Although New York City can be a nightmare of confusion for any newcomer, it doesn’t take long to get adjusted to the legibility of the city. The grid-like structure allows the area to be easy to map out mentally, the vivid details of each neighborhood aid in imageability, and the ever changing storefronts and diverse characters leave room for the “value of a surprise”. In accordance with Kevin Lynch’s terms, New York City and it’s environment has been set up as a generally easy city to navigate. Although you can still get lost in certain neighborhoods that stray from the organized structure, it doesn’t take a professional urban traveler to feel oriented.
Last summer I spent 5 weeks in Accra, Ghana for the NYU Journalism program. I’d only ever been to two countries: the U.S. and Venezuela, both of which I’ve familiarized myself through many years of wandering and travel. When I prepared to depart to Ghana, in the end of May, I had no expectations of what I was going to see because I simply couldn’t create an image of Accra in my mind. I had no idea what a city in Africa would look like, all my life I’d been led to believe that didn’t even exist.
A day or two before leaving, our TA in Ghana emailed us an article which talked about the Ghanaian governments useless efforts to name its cities streets. It took me a while to understand what that implied: Accra’s streets had no names.
Traveling around an unfamiliar territory is a unique thrill. The process of discovery is exciting and terrifying. I was very unsure of myself when I first started venturing around Accra. In previous unfamiliar areas, I would rely on maps and my smartphone’s GPS to help lead the way, street names to orient myself, and the north, south, west and east directions to aid in creating a mental map. In Accra, its all about the landmarks.
Throughout my 5 weeks there I learned the name of only one street, Oxford Street, in the Osu neighborhood. But I knew that the coffee shop in Labone was right around the corner from the house we stayed at, I knew that the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum was on the highway next to the Arts Center, I knew that across from Labadi beach was the best fabric store. In Accra, taxis will take you cheaply anywhere, you just have to know the landmark.
My mental image of Accra is super fuzzy, but at no point during my time there did I ever feel lost. I didn’t have the crutch of a map or GPS to make me feel entirely comfortable but I had my landmarks. Each day I ventured out, I gained a new landmark and continued to develop a web of places that could help me to get to more places. I knew where things were because I had been around the area, or somewhere nearby, and if I didn’t know, I had no choice but to ask.
“To become completely lost is perhaps a rather rare experience for most people in the modern city” (Kevin Lynch). Maybe not even the most modern of cities.