Saturday, August 8, 2009


As I was thinking about a post on independent bookstores in New York, the five that immediately came to mind were all in Manhattan. This seemed ridiculously manhattancentric to me, but then it occurred to me that although I occasionally leave Manhattan to go to Brooklyn, I almost never go to any other borough, except when I ride the ferry to Staten Island to go to work. There are a lot of obvious reasons why Manhattan has this hold on me, but one of the less obvious ones has to do with its underlying order best exemplified by the GRID.

Ah, the Grid. This was one of two transformational reforms pushed by New York City Mayor and State Governor DeWitt Clinton back in the second decade of the nineteenth century (the other being the Erie Canal) that utterly changed the face of the City. The grid plan, approved in 1811, was part of the effort to develop the northern four-fifths of Manhattan. By laying out an entirely predictable rectangular pattern of numbered East-West and North-South streets, extending from Fourteenth Street all the way to Washington Heights, a process was established for expanding Manhattan in a relatively orderly manner. No circles, ovals, rotaries or diagonals to confuse residents and developers. Rather, as The Encyclopedia of New York City explains, the plan for 12 long north-south avenues was combined with the plan’s “signature” – “155 cross streets placed only two hundred feet apart, producing a grid of about two thousand long, narrow blocks.” Although this plan was tinkered with over the years, including the addition of great thoroughfares like Lexington and Madison and the introduction of the one street that did not follow a predictable route – Broadway – the grid survived largely intact and contributed invaluably to the rapid development of upper Manhattan.

For ordinary folks like me, though, the grid is a safety net, a way to orient myself so that even if I go in the wrong direction for a block or two, I can always find my way back again. Paired with the incomparable subway system, the grid makes the whole borough accessible and navigable to pedestrians. That is something that often goes unrecognized and makes Manhattan such an inviting place to explore. Phillip Lopate, writing in his wonderful Waterfront: A walk around Manhattan, comments that those who deride the grid as boring have overlooked the grid’s “power to invoke clarity, resonance, and pleasure through its very repetitions.” It is that underlying structure, then, that solid, reliable base of comprehensible quadrilaterals that help to make possible Manhattan’s endless creativity and inventiveness.

In the meantime, back on the level of my mundane Manhattan existence, it would probably do me good to get lost more often, but while I contemplate that little notion, I can take solace in the fact that when I’m in Manhattan above Fourteenth Street, I can’t possibly lose my way (unless I venture into Central Park, but that’s another wonderful story). Which means I am freed to go places and try things without fear of becoming hopelessly disoriented. There is something, both literally and figuratively, incredibly liberating in that.


  1. Now, if finding a street addresses was as simple as the grid...
    And I quote:
    "Finding the nearest avenue from a street address north of 8th Street
    1) Fifth Avenue divides Manhattan street addresses into East and West. Avenues with numbered names less than 5 are east of 5th Avenue, and those greater than 5 are west of 5th Avenue.
    2) Street addresses increase by 100 for each numbered avenue as they move away from 5th Avenue. Going west of 5th Avenue is easy. Street addresses from 1-99 are between 5th Avenue and 6th Avenue to the west, and so on across Manhattan to the Hudson River. Going east is more complicated because of the named avenues Madison, Park, and Lexington. Street 1-99 are between 5th and Park, 100-199 are between Park and 3rd, then 200-299 between 3rd and 2nd, etc.
    Finding the nearest cross street from an avenue address. Avenues can be miles long; this method helps you find the nearest cross street for addresses north of 14th Street.
    1) Cross-out the last number in the address.
    2) Divide that number by 2 (unless otherwise noted on the following chart).
    3) Add the result to the number listed next to the Avenue on the following charts.
    4)This new number is the approximate cross street of your desired address.
    Don't forget to consult the exception table!

  2. Of course, my post was about wandering in the city aimlessly, not trying to get to any place in particular. I gave up long ago believing that I could find my way to a specific location without experiencing some difficulty. I should add, however, that this is not unique to New York City. I encounter this difficulty no matter where I live because I proudly take after my father.