Guide to New York: Part III – Orientation

So now that you’re on foot, how do you know which way to go? There is nothing more tiring than spending your precious time in the city standing on street corners wondering which direction to go or, worse, picking a direction and schlepping a whole avenue only to realize you went the wrong way. This error could be fatal in the summer when it is 1000 degrees outside and 200% humidity. Orient twice, walk once.

If you’re some kind of Daniel Boone and can navigate by the position of the sun, you can stop reading. Unless it’s nighttime and you can’t see the stars because you’ve come to the big city, in which case feel free to come crawling back. I’ll trade you my instructions for your deerskin pants. Hand ’em over.

Uptown/downtown orientation

I have no sense of direction at all. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada. So how do I move around with confidence in New York? Traffic, that’s how. Most of the avenues (north/south) are one-way, so you just come out of the subway (which all drop off on corners) and check which way traffic is moving. For instance, if I get off the Lexington Avenue green line (4/5/6) at 57th St. and I’m headed for 59th, I walk against the flow of the downtown traffic and know I’m headed uptown (north). Of course, this presumes that you know that Lexington Ave. is one-way downtown. Any self-respecting map will show the arrows for one-way on the avenues.

If you don’t want to do that, you can use buildings. When the World Trade towers still stood, they were the downtown landmark. Now I use the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building (which, to my mind, is much less pretty than the Chrysler, but no one asked me). Since they’re both in midtown, for this to work, you have to know where you are in relation to where they are (43rd and 34th Streets, respectively). (If you think that’s self-evident, clearly you haven’t met my kind.) That is, if you are on the corner of 72nd, you know the Chrysler Building is downtown from you. Likewise, if you’re on 14th St., the Chrysler will be uptown.

East/west orientation

Once you know whether you’re facing uptown or downtown, you can sort out your east/west orientation. (As Manhattan is an island, it’s pointless to use the water as a determiner of where you are. Also, I have yet to identify a building that is on the eastern or western edge of the city and is visible from just about anywhere.) If you’re facing downtown (south), and you need to go west, turn to your right. Since I have a lifelong handicap of thinking that whichever direction I’m facing is north, this method does leave me hesitating on streetcorners fighting my instincts for five seconds, but it’s worth it to head confidently in the right direction.

Please do not stand in the middle of the sidewalk while you sort this out. There is nothing more annoying to New Yorkers who do know where they’re going to have their paths blocked by puzzled newcomers. It will (and should) make you feel like a a gauche intruder to break the rhythm of the city by standing perfectly still in the middle of a busy sidewalk staring at the direction of traffic. Step aside. Step into a doorway (NOT a store doorway where you will still be in the way) or around the corner to where you can breathe and orient yourself.


Knowing that a bar is on 9th Avenue is pointless. You will not know what to tell a cab driver or where to get off the subway. You must know where on 9th Avenue. First stop: most restaurant guides or store web sites will note the cross street when listing their address. If they don’t, call and ask. That’s what I do.

For those who would like to be more self-sufficient or are just weird about asking for help, using phones or whatever, here are some guidelines. First, get a hold of yourself and just call the place already. Geez. Second, if that’s out of reach, here’s what you have to go through instead:

  • If you’re looking for an address below Houston Street (pronounced “How-ston”, not like the city in Texas) or in the West Village, give up. Google maps is your only hope.
  • If you’re in the numbered streets, you have an advantage. If you’re online, go here for reference or to have them sort it for you. (Why you won’t just use Google Maps is beyond me.)
  • If you’re not online, check the actual street names again. “West 14th St.” or “East 51st St.” are distinctions that start at 5th Avenue and go up by 100 each block. That sounds confusing, but it’s not. If you need 52 East 57th St., it’s on the block between 5th Avenue and Madison (the first street east of 5th). 152 East 57th is on the next block, between Madison and Park. And so on.
  • If you’re heading to an address on an avenue, there’s a formula for that too. It’s here. I never learned this formula and I did fine.

I’m not recommending learning all this math, but if you’re a numbers nut, be my guest.

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Categories: NYC (there)


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