About a year ago I was approached by a group of tourists, armed with a map of whose effective I question, who posited a question that I found myself struggling to answer. Though not from New York, I have a very developed sense of direction, as do most men. Nonetheless, I was puzzled when the couple asked me where in New York Little Italy was. My immediate reaction, standing there on Houston and Lafayette, was to look south towards SoHo but my mind went immediately blank as my mind searched for the words necessary to navigate a pair of tourists to an area of New York that I often traveled and yet I was certain of only one thing: Little Italy wasn’t anywhere near Italy or Kansas for that matter.
Little Italy, a district in lower Manhattan, is bounded by Broome Street to its north, Canal to its south, and is most generally considered to be the distance between those boundaries along Mulberry Street and a few blocks on either side of that central axis, or path if you will. It is sandwiched among the world famous districts – Chinatown, SoHo (aptly named as it is South of Houston), and trendy TriBeca amongst others. Although, I was and remain aware of its location, I struggled to direct these tourists, as Little Italy inhabits what is, in my opinion, the least navigable stretch of the Isle of Manhattan.
Whereas the majority of the Isle of Manhattan is situated in a grid of numbered avenues and streets, some of which the city has tried to rename, albeit unsuccessfully, lower Manhattan consists of streets with lettered names. To make matters worse, the varied named streets of lower Manhattan are not situated in an easy to navigate grid thus making travel difficult for all parties involved. That is to say, travel in the rest of Manhattan is merely a matter of subtraction and addition; whereas, lower Manhattan has more in common with orienteering that it does with walking.
Although I was plagued my temporary relapse of memory, I soon remembered that Little Italy was on Mulberry Street just some 2 blocks away, but the couple remained confused. To assist them in their expedition, I pointed out Mulberry and told them to walk until the restaurants had Italian names and to stop upon sight of the Little Italy sign. Then it hit me, how many places in New York is a traveler or resident greeted with a sign that tells them the name of a district or neighborhood. Certainly landmarks, streets, and parks bear names but a neighborhood? What many of us take for granted is often the cause of great study, pause for reflection, or serves as the amusement for others. Just last week I was confronted with what a space was and later what makes a space great Now, I struggle to point someone in the direction of a space and question why some spaces are deserving of signage and travel, whilst others remain sign-less or worse – nameless.