The Tangle Beneath the Grid

In Orientation, New York City, A Sense of Place by Jacob FordLeave a Comment

I find I can get lost on the city’s other layers.

Kevin Lynch asked citizens to draw maps of their home cities, but all maps were drawn flat, at a top-down perspective. Wayfinding arrows pointing up or down mean “forward” or “right here” more often than they actually mean up or down. Structures and the streets are seen as two separate worlds: streets guide you to building entrances, and from there building signage guides you to your floor and your room until you are ready to be guided back onto the street. The city is flat, according to maps and brains. Structures are an opportunity to move vertically, but never to move around. To move within a building is to explore a single stationary point on a map. Built structures are pauses in lateral movement.

But the city, at least New York City, offers a ample opportunity to mess with the system. In December 2014 I joined the Obscura Society, a collective of urban explorers and scavengers of the interesting, on a tour of Midtown’s underground. A series of connected shopping centers, skyscraper basements, and corporate lobbies allows the apt traveler to get from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Times Square without ever seeing the sky. A forgotten spur of the popular Rockefeller Center underground shopping concourse leads to McGraw Hill’s basement, which neighbors Barclays, and so on. Willing to use a MetroCard swipe? An additional series of subway platforms and pedestrian tunnels will allow you to continue to Port Authority Bus Terminal entirely by fluorescent light.

Landmarks are difficult when the tallest object is the ceiling. Even time and weather are lost in an eternally lit urban vault. I am not accustomed to walking on marble floors while meanwhile traversing avenues. Human exhaustion is a coarse indicator of distance at best, and says nothing about one’s heading. Even when the underground is well-labeled, it takes effort to imagine what I am under.

Everything about how I navigate depends on the assumption that I am exploring a flat surface with an open sky. I orient with tall structures and measure distance using numbered streets. Teaching myself to orient in the world below, whether the Midtown tunnels or way past the boarding area on a Grand Central platform, is an exercise in thinking about how I usually know where I am. It is learning a new geographic language, then attempting to translate between it and my more familiar language by trying to determine what is above me when I’m in the hum of the underground.

Of course, what I explored in December is tame part of the underground, and still a far cry from being truly lost. The organization of a grid on the surface creates a tangle of underground infrastructure. Subway tunnels snake around basements while rivers rerouted by architecture still flow underground. These are the places I would love to get lost, in the underground byproducts of a city on the land. Where the art of wayfinding is a mere afterthought and tunnels are built to keep things moving, but not for navigation.

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