Having grown up in Southern California, the only way I knew how to orient myself in any part of my regional area was through the comfort of my car’s GPS. Other than leisure, walking is not exactly an acceptable form of transportation as it is here in New York, so when I moved here for school, I was in for an entirely new challenge. Thankfully I had visited the city a couple times before moving; however, I found that having only ever visited with my parents, I never developed my own wayfinding abilities; I grew too complacent with depending on my parents to direct our experience. In fact, I have rediscovered this shortcoming time and time again now that I am beginning to revisit certain places in the world with friends rather than my parents, and each trip reminds me how easy it is to rely upon others to wayfind for me. To an extent, smartphones have replaced my parents and my car’s GPS, but after living in New York City for a few years now, I have found that I am rarely inclined to pull out my phone in order to navigate my way to each new location of interest—here at least.
I think it is important to understand why this is—aside from becoming familiar simply out of time, the design of New York City is incredibly orientation-friendly. The fact that the midsection of Manhattan is lined with numerically-named streets allows one to figure out if he or she is headed north or south; this, paired with the division of east and west by 5th Avenue, allows one to even determine the cross streets of an address without a map. The fact that metro stations exist every 10 or so blocks also adds to one’s ability to navigate through the city because it provides landmarks of sorts from which to base further travels and distances. Although it is easier for pedestrians than cars to navigate with all the one-way streets, it is still made rather simple to find one’s way. Furthermore, the various iconic buildings making up the New York City skyline serve as points of reference to make orientation easier. For instance, when I first started using the subway, I might have known that I had arrived to the Herald Square stop on the D train, but I would have had no idea whether the direction I started walking in was east, west, north, or south if I did not glance up in search of the Empire State Building.
In addition, the fact that Manhattan is an island makes West Village travels less intimidating. The first time I got lost in New York, I was actually in the West Village—being new, I had no idea the streets were suddenly diagonal rather than straight, and I found myself struggling to find a single street I might recognize. Eventually, what I did find, was the water—I followed the Hudson north until I was certain I could turn back into the heart of the city without losing myself in that maze again. I think that, ultimately, Manhattan’s relation to a compass has helped me understand my way around and keep my cool even when I do get lost.