been trying to practice getting around without google maps when picking up food, and end up getting lost or in places I’ve never seen before. We are now temporarily based near Fenway and get takeout from watertown or newton or union square.

How did anyone get anywhere without GPS back in the 90s if anyone lived here then???
 
Last edited:

North Shore

Active Member
Joined
Aug 19, 2014
Messages
139
Reaction score
33
Serious question. I have been trying to practice getting around without google maps when picking up food, and end up getting lost or in places I’ve never seen before getting based in Fenway now / takeout from watertown or newton or union square.

How did anyone get anywhere without GPS back in the 90s if anyone lived here then???
If you're like me, you had an institutional knowledge of the main travel ways from walking all over the city. Then, in the 90's, you'd literally print out a map via MapQuest.
 

vanshnookenraggen

Moderator
Staff member
Joined
May 25, 2006
Messages
6,476
Reaction score
296
Smart phones have really made us all stupid. Back in the day you'd just have to remember where to go and how to get there. And you did. Now with phones you leave all the thinking up to technology and your memory atrophies. Same with phone numbers. Shit, if I was held for ransom I'd be fucked since I only know my own phone number.
 

stefal

Active Member
Joined
Jan 15, 2015
Messages
867
Reaction score
373
If you're like me, you had an institutional knowledge of the main travel ways from walking all over the city.
I'd say I've got a fairly good grasp of the streets from walking everywhere, but I don't know, it's a different game when I'm in the car and every turn I take when I don't feel like following GPS looks like an undiscovered part of the city, even though I've walked the area multiple times..
 

F-Line to Dudley

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 2, 2010
Messages
6,089
Reaction score
1,017
Being stopped by drivers and asked for directions by the side of the road ever since first moving here as a freshman at BU got me dextrous real fast with directions...and the distinction between driving directions vs. walking directions on this bugfark street grid. I've always had good sense of direction and good memory for memorizing them, so desire to not look like a stammering idiot going "Uhhhh, uhhh..." every time getting stopped honed that skill nice n' sharp.

I've been a (very occasional) driver since '03, but I hung onto my dumb-tech old flip phone until 2014 and didn't trade up to smaht until the thing literally broke. So I never really gave myself the chance to become fat and lazy off the GPS era. Still have early-2010's road atlases underneath the seat at the ready. When I absolutely needed to I'd just print off a sheet on Mapquest (then Google) beforehand, arrow it with a sharpie, and squint at it when I got close to destination. Still do sometimes, though I really never see smelling distance of 495 these days so after 23 years here it's mostly all brain-mapped. Have yet--now on 4/27/2020--in my entire life been behind the wheel with the GPS turned on. Pretty sure I even disabled that app on my phone to save idle memory. I can think of nothing more rage-inducing than having some shrill lady bark out directions at me like a backseat driver while I'm trying to pay attention, then go to DEFCON 2 when I take a detour I *know* in my bones will save me time.


Maybe it's a contrarian reaction to my family giving up the ghost on all former sense of direction and becoming slaves to the sqawking GPS. My parents in CT don't even drive to the frickin' Lowe's down the street without setting the phone by force of habit. Last time I moved apartments I had my dad bring his big trailer hitch to help move my stuff while I packed my tiny sedan. I knew if he listened to the GPS lady it would tell him "Storrow Drive to 93 South", so I told him to follow me 2 to 128 because "you WILL be an hour late if you take the Expressway". Then, because I knew his OCD wouldn't listen, I asked him to repeat after me..."yeah, yeah...2 to 95, whatever." He was of course an hour late...and had my door keys with him so I was just standing outside like an idiot. Pulls in swearing to himself..."Jesus Christ, the fucking traffic."

"How was it possibly that bad? Did you go the way I told you to."

"No...the GPS said take Storrow to 93." (Without a hint of irony.) :unsure:
 
Last edited:

DZH22

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 13, 2006
Messages
5,955
Reaction score
2,790
The city is actually very easy to learn. First, just set aside about 15 solid years. Utilize the T extensively and then also drive extensively. Make sure you try to walk down every road you possibly can, both ways. Check the map (now google maps but could have been a regular map) each time you get home to identify specific street locations. Dedicate your life to this and pretty soon it will be 2035 and you'll know where you're going!
 

stick n move

Senior Member
Joined
Oct 14, 2009
Messages
6,821
Reaction score
1,146
You looked up at the pru. Bostons north star. If the hancock is behind it youre west, if its to the left youre north, right youre south, pru behind hancock youre east. Knowing that you can judge smaller direction changes within that framework. If you know where you need to be and which cardinal direction youre at now you go from there following as many familiar main roads as you can and checking the pru to make sure youre heading the right way. Thats how millions of people did it before gps and I still do it to this day.
 
Last edited:

JeffDowntown

Senior Member
Joined
May 28, 2007
Messages
3,050
Reaction score
220
It was easy. I used to get asked for directions a lot (I must not look lost). A common request would be a driver on the edge of Chinatown trying to get to the Garden.

I'd point to a local parking garage and say -- park there and take the Orange Line.
 

Charlie_mta

Senior Member
Joined
Jul 15, 2006
Messages
1,605
Reaction score
243
Despite there being a dozen Washington Streets and legendary poor signing (deliberate it seems to confuse the outsiders), the Boston metro is pretty easy to figure out. It's basically just a series of compact, separate towns linked by a sparse network of arterials and parkways, with a few expressways thrown in. It's not a continuous massive sprawl like most midwestern and western cities.
 

F-Line to Dudley

Senior Member
Joined
Nov 2, 2010
Messages
6,089
Reaction score
1,017
Despite there being a dozen Washington Streets and legendary poor signing (deliberate it seems to confuse the outsiders), the Boston metro is pretty easy to figure out. It's basically just a series of compact, separate towns linked by a sparse network of arterials and parkways, with a few expressways thrown in. It's not a continuous massive sprawl like most midwestern and western cities.
"Cowpaths begat thoroughfares"

 

fatnoah

New member
Joined
Aug 28, 2012
Messages
71
Reaction score
10
How did anyone get anywhere without GPS back in the 90s if anyone lived here then???
I learned most of the street layout in the city by walking. I'd also look at maps and generate a mental image of where important highways and landmarks were. However, the most effective way was to just get in the car and drive, which I'd do nearly every Saturday. I'd drive around, get lost, and eventually find my way to a highway or something I knew. My ability to navigate most of the area inside 128 owes to these explorations.
 

Norval Elliot

New member
Joined
Jun 3, 2019
Messages
47
Reaction score
14
"New York: Because we want you to know where you are and how to get where you're going"
I'm not sure that applies to Queens, however, where one can find a 30th Avenue, a 30th Drive, a 30th Place, a 30th Road, and a 30th Street. (Did I omit one?)
 

Arlington

Moderator
Staff member
Joined
Dec 10, 2011
Messages
4,358
Reaction score
497
Before GPS it was awful, and it wasn't until Streetview that it really got "fixed"

I arrived in Boston in 1996, as a dedicated user of the maps of the Alexandria Drafting Company who made highly-readable metro area atlases for DC and Baltimore and others, but, unfortunately did not cover New England
So we had a mix of decent maps (AAA) and crappy atlases (Arrow, one spread per town, as if people didn't need to nav between villages!) where you'd have to look up a street and then use the A1 thru R20 grid, or whatever), and the early web directions from Map Quest and Yahoo Maps.

I was a dedicated paper map user until about 2010. Only with streetview could you really be sure that the 15 Beacon Street you were going to was the one you wanted.

But it sucked for reasons:

1) No grid, no Zero Milestone, no spine, no central crossing
...nor quadrants or East/West or North/South (such as "the other big cities" have NYC, PHL, WAS, CHI, BAL ) where you could learn a central street or crossing and work outward from it.
...nor water always on the same "side of town"
...too easy to lose your sense of direction at a series of 40 or 75 or 120 degree intersections while walking or driving

2) crazy-small polities
...which meant turning pages as you drove and greatly increased your chance that on the same paper map there'd be two unconnected streets with the same name, see 5, below)

3) Too many 1-way streets
...too hard to get "into" a neighborhood like Beacon Hill when 90% of the streets are one way flowing "out").
In the name of reducing cut-throughs, you'd usually have to loop around Beacon Hill twice before you found "your way in"

4) Too many small streets, such that you couldn't tell name or direction from a map (while driving)

5) Too many street names re-used without connecting to each other, specifically the ones that you'd find a lot of lost people looking for
- Cambridge St (Allston vs & Cambridge & Boston)
- Beacon (Boston vs Somerville vs Chelsea vs Waban)
- Summer St (Boston vs Somerville)
- Winter St (Boston vs Cambridge vs Arlington
- Willow (Boston vs Cambridge)
& any others where people expected that "Boston" wouldn't repeat the same street name from Boston Proper across the formerly-separate polities of East Boston, Charlestown, Allston, & Brighton


When I lived on Willow St (Beacon Hill) I'd regularly get people looking for Cambridge's willow. When I worked on Cambridge St, Cambridge, we'd regularly get people looking for Cambridge St Boston.


Almost every place else in America you can go, they've done less annexing and have more conspicuous boundaries
 

HenryAlan

Senior Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2009
Messages
2,361
Reaction score
348
It's something you just figured out by doing. I definitely used landmarks like the Pru and the Citgo sign. I also learned early on that subway stops were pretty close to each other, and started doing more walking, which was very useful to understanding what the paths were above the tunnels. Aside from that, I think we all used a smaller scale knowledge base. Back in the day, nobody in Kenmore/Fenway would have gotten takeout from Watertown or Somerville.
 

Paletexan

New member
Joined
Aug 28, 2019
Messages
47
Reaction score
99
It's something you just figured out by doing. I definitely used landmarks like the Pru and the Citgo sign. I also learned early on that subway stops were pretty close to each other, and started doing more walking, which was very useful to understanding what the paths were above the tunnels. Aside from that, I think we all used a smaller scale knowledge base. Back in the day, nobody in Kenmore/Fenway would have gotten takeout from Watertown or Somerville.
Interesting, is it because Kenmore/Fenway had more restaurant options?
 

JumboBuc

Senior Member
Joined
Jun 26, 2013
Messages
2,161
Reaction score
234
I'm a believer that in the pre-GPS days, people cultivated a much better sense of direction and street grid knowledge than they do today. But on the flip side, people with GPS technology today are also much better at navigating to where they need to go than people were in the pre-GPS days.

If you set up an navigation contest between an "old-timer" and a "digital-native," the old-timer would for sure win if neither had GPS but the digital-native would probably win if they both did.

So I think that "people today don't know where anything is like we used to know back in the day" AND "people in the past didn't really know where anything was" are BOTH true statements.

Aside from that, I think we all used a smaller scale knowledge base. Back in the day, nobody in Kenmore/Fenway would have gotten takeout from Watertown or Somerville.
I had the same reaction. Just as the internet makes it easier to navigate outside of your neighborhood, it also gives you much more information about places outside of your neighborhood to which you might want to navigate. I bet you found / heard about those Watertown/Newton/Somerville places online? Back in the day it was much harder for a Fenway resident to find good takeout in Watertown, so they just didn't. Call it "induced demand," if you like.

More restricted mobility in the past lead to, well, more restricted mobility in the past.

Interesting, is it because Kenmore/Fenway had more restaurant options?
I'd actually say that Kenmore/Fenway has significantly more restaurant options now than it did in the past. But people nowadays demand way more options than they used to (because we now know those options are options).
 
Last edited:

HenryAlan

Senior Member
Joined
Dec 15, 2009
Messages
2,361
Reaction score
348
Interesting, is it because Kenmore/Fenway had more restaurant options?
See @JumboBuc's answer, but suffice it to say, we just made do with what was local. Kenmore in the 80s had a bit more on the sub shop/diner/ethnic food scene, quite a bit less on the fancier upscale. You wouldn't travel beyond the neighborhood for the former, for the latter, you'd head down town for a dine in experience. Either way, you probably didn't have a significant idea of what was outside of the areas you worked, lived, or played.
 
Last edited:

cadetcarl

Active Member
Joined
Sep 11, 2012
Messages
424
Reaction score
18
I learned the city (and all of Eastern MA) by navigating from the passenger seat for my mom as a kid using the big Metro Boston road atlas. She was and remains horrible with directions but as a kid in a new city (I immigrated here as a young child) I couldn't get enough of it all. It's no surprise I ended up on this part of this internet. But I pored through it voraciously in my free time, getting better and better at charting out paths for my mom. And when I was out and had the routes down, I could really look around and match the map to my mental map. Throw in a lot of riding the bus, RL and OL before I could drive, and that rounded me out.

Basically: be a native or be around a really long time. In my limited experience living in other places, it takes a really long time to establish the network of nodes that makes you cross your usual routes at different angles or in reverse, the things that you need to really "know" a street network.
 

DominusNovus

Active Member
Joined
Jun 20, 2010
Messages
858
Reaction score
12
Maybe it's a contrarian reaction to my family giving up the ghost on all former sense of direction and becoming slaves to the sqawking GPS. My parents in CT don't even drive to the frickin' Lowe's down the street without setting the phone by force of habit. Last time I moved apartments I had my dad bring his big trailer hitch to help move my stuff while I packed my tiny sedan. I knew if he listened to the GPS lady it would tell him "Storrow Drive to 93 South", so I told him to follow me 2 to 128 because "you WILL be an hour late if you take the Expressway". Then, because I knew his OCD wouldn't listen, I asked him to repeat after me..."yeah, yeah...2 to 95, whatever." He was of course an hour late...and had my door keys with him so I was just standing outside like an idiot. Pulls in swearing to himself..."Jesus Christ, the fucking traffic."

"How was it possibly that bad? Did you go the way I told you to."

"No...the GPS said take Storrow to 93." (Without a hint of irony.) :unsure:
Raising parents is a big responsibility, and you have to be stern with them when they don't listen to you.

I'm one to talk - my father missed the bridge to Cape Cod for my wedding.
 

Top