People who don’t live in New York tend to think of the city as a series of landmarks such as the World Trade Center, the empire State building, the rockefeller Center or Central Park. However when it comes to Manhattan that is not how New Yorkers do it. Almost at birth they internalize the only 2 navigating tools they will ever need the Grid and the subway map.
If you look at a map of Manhattan you will see that the southernmost tip of the island (downtown) is not set out in the grid pattern characteristic of the rest of the island. This is the part of the island that was settled first. Then in 1811 the city fathers decided they had to get serious about planning and the Commissioners Plan of 1811 set up the grid pattern that characterizes the layout of the rest of the island.
Once the grid pattern had been agreed, there was huge growth in Manhattan. With 11 major avenues and 155 crosstown streets in the original Plan and the flattening of sometimes hilly outcrops in the island, 2000 equal flat lots, most of them 25 ft x 100 ft in size were available for purchase and development.
The grid’s greatest gift apart from the immense fortunes made by some developers and crooks (yes you Boss Tweed), was to let New Yorkers easily figure out where they were. It makes New Yorkers confident residents of the whole island of Manhattan because they can easily find their way around.
The original plan has undergone changes, the most inspired of which was the development of Central Park. the grid layout of teh streets has managed to handle cars fairly easily on the wider avenues but not so well on the east/west crosstreets. The grid has turned out to be an amazing tool and most New yorkers define their neighborhoods by counting off the blocks that surround where they live.
The commissioners looked forward to a huge city of 400,00 eventually springing up. How very surprized they would be if they could suddenly do a bit of time travelling back to the present day. And of course the other great gift of the grid has been skyscrapers, because with a small footprint on which buildings could be erected, the only way to go was up.
So if you are going anywhere in Manhattan know that New Yorkers and taxi drivers navigate by intersections and grid references. If you want to go to a particualr destination find out the address and then tell your taxi driver that you want to go to Nobu (restaurant) at 105 Hudson St Tribeca. This lets him or her know it’s downtown and therefore has a named street instead of a grid reference street. Or that you want to go to the Waldorf Astoria (hotel) at 301 Park Ave between 49th St and 51st street which immediately lets him/her know that this hotel covers two blocks and you may be asked where on those 2 blocks you want to be dropped off. Or you might want to go to Barnes & Noble at 150 East 86th St between Lexington Ave and 3rd Ave.
Do not ask anyone in NYC where a particular building/shop/restaurant is, they won’t know. If you ask where is the intersection between fifth ave and 186th street they will know. so before setting out, find out the actual address and the grid reference. Is it on a street or an avenue? And then what streets or avenues it is between? A really long street like Broadway, which goes at an angle and therefore is the most significant street in Manhattan that doesn’t conform to the grid, is impossible without having the grid reference for any shop you are heading towards.
Think of Manhattan as like a long narrow rectangle. In broad terms this rectangle is defined by east/west streets. Below 14th Street is Downtown. Midtown is between 14th street and 59th Street and Uptown is above 59th street. So wherever you go within that rectangle, you will navigating through the grid. Note where places are on streets or avenues. If on an avenue between what streets? If you are on a street between which avenues or close to what intersection of a street and an avenue. There you are, you are navigating like a New Yorker