Manhattan: A User’s Guide

By Elias Rodriguez

Do you exit the bus or subway and find yourself walking in the wrong direction before you realize your mistake? Does a NYC transit map look like a Jackson Pollock painting to you? Well, you’ll be glad to learn that most of Manhattan’s street grid is designed based on a simple rectangular scheme. If you can count and know the alphabet, you can navigate the big city island. 

Manhattan’s street pattern is largely the work of surveyor and city planner John Randel. His framework was formalized in the so-called Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which laid out the streets of Manhattan from 14th Street to 155th Street into a neat, rectangular grid. It was quite a shock to me when I dared venture beyond my native habitat and sojourned to the other boroughs. There I stood, one fateful day in Queens at the corner of 204th Street and 89th Avenue. I quizzically considered, “Where in the world did they put the other 88 avenues?” Anybody know if there is a compass app for Blackberries? 

I suffered a similar episode of geographic grief when pondering routes back to my hotel while in Washington D.C. Let’s see, if I am milling about at 1299 E Street Northwest will I ever make it to Z Street? And does the Northwest part refer to the White House or some other central axis? I’m fairly certain that Mr. L’Enfant had something in mind when he designed that grid. Now, what was it? 

Anyhow, I am ever grateful to return to the mean streets and sharp edges of Manhattan. Pull up stakes at 25th Street and 9th Avenue and head one block north. Do you know what you’ll find? 26th Street. Go west and you’ll find, OMG!, 10th Avenue followed by 11th Avenue, followed by 12th Avenue, followed by the river. The design represents brilliant logic in a metropolis of mayhem. Go north, or uptown as we say, and the streets go UP in number. Venture south and the numbers go DOWN. 220th Street is at the northern most tip of the island and 19th Street is much further south, 125th is somewhere in between just where you would expect. Going east to west her avenues ascend from 1st Avenue on the eastside to 12th Avenue on the westside. Her streets make perfect sense and for the most part, the grid flows felicitously. 

South of 14th Street the grid kind of collapses due to how the island narrows at the southern tier and probably because we wanted to confuse the British during the Revolutionary War.  So, next time you Brooklynites, or similar foreign dignitaries, find yourselves at the corner of Avenue X and Ocean Parkway, think of Manhattan’s street grid and put your mind at ease.

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