I am a member of a Facebook group for my little neighborhood in Grand Forks, North Dakota: the Near South Side. Recently the conversation has turned to traffic flow through our neighborhood largely in response to a study of traffic flow across the town and a more specific study of traffic flow in the Near South Side. I’ll probably blog on this at some point (and it’s a bit more interesting than it sounds!), but the conversation got me thinking a bit about stop signs.
For whatever reason, I’ve always been a bit interested in stop signs. I have long kept a little tally in my head of my favorite stop signs in town and find their assertiveness and confidence a reassuring reminder that authority still exists even in such a completely impersonal form. Beyond their brash confidence, stop signs also tell specific individual stories. Some remind us that there are other people in the world who have places to go that are every bit as urgent – and maybe more so – than you. The most iconic signs control the flow of traffic across busy intersections. Others simply remind you to slow down, take it easy, and to enjoy your journey. These are traffic calming stop signs. Some stop signs are aspirational. They stand at isolated intersections and tell us that while it might not look like much now, in a few years, this intersection will be bustling. Some are historical reminders that an intersection used to be something more than it is now, and these signs stand out of time and place in the changing landscape and traffic flow. In short, stop signs tell stories and the relationship between the traveler, the sign, the space, the community, and the planner who suggested that a stop sign should stand at a particular intersection is part of how we produce a sense of place in our world. A whole essay could be written on how this sense of place – on the corner or at the crossroads – can become menacing, welcoming, confusing, relaxing, or ultimately lead you to sell your soul to the devil.
In any event, over the past decade or so in Grand Forks, I’ve created a little list of my five favorite stop signs. The list has a changed a bit over time as my routines and routes have changed, but as it stands now, I think it reflects my sense of place in town.
1. 8th and Reeves. This is the stop sign nearest my house and I’ve spent many a long summer evening watching cars approach this unusual intersection from the south on Reeves. These northbound cars come to a complete stop only to realize that they aren’t sure entirely how traffic flows through this intersection as the cars heading south on Reeves also have a stop sign, despite the fact that the two roads do meet in the middle of the intersection. Other drivers confidently roll through the intersection craning their necks to the west to make sure that traffic isn’t heading east toward them on 8th. Some stop and then inch forward looking all the while to the the west, and others – especially approaching the intersection from the north – barely glance to the east, before cutting the corner and turning south on Reeves to continue their journey. Many of the drivers are merely passing through this intersection on their way south or north to or from the Point Bridge that crosses the Red River and links our town to East Grand Forks, in Minnesota. The intersection also marks a change on Reeves drive where the more modest turn of the century homes give way to the houses of the local elite that line the most prestigious stretch of road in town.
2. 3rd Street and 1st Avenue. This intersection is in the heart of downtown Grand Forks. Third Street is the home to restaurants and bars as well as condos and apartments that embody the idea of a walkable downtown. In the summers there are planters along the street and some of the bars and restaurants install temporary decks to allow folks to enjoy outdoor seating. In the winter, there are lights stretched above the street which glitter off the snow and give the district the feeling of the winter holidays. There’s a stop sign on 3rd Street that I suspect is designed to slow the flow of traffic down 3rd street and make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street. 1st street isn’t really a busy road largely because it ends one block later in a parking lot and the flood wall.
There are just so many distractions along this road, and the stop sign is pretty far from my line of sight. As a result, I end up running this stop sign maybe once a month (or at a rate of one time for ever 15 drives down this road). Because this part of downtown is busy, I’m usually driving slow so it’s not that I’m in hurry to go somewhere else. In fact, I usually realize that I’ve run the sign and stop in the middle of the intersection, which probably serves the spirit of the stop sign even if I don’t embrace its legal insistence that I stop on a particular line. Whenever I stop or run this sign, it gives me a little smile.
3. 13th Avenue and 14th Street. This stop sign transports me to a different time and place. 13th avenue is a “major collector” road in the formal terminology of traffic planning, and we often use it to get across town. Despite that, the intersection of 13 avenue and 14th street is an unusual one for me. It occurs one block to the west of 13th Avenue crossing a major, four lane road, Washington Street, and, as a result, 14th street feels something like a service road running along the back of a strip mall and a car dealership. The businesses at this intersection feature a couple of auto repair establishments and a laundromat. A rather rough looking mobile home park stretches along the west side of 14th street to the north. The vibe is distinctly small town and rural, despite being just a block from a suburban stretch of Washington Street with a McDonalds, a strip mall, a DQ, and until recently a Starbucks. In fact, this intersection reminds me of the small towns in the Western North Dakota where people are getting by just fine, living their lives, working in small businesses, and on a sunny afternoon might be more than happy to stop and have a chat while their laundry finishes at The Bubble Laundry Co. or they get their brakes done on their 2003 Ford F-150.
These moments of reverie and displacement have predictable results. Once ever ten trips through this intersection result in me slamming on the brakes at the four-way stop (or even running the stop sign entirely). The change from the bustling but predictable flow of Washington and the near-suburban feeling of 13th on the east side of Washington to the small town intersection feeling at 14th and 13th never fails to disrupt my mindless drive across town.
4. Reeves and 9th Avenue. This intersection was basically terra incognito to me despite being just a block from my house. I walk south on Reeves periodically and sometimes even jog, but I never think about this intersection at all and probably mindless cross 9th avenue without even a deliberate check to see if there’s traffic. This makes a certain kind of sense, though, because there isn’t much traffic on 9th Avenue which ends at the flood wall just a block to the east of this intersection. There is traffic on Reeves of course, as I explained above. Many commuters use Reeves to avoid the busier routes of Belmont (a minor arterial road) or Washington Street several blocks to the west (which is a principal arterial to use the pleasantly biological terminology of traffic analysis). I almost never use 9th because it is laced with stop signs between Reeves and Washington, although I will admit to sometimes driving west on 9th just to enjoy the unusual “yield” sign at 9th and Oak.
This is clearly one of those stop signs installed to slow the flow of traffic along Reeves because if this intersection needed a stop sign to control traffic, it would make more sense to have it on 9th which is already a stop sign aficionados paradise. In fact, because I rarely drive south on Reeves, I almost never think about this stop sign while in my car. I think I’ve likely run it a few times because it is so unexpected and the road is close to home and I’m usually turning west on 9th before entering the alley between Reeves and Belmont. I started to notice this stop sign, however, when I started to ride my bike more regularly in the summer and fall. I generally proceed down 9th to Almonte and then to the Greenway bike paths. For quite some time it struck me as oddly courteous that folks would stop for me as I crossed Reeves on 9th. I now know it’s because there’s a stop sign there. Maybe the best stop signs are ones that you don’t notice?
5. 20th Street and 36th Avenue. For me, this stop sign is always being its best stop sign. It simply works. I usually proceed through this intersection on 20th Street heading south toward the dogs’ club on south Washington after running errands on the bustling principal arterial that is 32nd Avenue. Usually I turn south out of Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop at around 5 pm on my way to get the dogs and head home for the day. It’s not the first intersection south of Happy Harry’s, but it’s the first notable intersection. More than that, it feel like this intersection is a gateway to the new, more suburban and sprawling Grand Forks that I call, in my head, the Far South Side. There are apartments here sprouting from agricultural fields and massive athletic complexes, new schools, new health care centers, and new versions of venerable Grand Fork’s businesses arrayed in strip malls along Washington Street.
This stop sign embodies some of these changes in town. It’s a four way stop that often has a few cars waiting for their time to proceed. There is great visibility because the intersection sits amid new construction that is politely set back from the road and which frame the open spaces to keep your attention on the palpable bustle of this new suburbia. It’s an aspirational intersection, in some ways, which welcomes the driver heading south to new things (even if these new things are, the same old suburbs). It gives you a reason to stop and take stock. Maybe someday, there will be a stop light here, but for now, the stop sign seems to tell me that there is more to come.
Confusion Corner: There is nothing more interesting than both stop signs and yield signs.
6th Avenue and 15th St. (and Washington): Something about stop signs on frontage roads that just gets me right in the feels.
Belmont and 62nd Ave.: This stop sign is both useful and aspirational.
About this post:
Over the last few months, I’ve been writing some short essays on small town life for theNorth Dakota Quarterly blog. I like to try them out here first, but here are the others: The Dog Park at the End of the Universe, In Praise of Trucks, Alone Together in a Small Town, Bump outs, Logistics, and Citizenship in a Small Town. I pretend that they’re chapters in a fictional book of essays on life in Grand Forks, North Dakota.