Quad-lanta

Last month, I happened upon a tweet from an Atlanta newcomer inquiring about the logic and utility of Atlanta’s street naming conventions. You know what I’m talking about: the ordinal directions appended to the end of the city’s street names, always letting you know which of the city’s four quadrants you’re in at any given time? That thing that, like a newcomer, we all recognize but really don’t have a very good understanding of? Well, it seemed like just the thing for some cartographic investigation…

The City of Atlanta’s quadrant system is straightforward enough. Four mostly straight lines radiate in the cardinal directions from the city’s midpoint at Five Points, creating four not-exactly-equally-sized quadrants due to the fact that Five Points isn’t actually the geographic center of the city anymore. The dividing line between east and west is Peachtree Street north of Five Points (save for a stretch where the line jogs a bit and picks up on West Peachtree Street) and Capitol Avenue SE to the south. The division of north and south is marked by Edgewood Avenue NE to the east and MLK Jr. Drive SW to the west once you get a little bit outside of the blocks surrounding Five Points. But things get a little bit complicated in a few places. If you want the full, point-by-point description of where these dividing lines are, look no further than the city’s 1977 code of ordinances which first enshrined these divisions officially with this particularly wordy description:

North and south line. Beginning at the center line of Lake Forrest Drive and the city limits boundary in Land Lots 119 and 94 of the 17th District of Fulton County, and running thence southerly along the center line of Lake Forrest Drive in Land Lots 94, 95, 96, 97, 117, 118 and 119 to that point at the center of Powers Ferry Road; thence southeasterly along the center of Powers Ferry Road in Land Lot 97 to the center of Roswell Road; thence south along the center of Roswell Road in Land Lots 97, 98 and 99 to the center of Peachtree Road; thence south along the center of Peachtree Road to that point coinciding with the line between Land Lots 113 and 100; thence due south on the center of Peachtree Road along the line between Land Lots 113 and 100; thence due south along the line between Land Lots 112 and 101 to a point intersecting with the center of Lindberg Drive; thence southwesterly along the center of Peachtree Road in Land Lots 112, 111 and 110 to the intersection of the center line of Collier Road; thence continuing southeasterly in Land Lots 110 and 109 to the intersection of the center of West Peachtree Street; thence continuing due south along the center of West Peachtree Street and along the line between Land Lots 109 and 104, 108 and 105, 107 and 106; thence continuing due south along the center of West Peachtree Street to Tenth Street; thence slightly southeast along the center of West Peachtree Street between Tenth Street and Eighth Street; thence continuing due south in the 14th District of Fulton County along the center of West Peachtree Street in Land Lots 49, 50 and 51 to the center of Peachtree Street; thence due south along the center of Peachtree Street and along the line between Land Lots 50 and 51 to Forsyth Street; thence continuing southwesterly along the center of Peachtree Street in Land Lots 78 and 77 to the center of the right-of-way of the Western and Atlantic Railroad; thence southeasterly along the center line of said right-of-way of said Western and Atlantic and Georgia Railroad to Piedmont Avenue in Land Lot 52; thence continuing southwesterly along the center of Piedmont Avenue to the center of Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive; thence southeasterly along Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive to the center of Capitol Avenue; thence southwesterly along the center of Capitol Avenue to a point coinciding with the line between Land Lots 77 and 52; thence due south along the center of Capitol Avenue and along the line between Land Lots 77 and 52, 76 and 53, 75 and 54, and 74 and 55 to a point at the intersection of the center of McDonough Boulevard; thence continuing due south to the southern city limits boundary along the line between Land Lots 73 and 56, 72 and 57, 71 and 58, 70 and 59, 69 and 60, 68 and 61, 67 and 62, 66 and 63, and 65 and 64.

And that’s literally just for the dividing line running north and south!

But the adoption of this particular way of organizing the city’s streets goes a good bit further back in time. The earliest evidence I can find of Atlanta’s adoption of this mostly unnecessary quadrant system is the 1926 map of the city’s proposed house numbering system seen below on the left, as found in the GSU Library’s Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Collection. As the map makes clear, the quadrant system served as a way of prescribing street numbers for every corner of the city by assigning them to cells, which were then assigned a range of street numbers depending on which direction the streets in those cells run.

The 1930 map from the same collection shown on the right, however, more closely resembles the contours of the city’s present-day quadrants, particularly with respect to the way the dividing line running vertically along Capitol Avenue SE takes a brief detour along the railroad tracks moving to the west to meet Peachtree Street at its point of origin before returning to its northern course. This little jig is, of course, what makes the vertex of the four quadrants sit precisely at the Five Points intersection downtown. By 1933 (at the very latest), the city’s quadrants were in full force, as seen in the addresses listed in the city’s public directory for that year. But that’s the mostly straightforward part that nobody really needed maps to understand.

One more interesting aspect of Atlanta’s quadrants is that they actually extend well beyond the city limits in all four directions, as you can see in this map of all the streets in Fulton and DeKalb counties that have been assigned a directional suffix.

Atlanta is also not the only city or county in the metro area to use a quadrant system for their streets, though it is certainly the most dedicated to the schtick. Bartow, Cobb, Gwinnett and Rockdale counties all use an extensive quadrant system, as does the city of Covington in Newton County.

There are a couple of significant oddities about Atlanta’s quadrant system, though. First, some streets deviate from the system by having no quadrant assigned to them at all. This includes everything from interstate highways to minor streets that run no more than a block or two, but it also includes the city’s most famous street of all: Peachtree Street.

Second, a number of streets within the city seem to have had their directional suffixes misallocated. For example, while Vance Street SW is clearly in the northwest quadrant, Westview Place NW is clearly in the southwest quadrant. There are a total of 14 different streets in the city that have had this little mishap, and they’re present in all four of the city’s quadrants and in almost every conceivable combination. It should be noted that this figure does not include streets that run continuously from one quadrant to another without their suffix changing. Because these 14 streets exist entirely within a quadrant that their name doesn’t reflect, I call these Atlanta’s exclave streets.

While noting the existence of these deviations from the norm is one thing, figuring out why they are the way they are is another. If not all streets have to have a directional suffix attached to them, why have we given a few handfuls worth of streets suffixes that don’t actually correspond to their location within the quadrant system? If the same street changes names on either side of the quadrant boundary, why do we need the quadrants to differentiate things for us? Answering those questions is going to have to be a job for somebody else though… I’m just the guy who makes maps!

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