C3 Northampton, a local artists’ collective, offered a series of walking tours this fall. The first explored hidden spots in town. My favorite detail was the house at the corner of New South Street and Clark Avenue with a window in its chimney. A few weeks ago, the subject of the walk was Northampton soundscapes. The idea was a little abstract for me—I’m a concrete gal, I like what I can see—but it was a good walk nonetheless. The intention was to listen for sounds we may not normally catch.
Honestly, I didn’t hear anything new or life-changing: feet crunching on leaves, traffic noises, kids playing, geese honking. Wandering town for ninety minutes with a group of artsy twenty-year-olds sparked a mid-life crisis, but that is a subject for a different post. Or a different blog. But the walk did draw my attention again and again to the ubiquity of one of my favorite Northampton sounds: the “beep-boops” of King and Pleasant.
Is it odd to feel affection for the sound of a traffic light or a particular intersection?
The intersection in question is the most prominent in Northampton, as close as we have to a town common. If you’re driving, the intersection is maddening, because the red lasts forever. I drive absurd roundabout routes through town to avoid it. But on foot it is entirely different. You can stand at this corner, see most of the town, and watch it pulse. Each direction provides a great view: west to city hall with its slightly ridiculous turrets, north toward the old style Hotel Northampton, south to the Pleasant Street Theater, and east to the truck eating bridge.
When pedestrians cross the intersection, traffic stops in all directions. This allows us to cross any perimeter or to cross diagonally. Crossing through the center of a busy intersection is a little thrilling and powerful. The first time, you feel like you’re doing something wrong.
The opportunities for people watching are spectacular. It is inevitable that you’ll see someone you haven’t seen in months and you’ll have the shortest conversation possible in the center of the road. If you run into someone you’re avoiding, there’s no way to skirt them, but no way to be forced into an awkward conversation either. Little boys dance across the middle (or maybe that’s just Ted). We can always identify out-of-towners because they attempt to cross against the light and we silently (and not so silently) curse them.
The aforementioned “beep boop” is the sound that indicates it’s safe for pedestrians to cross. It permeates the area, echoing especially when the streets are empty. Everyone has a different onomatopoetic name for it: “bedeep bedeep bedeep,” “koo-koo.” But clearly, it is “beep boop.” When he was small, Chuck mispronounced it as “big boobs” and shouted this happily whenever we crossed.
I learned from our tour guide that this type of intersection is called a Barnes Dance. It’s named after the traffic engineer, Henry Barnes, who introduced them in the US. If you’re not in a hurry and stand back to watch, it does resemble a dance, with people moving in every direction as if choreographed. I also learned, when I mentioned it on Facebook, that one friend calls it “Doing the Northampton” and that John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants likened it to the free play level of a video game.
Whenever we return to Northampton from a vacation, and sometimes even after a long day away, we deliberately drive through this intersection instead of taking the shortcut home. It’s how we reset ourselves; it’s how we know we’re home.