Guide to New York: Part I – Overview of the City

My first several trips to New York, I was five years old, so that wasn’t a great time to orient myself to the finer points of the city that never sleeps. There are a couple of things you should know right away.

  1. With the possible exception of going to Sweden, you will spend more money than you think humanly possibly within your first 24 hours in New York. Plan accordingly. And by “accordingly” I don’t mean what your dad would tell you, like, “Watch where you spend your pennies because they add up to real dollars.” I mean, you may well have spent all your pennies and their associated dollars before you even make it out of your hotel, so brace yourself and multiply what you think you can afford by x4 before you even get there and plan for that as your budget.And don’t try and lower costs by joining up with some insane package deal run by a bunch of yahoos in Duluth. It will just mean that your trip to New York will be exactly like the trip you took to Branson, Missouri with your grandparents when you were eight (i.e. featuring people who can’t hold their liquor and shows that you can catch on tour in just about any medium-sized city a year from now).
  2. Nowhere you stay will be larger than your average closet. I don’t care if it’s an Ian Shrager hotel off Times Square or on the floor of your college buddy’s walk-up in the Village, the shower will be within reaching distance of all major room landmarks. Remember that it is a privilege to be in New York and 8.2 million other people think so too (1.6 million if you stick with Manhattan, not counting you and all the other visitors) so y’all are competing for some seriously limited space (23 square miles, to be exact).
  3. If you are not from San Francisco or the Third World, New York will seem dirty to you. It’s not. It is, but it’s so much better than it used to be + you need to keep those 1.6 million people in mind, so pull yourself together and, as my high school physics teacher used to say, “Quit’cher bitchin’.

Basic geography.

Location, location, location. Learn your geography. You will be nowhere without it, pun somewhat intended. When I went back to New York as a college student, I was with friends who knew their way around, so I paid no attention, which left me looking uncool when people chatted about uptown, downtown, crosstown and pretty much any neighborhood.

For starters, New York City has five boroughs: Manhattan (an island), Brooklyn (an island), Queens (same island as Brooklyn, namely Long Island), the Bronx (not an island) and Staten Island (predicatably, an island). These are not neighborhoods and they do not share the address of “New York, NY,” or the area code 212, as I discovered when I moved into my studio in Brooklyn as a novice New Yorker. The island of Manhattan is the only New York, NY. The boroughs are all governed by the same mayor (currently Michael Bloomberg) but each has a borough president, plus representation at the neighborhood level. It’s complicated. All you really need to know is that if go to New York, you probably mean Manhattan with a possible hipster sojourn to Williamsburg (a neighborhood in Brooklyn) or a trip to the Bronx Zoo (in, um, the Bronx).

I recommend this map. It’s the Filofax-sized version of the Streetwise map series and it kicks ass. I got my first one when I moved there in 1994 and still carry one with me all the time (when I’m in New York, that is. Don’t be a smart aleck.) It’s small, it’s laminated and it has all the subway stops, a bus map, an index and everything you need (except a view of the other boroughs which you can also get from Streetwise but which aren’t in the handy small size).

The whole island of Manhattan is only thirteen and a half miles, north to south, and about two and a half miles wide, less in most places. The Hudson River bounds Manhattan on the west and separates it from New Jersey or “Jersey” as you should now call it. The East River bounds it to the, er, east.

Central Park. Find it on your map. It runs from 59th St. up to 110 St. and is the boundary for the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side.

With the confusing exceptions of the financial district all the way downtown and the West Village, the city is pretty much a numbered grid of avenues that run north/south (or uptown/downtown) and streets that run east/west (or crosstown). Naturally, there are exceptions to this, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Basically, it’s a grid.

The avenue numbers start on the east side and increase as you move west: First Avenue is on the far east side and 11th Avenue is on the far west side. The exceptions you should learn right away are Madison Avenue, Park Avenue and Lexington Avenue which disrupt the avenue numbering system on the east side of the city. Memorizing their order is a minor task: from the east, it goes 1st Ave., 2nd Ave, 3rd Ave, Lexington, Park, Madison, 5th Ave., 6th Ave. and so on.

Broadway is the only diagonal artery in the city. South of Central Park, it runs west-east diagonally across Manhattan. Once it hits Central Park it straightens itself out on the Upper West Side.

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Categories: NYC (there)


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