Navigating the city
New York consists of five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. On this visit we spent almost all our time in the first of these, as most visitors do, although we set foot briefly on Staten Island (see my Staten Island Ferry tip) and spent an hour or so in Brooklyn. Last time round we also went to the Bronx, where there is a world-class zoo and lovely botanical gardens.
The districts of Manhattan are usually described as being either in Uptown, Midtown or Downtown. In the first of these, above 59th Street, you’ll find Harlem, Washington Heights, the Upper East and West Sides, and Central Park itself. Midtown starts at the southern edge of Central Park and covers Times Square and the Theater District, the Flatiron District, Herald Square and the surrounding Garment District, Chelsea and Midtown East and West. Downtown begins below 14th Street, where the grid pattern of streets breaks down. It has arguably the most varied districts, with leafy Battery Park, the skyscrapers of the Financial District, low-rise Soho and Greenwich Village, and colourful Chinatown and Little Italy. Each of these districts has its own character and it’s a matter of taste which you enjoy most and choose to spend your time in, but do try to see as many as possible. I loved more the relaxed atmosphere of Central Park West, where we stayed, and laid-back (by New York standards) Greenwich Village and Soho; but also the dramatic skyscrapers of Midtown and the vibrancy of up-and-coming areas such as the Meatpackers’ District and the ethnic mix on the Lower East Side.
Much of the city is laid out in a grid pattern, with Avenues running north to south and Streets east to west. The exception to this is Broadway, which starts on the West Side in parallel with the avenues but suddenly veers off on a diagonal at about 71st Street and ends up near Battery Park. The system also breaks down totally south of 14th Street, so that in parts of Greenwich Village, for instance, streets cross each other rather than running parallel to each other. The numbering system for the streets also disappears, though not completely, so you’ll find Christopher, Bleecker, MacDougal, Spring, Houston, Canal and numerous other street names.
Where the grid system is in place it makes getting around very simple. Blocks are consistent in size, so you can easily estimate walking times and distance, and building numbers reflect their block, with each 100 being a block from Fifth Avenue, or from Central Park. The numbers below 100 are on the first block, 100-199 on the second, 200-299 on the third and so on. For example, our hotel was number 117 79th Street W, indicating that it was in the second block west of the park. Many locations are described according to the nearest junction - taking our hotel as an example again, its location can be given as “79th Street West and Columbus”, but bear in mind that this means it is near that junction, not necessarily right on the corner. Downtown this system doesn’t really work, so get out your map or simply enjoy getting lost!