11. THE GRID
The way Manhattan was settled, developed, and used makes it surprisingly easy to grasp conceptually and navigate. It was first settled at the southernmost tip of the island and grew northward. Lower Manhattan is therefore the most confusing neighborhood. Its streets are narrow and haphazard like a medieval village, but the buildings that line them are some of the tallest in the country. It's cavernous and doesn't allow for distant views in most directions. It can make this neighborhood a bit disorienting.
One thing you can say about Lower Manhattan is that if you can stand and look in a direction where you see open sky or a body of water, you are not facing north. The streets continue in this confusing fashion up to Houston Street. This area to the north of Lower Manhattan is mostly occupied by TriBeCa (the Triangle Below Canal Street). Of some help is that most of the buildings there are shorter, so it's a little easier to get your bearings. Aside from some super fancy restaurants, TriBeCa is mostly a residential neighborhood of fairly wealthy, though vaguely bohemian folks who appreciate the area's somewhat gritty, industrial character. Unless you have the heart of a true explorer or are eating, for instance, at Robert De Niro's restaurant, there's probably no burning need to spend much time there. Technically the grid starts north of Houston, but only on the east side. The west remains ungridded. The grid spans the full width of the island from 14th Street northward. From there it's smooth sailing, extremely rational.
"Avenues" run north/south starting with First Avenue at the east. "Streets" run east/west starting with First Street right above Houston. Broadway is really the sole exception to the grid, cutting diagonally through it from the Lower East Side to the Upper West Side. Traffic runs one-way alternately north or south on most of the avenues and on all but the major cross streets. Even-numbered streets run East. Traffic on major cross-streets runs both directions. They're as follows: 8th, 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, 110th, and 125th. North of 125th is the heart of Harlem. While I would strongly encourage everyone to explore the cultural epicenter of the Jazz Age and what is a very vibrant neighborhood, I'm still getting to know that part of the city. I'll therefore leave Upper Manhattan for someone else to discuss. Street addresses start at One at Fifth Avenue and rise toward the rivers in both directions. Avenue addresses start at their southern origins and rise as they go north.
Because the city grew progressively northward, going from river to river, each of the major cross-streets listed above gives you an almost literal "slice" of New York when that part of the city was developed. The oldest are at the south, the more recent going north. From the rivers inward to Fifth Avenue, it typically goes something like this: piers/ docks, warehouses/ slaughterhouses/ factories, low-cost housing, retail/ office buildings, and high-cost residences at the center. If you imagine goods arriving by river on barges and cargo ships and making their way inward to residential neighborhoods, it all makes perfect sense. Although much has been torn down, rebuilt, or converted to different uses over the years, you can still see this today, more or less. While the rule isn't chiseled in stone, it can be useful for finding a different character of neighborhood in the search for a restaurant or a certain kind of store. For instance, if you're looking for a laundromat, you know you'll have better luck in a residential neighborhood nearer the rivers than one crowded with office buildings in the center of the island.
©2012, Ryan Witte