Nowhere but New England.Posted: May 19, 2009
On a recent stay in Waltham, MA (a town about 15 miles west of Boston), I came across, repeatedly, a traffic sign I’ve never seen anywhere else. Its particular wording is so redolent of colonial times that you just know you never will see it anywhere else. Other locales might urge caution in unusually population-dense areas with a sign like “Watch for Pedestrians,” or “Caution: Congested Area,” or simply “Slow,” but “Thickly Settled” is so clearly a remnant from the Puritan seventeenth and eighteenth century mindset that it has a wonderful indigenous charm. The word “thickly” conjures up some Hawthornian state of nature, as in a forest thick with trees before the arrival of ships from England; the word “settled” harkens back to America’s first immigrants, who arrived on those ships, and what they did. You can’t not see an early colonial village in your mind’s eye when you see that sign. The words are not an ersatz attempt to evoke an earlier time, but rather, it seems clear, have remained in continuous usage such that the residents don’t give a second thought to the matter, even if no one else could fail to catch the phrase’s special flavor.
But the sign is not just a bit of New Englandy charm. A little research reveals it has a specific meaning, and a sanction attached to that meaning. According to the Massachusetts RMV Driving Manual, “a ‘thickly settled’ district is an area where houses or other buildings are located, on average, less than 200 feet apart.” And these areas come with a specific (if unposted) speed limit: Speeds over 30 MPH in such areas are ticketable offenses, because speeds exceeding this in “thickly settled” areas are not considered “reasonable and proper.”
Massachusetts could simply post speed limit signs in population-dense areas, but who would want that? Not I. The “Thickly Settled” sign is a bastion of regional flavor in an increasingly homogenized world.
The occasion of our visit to Waltham, by the way, was the graduation of our niece Hannah Chalew from Brandeis University. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, with Highest Honors in Studio Art, and was the recipient of the Mitchell Siporin Memorial Prize. (Siporin was a social realist painter who founded the Department of Fine Arts at Brandeis in 1951. His work is contained in the Smithsonian American Art Musuem, among other places.)