Navigating New York’s Labyrinth

In City Form, New York City, A Sense of Place by Emma1 Comment

Let’s take a moment to talk about the West Village. For the first three years of my time in New York, I avoided the West Village like the plague. I’ll admit, I was a bit scared of the far west side of the Manhattan with which we East Village inhabitants share a partial name. Why was I so scared of the West Village? Was it the clubs of the Meatpacking District? The block solely dedicated to Marc Jacobs boutiques? No, those were not the fear. It was the breakaway from our beloved New York grid system.

The grid system is an ingenious part of New York’s city planning that has saved me from many lost moments running through Midtown. Comedian John Mulaney describes the impact of the grid system in his excellent critique of a 90s movie classic,  (skip to 1:03).

There is really a beauty to being able to climb the stairs from a subway station and immediately orient yourself at an intersection of an avenue and street. It is impossible to get lost, that is until you walk into the West Village.

When you enter the West Village there are no rules. Streets intersect with streets, paths run on a diagonal and seem to have no starting point or end. This district of New York is like a labyrinth, similar to that described by Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City “Many of us enjoy [the labyrinth]…This is so, however, only under two conditions. First, there must be no danger of losing basic form or orientation, of never coming out” The second you cross Sixth Avenue, there are no guarantees you are coming out. Lynch has described the one district of New York immune to safety when it comes to city mapping.West Village Walking Route

Walk with me on my daily commute between campus and my internship at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building on the far west side. Depending on the day, I either take West 4th Street or 11th Street. For the more fun route, I will discuss West 4th. First, take a look at the google map options for this walk – notice anything strange? All of the options are on a diagonal.

Moving on, I walk along West 4th to 7th Avenue South, only to hit a triangular intersection with no direct street sign pointing me to continue on West 4th. After a few days of mistaken turns, I finally know exactly where to walk and continue on my way. Within a block I hit my next issue: two streets colliding! Never in my understanding of New York did I think two streets would be able to intersect, because of the grid, but again I was wrong. Continuing along I encounter other triangular intersections at 8th Avenue and Gansevoort, before finally landing safely at my destination (which to add to the fun, is opposite Little W. 12th Street, because apparently streets can have little siblings).

After six months of ritually performing this walk, I have become a little more accustomed to the West Village’s ways. Yet there are days when I try to diverge from one of my two established paths, only to get immediately lost again. The only difference now is I can embrace the labyrinth as described by Lynch, knowing that just a few blocks away is Sixth Avenue and my return to the grid.

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  • West Village Intersection: Emma

Comments

  1. I haven’t spent much time in the West Village so the visual image of your commute from campus to your internship really helped me see the complexity of this area. I can definitely see how someone who is unfamiliar with this part of town would most likely get lost in it once they are there; yet, even when one has been in this area for some time now, it can still be easy to get lost once one has diverged from a habitual path (like you have experienced). It makes me wonder why previous urban planners decided to diverge from the grid system when they were designing those streets and whether getting lost in this area could’ve been entirely avoided if it had followed the grid system.

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