Legibility in London and New York

In City Form, New York City, A Sense of Place by Cayla Delardi2 Comments

When I talk about my experience abroad, people invariably ask me how similar London and New York are, and I always feel conflicted in my answer.  On one hand, London’s history is so rich and vibrant that it’s almost palpable, a sense that is entirely lost for me here in New York. This has an effect not only on the way I feel when walking around in both cities, but of course, on what I see as well.  Most notably, I find the architecture in London to be much more scaled down, varied and aesthetically pleasing compared to the concrete skyscrapers that litter the New York skyline. On the other hand, my experiences in both cities are limited by my own interests, and it’s not as if there is a remarkable lack of resources in either one. So, I suppose when approaching the question objectively, the differences in the two cities are much more apparent, but when I factor in my personal ties to each, I find they are more similar than not. 

Considering this in conjunction with Lynch’s writing, I tried to image a circumstance where someone asked me how similar London and New York are only in terms of their legibility. Interestingly, I arrived at an equally conflicted answer as my first.  When considering the general structure of the two cities, they seem to have more differences than similarities. New York is well-known for its grid system which is generally easy to navigate, while London is a web of smaller streets which intersect chaotically, and the bigger roads often change names without warning or apparent cause.  For that reason, I found myself much more susceptible to getting lost in London than in New York, and I never felt I could get as strong of a foothold in the city in that sense.

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But the most important part of both places for me, being the ones that I routinely navigated every day, were the routes between my home and the NYU campus.  When I reached into my memory and thought about my respective commutes, I realized that they are nearly identical.

To start, I’ll trace the 18 minute walk from my old dorm in the West Village of NYC to 1 Washington Place.  The journey starts on Greenwich St., which is relatively quiet despite being lined with apartment buildings on all sides. In any case, I don’t stay here for long, making a right out of my building and a quick left ontoScreen Shot 2015-02-09 at 9.55.13 PM Morton Street.  Taking Morton up past the intersections at Hudson and then at 7th Avenue, I notice the street getting increasingly narrow. As this happens, the continuous walls of gray cement on either side of me transform into charming brownstones, each with their own wide, inviting staircases separated by intricately patterned wrought iron fences.  There is a change of scenery again as I turn onto Bleecker, where I am faced with an equally narrow street, though this one is lined with boutiques and restaurants instead of homes.  I always find myself paying particular notice to a guitar store which faces me as I approach the block, not necessarily because there is a lot of traffic in front of it but because the windows are lined with all different models of guitars that I could neither play nor afford.  Making another quick left from Bleecker onto Cornelia St., the three scenes which I have described up to this point converge; Cornelia houses several quaint restaurants, a brownstone-style home complete with staircase and wrought iron fence, as well as a much bleaker looking apartment building.  Next, I cross the bustling, wide open intersection at West 4th St. and quickly approach Washington Square Park.  There is always a flurry of activity in this area which is simultaneously shocking and refreshing, the former from being on fairly desolate streets up until this point, and the latter because I appreciate being surrounded by greenery whenever possible. Finally, I head straight out of the park’s easternmost exit and walk a few more blocks down, arriving either at the Silver Center or 1 Washington Place, depending on the time and day.

 Now, for the walk I took from my dorm at 26 Mecklenburgh Square to the NYU in London academic center at 6 Bedford Square nearly every day for two years.  Like Greenwich St., Mecklenburgh Square is quiet and mundane by London’s standards, with very little pedestrian or auto traffic at any given time.  Here, I head straight out of my door, veering slightly right to take a back alley shortcut to the main road.  The alley is narrow and features tall fences which runScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 12.32.54 AM along either side of it, mimicking both the proportions and dullness at the beginning of my trip across Morton St.  As I come out of the seemingly infinite alleyway and right onto Bernard St., everything widens out a bit, albeit not by much.  The left side of the one lane street is lined with essentially the British version of brownstonescomplete with their own staircases and wrought iron fences in betweenand on the other, a series of small shops and restaurants.  After crossing the busy intersection of Woburn Place and Russell Square, I enter Russell Square Park.  Much like with Washington Square, I have the option of bypassing the park entirely and walking along its outer edge without sacrificing time, but by this point in the commute I am happy to be surrounded by grass and trees.  After exiting the park, it’s another short, straight shot down Montague Place, home to the side entrance of the British Museum that no one really uses. Finally, after approximately 18 minutes, I’ve arrived at the door of NYUL.

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Comments

  1. I can’t tell you how much I get asked that question, of London or New York, and also still can’t tell you my answer. Like you, I feel enormously conflicted between the two for emotional reasons as well as reasons having to do with my physical relationship with each. I usually get out of the question by dragging my answer on until the person gets bored and stops listening. London is certainly more easy to get lost in, but of course that comes with its perks. Your two walks really are uncannily similar in time, direction, and atmosphere– nonetheless, they both look very enjoyable!

  2. Hi,
    I really liked your post. It’s so interesting to see how in the big picture New York seems easier to understand and London more complicated, but when you get to the small scale, both your routes have relatively long straight wakes, normal turns, parks to cross, and a transition from a more calm to more lively environment. Personally, I appreciate that New York has this easy-to-understand, grid structure, but I think London’s history and form has more charm; the river passing through the city makes it more organic, more grounded, you are conscious that one day there were some settlers who gathered near the river, and London was born.

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