No matter where you are from, your hometown has streets. Maybe some avenues, parkways, calles, boulevards, roads, lanes or rues. In most cases, there is no real rhyme or reason behind why a road has a particular classifying name, it’s simply thrown up there by whoever happens to be planning the surrounding construction. In New York, however, the difference between streets and avenues is very critical and it’s definitely something everyone needs to understand. This post is focused mainly on navigating and understanding Manhattan because it’s very standardized. Let’s hit the pavement.
The most basic thing to remember is that avenues run north and south while streets run east and west (…ish, Manhattan does not a perfect compass make, but don’t try telling any New Yorker that). Most streets and avenues only accommodate one-way traffic, but there are some thoroughfares (14th, 23rd, 42nd, etc…) that do have two-way traffic and are a bit bigger (I’ll fill you in on the history in my next post). This might not seem all that important now, but eventually, you will be sending a text, reading a book or just generally not paying attention as you walk down the street and suddenly find yourself in the middle of two-way traffic because you only glanced down one direction. It happens.
Also, in case you don’t know already, most of Manhattan is a giant grid, so people will give you directions like “it’s on 52nd Street between 5th and 6th”. From that you know the exact block you are going to: the block of 52nd Street that falls between 5th and 6th Avenues. Having a grid is also pretty handy for measuring distance: . So, if you are on 50th Street and 6th Avenue and need to go to 30th Street and 2nd Avenue, you have about 1 mile to walk south and 1 mile to walk east. Remember this when judging whether or not a subway ride is worth it.
Finding your way around the city gets pretty easy once you know where the avenues are, so hopefully this next breakdown will help make your life a little easier. Avenues start on the east side of Manhattan with…options, downtown Avenues D, C, B and A preceed 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue and 3rd Avenue, but uptown, York Avenue and East End Avenue take the alphabet’s place. Staying away from the gridless, lower part of Manhattan, the numbers turn into the renamed avenues- Lexington, Park and Madison – which are followed by 5th Ave, 6th Ave (aka: Avenue of the Americas), 7th Ave, 8th Ave, 9th Ave, 10th Ave and 11th Ave on the west side. Not bad, right? If you know this much before moving to New York, you will be fine everything beyond this is bonus points… things are a bit more complicated on the west side once you get above 59th Street.
North of 59th Street, 11th Avenue is called West End Avenue, 10th Avenue becomes Amsterdam Avenue, 9th Avenue is called Columbus Avenue (a bit confusing since it doesn’t go through Columbus Circle), and 8th Avenue becomes Central Park West for the length of the park. It’s easy to remember where Central Park West is (for obvious reasons), and in the 2 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never been to West End Avenue – I’m sure some of you will need to know about it, but most of you will just need to remember where to find Amsterdam and Columbus. Once you get up into Harlem, there are a few other avenues that don’t come all the way downtown, but we’ll cover those in a future post focused on Harlem.
The main thing I’ve left out thus far is Broadway. Broadway is one of the major exceptions to the grid system in the city. It starts out on the Upper West Side on the far side of the island but ends at the southeast corner, crossing almost all the avenues on its way down. If you use the 4 avenues to a mile rule I mentioned before, don’t include Broadway in your calculation, it’s generally just a wildcard.
As you can see, the avenues are only easy in their simplest, exception-less forms. Luckily, there is a pretty good mnemonic device for remembering the order of the named avenues.
“You take a CAB back home if it’s Late PM.”
This helps you recall the order of the avenues on the west side: Columbus, Amsterdam, Broadway. Then the avenues on the east side: Lexington, Park, Madison. Thanks to David Stiles for that helpful nugget… it’s helped me get around more than a few times.
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Streets in Manhattan are a lot easier to understand than avenues, for the most part, once you know one street, you know them all. They are almost all numbered, so you always know where you are – some have names for small stretches (there are some cool ones), but numbers prevail. As I mentioned before, all streets run east and west, and are usually one-way. A general rule of thumb is that even numbered streets have eastbound traffic while odd numbered streets carry westbound traffic.
After you have been here for awhile, it will become very easy to remember which streets have two-way traffic as they almost always correspond with subway stops. Starting from the south, you have 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 59th (on the south side of the Park), 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, 106th, 116th, 125th, 135th, 145th and 155th Streets. There is no point in memorizing these, but it’s good to have an idea of where you can drive both ways in case you need to bring a moving truck into Manhattan or you need to grab a crosstown bus, since these are usually good places to start.
One final note about streets in Manhattan: parking on the street is notoriously difficult, and the signs telling you when/where to park can be complicated enough to warrant placement in the Da Vinci Code. Parking itself is an entirely different post, but be warned that it can be nightmarish for the impatient driver.
Update: One other thing that is sometimes handy to know is that building numbers on streets change from East to West at 5th Ave. So if you are looking for a building that is 123 E 25th St, you know it is to the East of 5th Ave, whereas 123 W 25th St would be on the opposite side of 5th Ave.
Go Forth and Wander
It should be mentioned again that everything here applies to the part of Manhattan that is within the standard grid. South of Houston Street, things get a bit crazy and most of these rules don’t apply. The other boroughs are each laid out differently and in the future, we’ll come up with a few ways to help you navigate those as well. There are also other parts of Manhattan that are exceptions such as Harlem, Lincoln Center, Washington Square Park, etc… The best way to know your way around will always been to explore. Frequently when people come visit, they find that the most fun they had on their trip wasn’t at a Broadway show or on top of the Empire State Building, but rather while they were just walking the streets. The most ‘New York’ things you will encounter are likely to be little restaurants or shops you stumble upon while simply wandering around. So, go get lost and enjoy your city.