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Working the Angles in Downtown Champaign

Angles dominate the city. From ten-story buildings to six-inch curbs, human-built landscapes are mazes of interlocking planes. And no type of angle dominates more than that famous heavyweight from high-school geometry: the right angle.

Vertically, we see these angles everywhere: in the high corners of buildings and window frames and doors. But right angles are horizontal creatures as well, and on the ground level the quintessential right angle is the street corner.

After all, perpendicular streets came — and continue to come — hand-in-hand with urban development. In older cities or in regions where valley floors and mountaintops make right angles tricky, perpendicular streets are less ubiquitous. But in the Midwest, where physical geography is more (to use a flatland-friendly euphemism) “understated,” there is nothing to keep streets from running ruler straight all the way to the horizon.

And run straight they do — that is, unless you’re driving north on Neil Street in Champaign. Just south of University Avenue, Neil bends to the right about 15 degrees and becomes Walnut Street. Chester and Main streets, both east-west thoroughfares, also follow the altered geometry. In fact, the entire grid between Springfield Avenue, Washington Street, Neil Street and First Street follows this skewed orientation.

Don’t chalk this up to arbitrary decision making or unimaginative urban planners. The reasons for this deviation stem from the actions of the two most powerful forces in the European settlement of the western United States: the United States Public Land Survey and the trusty railroads.

The U.S. Public Land Survey is older than the U.S. Constitution. Future president Thomas Jefferson first proposed it when he was a mere congressman from Virginia. The Congress of the Confederation, as the legislature was then called, was pretty weak by today’s standards. It couldn’t levy taxes or subpoena sports commissioners to testify. One of its most important acts was the Land Ordinance of 1785, which called for a survey of the land west of the Colonies — what we today call Alabama, Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The government wanted to give the land to settlers (never mind the rights and wishes of Native Americans), but they needed a way to describe where things were. They needed a survey.

The survey worked by dividing thousands of square miles into rows and columns of townships — each township square, six miles to a side, and broken into 36 sections. These sections could be subdivided into lots and sold. We still use the system today.

The Public Land Survey shows itself in other ways, too. The one-mile-square township sections were often bordered by roads that became the major thoroughfares of the area. In Champaign, it’s no coincidence that Mattis Avenue, Prospect Avenue, and First Street are all one mile apart, as are Bradley, Springfield, and Kirby avenues and Windsor Road. These roads mark the sections of Champaign Township. Smaller streets were often laid out parallel to these.

Enter the railroads.

At the start of the nineteenth century, the railroads weren’t much to brag about, but by 1900 they spanned the US from north to south and east to west. Just before the Civil War, the Illinois Central railroad built a line through Champaign County but not through the county seat in Urbana.

Why the snub? Rumors persist of a rivalry between a local bigwig and the Illinois Central. Others claim that crooked land speculators cut a deal to get the route closer to their own land. Good stories, but according to former Champaign mayor and local historian Daniel McCollum, it comes down to simple economics. The railroads were building thousands of miles of track, and they needed to do it as efficiently as possible. The quickest way from A to B is not through every town along the way.

The train depot, later to become West Urbana, and even later Champaign, was built along those tracks that ran northeast to southwest through the county. As the depot expanded, stores and hotels grew up along streets that followed the tracks. Main Street ran straight out from the station, creating more of those right angles with Market and Walnut. Where these streets intersected with the streets from the Public Land Survey, inconvenient angles arose.

As Champaign grew, newer streets were built in line with the strictly north-south-east-west streets of the Public Land Survey. The skewed streets are contained in downtown. At Neil, Main Street rights itself to become Church Street. But within downtown, irregularities persist. It turns out that triangular pieces of land are pretty inconvenient to develop, especially small ones. The one at the “V” between Neil and Walnut is a perfect example. Other troublesome parcels just got a few flowers and a bench or two.

At one side of the older grid sits the trapezoidal Champaign City building. Coincidentally, two sides of the building are on each grid, an apt acknowledgement to the historical forces that, in more ways than one, shaped Champaign.

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