Chapter 1: Labyrinth City


I got stuck on Dupont Circle. I can never remember which lane I’m supposed to take.

—Annette Bening as Sydney in The American President


The feeling of being lost in the city must have been more acute in the old days, when walkers or riders or drivers had to rely on signs, memory, luck, or interactions with strangers to find their way, before the U.S. Navy invented the global positioning technology that would become standard features of cars and mobile phones by the late 1990s. GPS Siri is like having the voice of Ariadne say, “Don’t worry, just turn left at the next light.” No wonder trusting the GPS system trumps the spouse or cousin or friend in the passenger seat who might actually know the way, and who even might know a better route. But can digital technology completely have erased the lost-in-the-city existential anxiety that has been part of human experience since the gofer working on the Harappa or Mohenjo-Daro sewage system showed up for work at the wrong corner of the Great Bath? Even Siri gets lost or goes silent, and GPS glitches are a digital era’s directional urban anxiety.

            The city is labyrinthine by design. The path must wind in a continuous way—everywhere in the city must be accessible. But so many buildings and people create complexity. Mazy-ness grows as streets connect to other streets. If there is no grid, and the city grows pall-mall and willy-nilly, maze-like confusion seems inevitable. But even the most carefully designed grid can become a prison for the unfortunate, naïve, or inept traveler. Then the Lost begins to worry about encountering the city’s Minotaur around the next ill-advised turn of a corner.

            Did Ur have traffic flow problems? Did Sumer’s city planners budget for road signs and bicycle lanes? Imagine getting lost in Uruk and not being able to read cuneiform. How about Renaissance-era Fiorenza or Venice? Did some frantic Leonardo with a backpack full of brushes throw his hands up in despair when he realized he was hopelessly lost? Did Bill Shakespeare make a wrong turn on his way to the Globe some rainy morning in April 1604 and decide to insert a few maze references into the island play he was working on, which he hoped would be the capstone to his playwriting career?

            The city maze can be a wonderland for the patient adventurer, for lovers wanting to “get lost” a la Chet Baker, or for anyone wanting to experience the city in its fullness, like an open-minded Alfred Kazin, the literature-loving “walker in the city.”

            But getting lost in the city’s maze can be traumatic.

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