Complex address system has its ups and downs

Aug. 3, 2010

Whatever happened to 123 Elm St.?

If you live in Menomonee Falls or Germantown, you may very well wonder just that and even yearn for such a simple address. After all, you live in a region with a unique and, let's face it, somewhat cumbersome address system.

"Only 5 percent of the nation has this, from what I understand," said Stan Franke, a supervisor at the Menomonee Falls Post Office. "It's a grid system. They're map coordinates."

Like those used in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind?" Will our N-something, W-something addresses eventually lead to an alien space ship landing on Pilgrim Road?

Indeed, the addresses do seem a bit far out there to some.

"Oh, people ask me about them all the time," said Kevin Nash, a Germantown resident who sells real estate with Shorewest Realtors. "I meet with a lot of buyers from outside the area, and they'll say, 'Our address is going to be what? This is crazy.'

"For a while, it was also tough on me. When I first got my GPS system back in 2004, it didn't recognize the combination of letters and numbers, But now, technology has caught up with it."

Fielding complaints

Irene Blau, who serves the role of Germantown's unofficial historian, admits she hears some complaints about it - especially when it's time to fill out that U.S. Census.

"Our addresses simply won't fit in the blocks on those forms," she said. "Between the street coordinates and the street names, we don't even come close. I live on Pleasant View Drive, for example. That comes to a lot of numbers and letters."

In her case, a total of 25.

"We'll get calls from people outside the area who want to send something to someone here, asking to make sure the address is correct," Franke said. "They'll say, 'These letters and numbers seem funny. Could this be right?' "

Then there are the little headaches for the little ones.

"It totally throws our kids for a loop - at least it did mine," Nash said. "It's no fun trying to teach your children to memorize their own address."

Mapping a path

So, there are some burdens. But are they outweighed by the blessings?

"For sure," said Nash. "They're map coordinates, so all you've got to do is connect the dots. It's really helped me in my business, where I'm always trying to help people find a street or find a house. Not everyone is going to know what it means to say we're north of Capitol Drive, for example, so I give them the coordinates. It's awesome."

Coldwell Banker's Marylyn Mathers, also a Realtor in the area, agrees.

"Occasionally, people will wonder about it, but once I explain it, they think it's just great," she said. "They'll say, 'Why doesn't everyone get to have this?' "

With the ease of finding places a priority, no one benefits from the system more than the local police and fire personnel, Franke said.

"That's really the biggest reason why we have it," he said. "Locating addresses around here isn't easy, especially with the way we have streets running at odd angles, crisscrossing each other. We don't have the numbered streets like some other communities where you have the squared-off city block, followed by the next city block."

And Franke reminds us that the area was quite rural in the not-too-distant past.

"We've had a population increase in a big way. With all the new subdivisions that keep popping up, we are getting new addresses all the time," he said. "Not everyone knows all the streets by heart.

"I assume this system was adopted upon the village's inception. Things have changed in Menomonee Falls a lot since then."

Adopting from Milwaukee

The same goes for Germantown, Blau said.

"Back in 1963, the village was trying to avoid annexation into Milwaukee County, where we sit right on the edge," she said. "It went from one square mile in size to 23 square miles (now 36 square miles). Suddenly, we became what seemed like a huge community and no one could find each other. The old address system became inadequate overnight, so Germantown adopted Milwaukee County's grid system."

To make things easier for rescue personnel, metal address signs were erected at the street level, Blau said. But then came the explosion of subdivision development.

"The village couldn't put up a sign in front of each and every new home," Blau said. "Eventually, people started putting the coordinates on their homes and on their mailboxes."

Lt. Todd Grenier of the Germantown Police Department agrees that the system's compass-like characteristics make life easier when it comes to emergencies.

"When dispatch calls a squad with the address, the grid system allows us to immediately get headed in the right direction," he said. "All we have to remember is that Mequon Road (horizontally) is at N112. Division Road (vertically) is W172. Those are our two major roads, and they dissect the village right in half. It works out great, because no one can memorize each and every street."

So there you have it. There's certainly a method to what may look like a maddening set of letters and numbers. It may require a little getting used to it, but the consensus seems to be it's well worth it.

"Yeah, outside of being a pain to write on an envelope," Nash said with a laugh. "But that's no biggie. That's a small price to pay for our wonderful way of life here."

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