To many outsiders, New York seems like some vast maze of buildings, lights and concrete, barely manageable to locals, and impossible for visitors to navigate. But of the world’s major cities, which are completely haphazard in their respective layouts, New York is the easiest to understand geographically once you understand a few basic concepts. We’ll look at the geography of the city periodically throughout the year, but today I want to give a broad overview of the five boroughs and the basic layout of Manhattan.
For starters, New York City is divided into five different areas, called boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Staten Island). While each is governed by the same City Council and mayor (currently Mike Bloomberg), they also have a degree of autonomy and even have their own elected presidents. So think of boroughs in relation to New York City as you think of states in relation to the United States. The history of the boroughs and how they arose is beyond the scope of this post (though Brooklyn was very nearly independent 100 years ago – a circumstance that would have changed American and even world history significantly), but it is worth knowing where the boroughs are in relation to each other.
In the middle of the constellation of boroughs is Manhattan, the island with the tall buildings, Broadway, Central Park and, well, basically all the tourist attractions – when you think of New York, you think of Manhattan. Manhattan is an island, surrounded by the Hudson River to the west, East River, Harlem River to the north, and the Upper New York Bay to the south. Manhattan is a long thin island, spanning 17 miles north-south and about 3 miles east-west.
Along the entire west side across the Hudson River lies a marshy, rusted factory-ridden wasteland New Jersey, which of course is outside New York City proper. To the east across the East River are Brooklyn and Queens. They more or less divide Manhattan in half – Queens lies to the east along the upper half of the island, Brooklyn to the east along the lower part of the island. The Bronx is perched on top of Manhattan across the Harlem River, while Staten Island floats to the south in the bay.
Easy enough, right? I think so, but traveling between the boroughs isn’t as easy as might be expected. Brooklyn and Queens are snuggled next to one another with no water dividing them, but all the other boroughs are separated by bodies of water significant enough to warrant bridges and/or tunnels. We won’t get into all of that now, but other than Brooklyn-Queens transit all other inter-borough travel can be a challenge.
But enough of the outer boroughs (for now), and onto Manhattan. Today we’ll just look at the basics: figuring out which way is up (literally). In most cities, “downtown” is referred to as the city center. People traveling from Cicero to Michigan Avenue in Chicago say they are going downtown. Yet people in Scarsdale don’t say they are going “downtown” simply because they are going to Broadway. You see, in New York lingo Manhattan is more or less divided into 3 large sections: Downtown, Midtown, and Uptown. Uptown is the area north of 59th Street, including Central Park, Harlem, the Upper East and West Sides, Washington Heights, and Inwood. Downtown is everything south of 14th Street, including the East and West Villages, SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, Wall Street, and Tribeca. Midtown is everything in between: the classic “tourist area” including Times Square, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Macy’s, Grand Central Station, etc. Some will quibble and say Midtown really begins at 23rd or even 34th Street, but I think the area from 14th-23rd is much more Midtown in culture than it is Downtown. Regardless, the bottom line is this: Downtown = South, Uptown = North, and Midtown is the gray zone in between.
Navigating New York above Houston Street (pronounced How-ston) is very easy. This is where the grid begins, and typically consists of numerical streets spanning the island in the east-west direction like rungs on a ladder, with the larger avenues stretching in the north-south direction. The numbers start in the south and east sides of the island: First Avenue is the far east, First Street is the far south. So walking up an avenue, you know which direction you’re going based on the street numbers: if they are getting larger you’re going uptown, if they are getting smaller you’re going downtown. The same is true of the avenues – if the avenue numbers get larger you’re walking west toward the Hudson River and New Jersey.
The twist is that some of the avenues are named rather than numbered: Lexington lies to the west of Third, Park lies to the west of Lexington, and Madison lies between Park and Fifth. For reasons unclear to me, past 59th Street on the Upper West Side, 8th Avenue changes to Columbus, 9th Avenue to Amsterdam, and 10th to West End. So where exactly is Broadway? Actually Broadway is kind of everywhere, as it winds from the very top of Manhattan all the way to Battery Park at the southern tip of the island. Unlike the rest of the grid, Broadway meanders its way from the northwest most portion of Manhattan all the way across to the middle at Battery Park. The massive intersections where it slides across avenues are called squares, as in Times Square, Herald Square, etc.
Finally, orienting yourself in the city is actually quite easy, because you have easily identifiable landmarks: the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Met Life Building, and Central Park. Keeping it simple, these buildings are basically along the same line in the middle of the island (34th-42nd Streets). If you are uptown (or north) and see these buildings to your left, you know you are facing west. If you are downtown (south) and see these buildings to your left, then you are facing east. So as long as you know if you are on the north or south side of these midtown buildings, you can discern the cardinal directions.
The caveat, of course, is that the Empire State Building and others are not always visible at a given location. Usually walking a few blocks brings them back into view, but you can get turned around if you aren’t familiar with a particular area. The only time I couldn’t figure out which way I was going was one of the first times I visited the city. I was going to the Tenement Museum (which had already closed) in the early evening after sunset. In the Lower East Side the grid hasn’t begun and the streets are still named – I was unfamiliar with the names, and I couldn’t see any landmarks. It took a ten minute walk up Allen Street until I ran into Houston and could see the Chrysler Building that I knew I was heading in the right direction. Otherwise, it’s pretty easy to find your way around here. Really, it is….