Not long after we moved into our current home in central Ohio, I asked a neighbor a question about putting trash onto our devil strip. When I received a quizzical look, I realized he was trying to figure out what I was talking about. So I said, “You know, the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The devil strip.” He responded, “Oh, you mean the tree lawn.”
In that moment I realized two things. One was, “We’re not in Youngstown anymore.” The other was that what I assumed was a universal term for that strip of grass might be unique to the part of Ohio I grew up in.
A Harvard University blog devoted to regional English cites usages exclusively in northeast Ohio from Youngstown to Cleveland to Akron, stating that “[The term] is known throughout the Youngstown, Ohio, area.” The Urban Dictionary states that the devil strip refers to “The grassy area between the street and the sidewalk. This term is unique to the Akron, Ohio area.”
It’s not quite that simple, actually. References to the term have been found as early as 1883 in Cleveland, Ohio referring to the construction of a strip of land between street car lines going in the opposite direction, “known by the significant rather than elegant name of the devil’s strip.” The next earliest reference was in 1887 occurring in Toronto, Canada, describing the construction of devil’s strips:
“The sub-grade is carefully prepared, levelled, and rolled, if found necessary, for solidification. The kerbs are placed in position, either being set in concrete or gravel. The subsoil is drained by four-inch tile drains running parallel with the kerb in three rows, one under each kerb, and one under the devil’s strip, or centre of the roadway, the former making connections with the catch-water basins.
If electric car tracks are to be laid, the sub-grade must be excavated to twelve inches extra in the track allowance, this being then filled in with six inches of ballast and compacted.“
Even the Akron Beacon Journal acknowledges an 1890 article in its own paper referring to Cleveland:
“Mayor Gardner ordered Supt. Schmitt to stop all traffic on Woodland avenue street railroad from Wilson to East Madison for failure to obey State law which gave Cleveland [the] right to compel street railroads to pave a strip 16 feet wide. This meant all space between the tracks, the devil strip and two feet on the outside.”
The same article notes that at one time the term was widely used throughout Canada and in New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Iowa. But northeast Ohio seems to be the only place where it stuck.
So, how did the term go from referring to the strip between street car lines and the strip between street and sidewalk? The Beacon Journal article cites an Athens Daily Messenger from 1912 with this editorial comment:
“There are no double track street car lines in Athens — yet. But the proverbial ‘Devil’s strip’ is here just the same. Did you ever note how often, between a well-kept lawn and its adjacent sidewalk and a well-paved street, you see a strip of unkempt stony and weed-grown ground? It mars the otherwise beautiful street, especially when a dead tree or two helps to add to the neglect of this ‘devil’s strip.’
This suggests why it was called a “devil’s strip.” The WordSense Dictionary definition of “devil strip” adds this insight:
devil + strip, from the area’s status as a no man’s land between private and public property, devil or devil’s in place names meaning “barren, unproductive and unused”.
Compare devil’s lane (“narrow area between two parallel fences”), devil’s footstep (“barren spot of land”).
Others have suggested that it is a strip of land that a property owner must maintain and pay taxes on but that the city can dig up or plant trees on. The “devil” in this case is the city or the tax collector. I can see how this explanation would appeal to a lot of Youngstowners.
So what else is the “devil strip” called? A Wikipedia article on “Road Verge” lists 46 terms and where they are used. Others used in Ohio include: berm, boulevard, curb lawn, park strip, street lawn, and the one we use where I now live, tree lawn.
Devil strips play an important role in separating pedestrians from vehicles. Curbs and trees provide at least some protection from vehicles straying from the road, and more separation of foot traffic from road traffic. It also puts one a bit further away from getting splashed by vehicles going through puddles in the rain. We have some areas lacking sidewalks and tree lawns and, sadly, I know of pedestrian-vehicle accidents along these areas.
As for bragging rights, I’d like to think that, like cookie tables, Youngstown was first. It just sounds like a term Youngstowners would think up. I’ve found no evidence for that, but I still like to think that it is a name that just fits Youngstown.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!