The Street System

Manhattan is pretty easy to figure out. The island is laid out on a grid, with numbered cross streets running east and west and avenues running north to south. The numbered streets start with First Street in lower Manhattan and end with 220th Street at the top of the island, right before the Bronx starts. Avenues start at the East River and count upward going west to the Hudson River. There are a few named fill-ins where the island bulges, but that's pretty much it.

Avenues

Here are the primary avenues on the east side, starting at the East River and going west (to keep traffic at a modicum of tolerability, most are one way):

  • York Avenue runs both ways between Fifty-third Street and Ninety-sixth Street.

  • First Avenue runs north.

  • Second Avenue runs south.

  • Third Avenue runs north, with two-way traffic below Twenty-fourth Street.

  • Lexington Avenue runs south to Twenty-second Street.

  • Park Avenue runs both ways.

  • FAST FACT

    The Bronx continues Manhattan's numbered streets — from 221st Street until 260th Street, where Yonkers (a different municipality) begins. Broadway runs from Lower Manhattan through the Bronx and into Yonkers in a meandering line that creates those famous squares of New York — Madison, Herald, and Times — as well as Columbus Circle.

    Fifth Avenue, which runs south, is the line that divides the east and west sides of Manhattan. All cross-street addresses are designated “East” or “West,” and they march away, in ascending order, from Fifth Avenue. Therefore, 12 East Fifty-ninth Street will be just east of Fifth Avenue, and 12 West Fifty-ninth Street will be just west of Fifth Avenue. Always specify east or west when taking down an address on numbered streets. A handy gauge for distance is the fact that twenty north-south streets equal a mile.

    Here are the primary avenues on the west side:

  • Sixth Avenue (although formally named the Avenue of the Americas, New Yorkers never call it that) runs north to Central Park.

  • Seventh Avenue (also saddled with the formal Fashion Avenue, which nobody ever uses) runs south from Central Park.

  • Eighth Avenue runs north and changes to Central Park West at Fifty-Eighth Street.

  • Ninth Avenue runs south and becomes Columbus Avenue above Fifty-ninth Street (Columbus Circle).

  • Tenth Avenue runs north and becomes Amsterdam Avenue above Fifty-ninth Street.

  • Eleventh Avenue runs two ways above Forty-second Street and south below it; above Fifty-ninth Street it becomes West End Avenue.

  • Twelfth Avenue runs north and ends at Fifty-ninth Street.

  • Riverside Drive runs both ways from Seventy-second Street to the George Washington Bridge (between 178th and 179th streets). When the Henry Hudson Parkway is congested, Riverside Drive is often the best alternate route.

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive (always called “the FDR” by New Yorkers) runs along the East River. It becomes the Harlem River Drive above the Triborough Bridge. On the west side is the West Side Highway, which turns into the Henry Hudson Parkway as you head north from lower Manhattan. It runs the length of the island, with great views of the Hudson River, the George Washington Bridge, and the New Jersey Palisades.

    FAST FACT

    Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's address in the I Love Lucy TV show was 623 East Sixty-eighth Street, which would have put them in the middle of the East River!

    Both the FDR Drive and West Side Highway run uptown and downtown with narrow entrance and exit ramps. When not crowded, they are the quickest ways of getting uptown or downtown, but watch out for potholes!

    TRAVEL TIP

    When the Rockefellers donated the land in Upper Manhattan on which the Cloisters was built, they also donated the land across the river in New Jersey. They stipulated that no commercial development ever be made, leaving an unobstructed view of the New Jersey Palisades from upper Manhattan, much like Henry Hudson might have seen hundreds of years ago.

    Exceptions to the Rule

    When navigating Manhattan, the grid of numbered cross streets and primary avenues runs from Greenwich Village to Harlem and is relatively easy to follow, as you'll see on any city map. Washington Heights, at the far northern end of the island, is the narrowest part of the city. It's easy to navigate because you're never too far from either the Harlem River Drive to the east or the Henry Hudson Parkway to the west.

    All bets are off, however, once you get into the oldest parts of the city, from Battery Park at the southern tip of the island north to Greenwich Village (the widest part of Manhattan), which were laid out before the grid system came to be. This is particularly true in the West Village, where narrow streets cross and turn in all directions. The East Village, also known as Alphabet City, brings you to avenues A, B, C, and D in a new grid leading to the Lower East Side.

    The Lower East Side, SoHo, TriBeCa, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the financial district, which are all part of lower Manhattan, require careful navigation and good directions and/or map-reading skills. Church Street, Center Street, Broadway, and Bowery (you'll hear people call it “the” Bowery, referring to the neighborhood) are your primary north/south avenues; major cross streets include Houston (it's pronounced HOWS-ton in this neck of the woods), Canal, Delancey, and Church streets (in the financial district). The world-famous Wall Street is in this area, but you'll be surprised to find it's pretty wimpy trafficwise, not a major thoroughfare at all.

    FAST FACT

    The Avenue Q in the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name does not actually exist. The musical's authors invented it. Although the musical features fuzzy puppets reminiscent of Sesame Street characters, it deals with adult issues like sex that may be inappropriate for children.

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    4. The Street System
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