When you first arrive in New York, it’s all honking chaos and indifferent skyscrapers.
But the city is actually a deeply planned urban environment — even if those plans remain hidden to the untrained eye.
To that end, here’s the hidden history of city’s cabs, stoops, and even the skyline itself.
The grid system, deconstructed
Without strict organisation, the entire grid system would fall apart.
Traffic on odd-numbered streets flows west, for example, while even-numbered streets go east. Avenues also alternate, with 2nd Ave. travelling north to south, 3rd Ave. south to north, and Lexington Ave. north to south again.
There are still exceptions to the rule, like Park Ave., which is a major artery that flows both ways.
In the same vein, odd-numbered addresses tend to sit on the north side of the street, while even-numbered buildings are on the south side. If a building faces a park, odd and even numbers will live on the same side.
Downtown Manhattan is the exception to the grid rule. Below Houston St. (pronounced How-ston) and especially near Wall St. the winding roads result from a much older history than further uptown.
Before city planners came along to cut up the city into rectangles, 18th century inhabitants carved paths as they needed them. Which is why even the street-savviest New Yorkers have no idea how to navigate downtown: Take away the grid, and you take away the sense of direction.
A signs of the times
As you walk through the city, you might notice some street signs in all caps, such as BROADWAY in Times Square, while others are written in sentence case, like Fashion Ave.
The difference is due to a 2010 policy change to replace the some 250,000 signs written in all caps to a new typeface written in sentence case, which has been shown to be easier to read.
The cars originally got their bright identity in 1915 Chicago, when John Hertz, founder of the Hertz Rent-a-Car System, read a study that suggested the colour yellow was most visible from a distance.
“It became an industry trend,”Allan Fromberg, the chief spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, told the New York Times in 2006. “Which of course was continued when he and his partner, Walden Shaw, branched out to other cities, including New York City.”
How to get less lost on the subway
Casual riders might understand that the words “uptown” and “downtown” refer to whether the train is running toward higher-number or lower-number streets, but they will probably still find some difficulty when they reach their destination.
The thing no map prepares you for is navigating your exit — knowing which direction to head once you get above ground.
People might not see them, but the MTA does help travellers figure out which corner they’re on.
In this case, when people get aboveground, they will be on the southwest corner of the avenue Central Park West, at 72nd St.
That means that rather than scramble to find a sign for 71st or 73rd St. to know which way is which, they can get their bearings immediately: Just imagine the intersection is a giant compass so that the corner you’re on is the southwest corner.
Voila! No confusion. Or use a map.
The anatomy of buildings
Then there are the structures themselves — the squat walk-up apartments and towering behemoths that give the city its famous skyline.
Consider the not-so-humble stoop. Today it may be reserved for summer hangouts, but originally the stoop served a critical social function, according to Cecil Calvert Evers in his 1914 work “The Commercial Problem in Buildings.”
“In high-class residences,” Evers writes, “ground floor accommodation is of less value than that of the floor above; in this type the uses of the two floors bear out this difference: the ground floor is devoted to inferior utilizations, service rooms and servants’ quarters, within easy reach of the entrance, which again is sufficiently far removed from the family rooms of the main floor to insure their privacy.”
Stoops, in other words, let rich people welcome their visitors into the main hall without exposing them to the family’s lowly servants.
As for the skyline itself — with its architectural giants in midtown and on the southern tip, and the trough of low-slung buildings between them — the look is wrapped up in a great myth.
The myth is that Manhattan’s bedrock — the sturdiest foundation Earth offers — is closest to the surface in midtown and toward the bottom of the island. In between, the island is softer, as the bedrock sits farther from the surface. As the thinking goes, this makes tall buildings less stable, so neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village and SoHo never got any.
In 2011, two Rutgers University researchers debunked the myth.
Theypublished a studythat found the bedrock was actually fairly deep beneath some of the tallest buildings between 1890 and 1915, such as the New York World Building and the Woolworth Building
Jason Barr, co-author and Rutgers economist, says the skyline actually looks the way it does because people didn’t want to live in the dirty slums of downtown. They moved north, to stay safe and preserve status. And since people like to work near their homes, architects made that happen.
The tall buildings in Midtown reflect people’s decision to live away from crime, and those on the south of the island enabled commerce via the Hudson and East Rivers. Downtown is squat, frankly, because no rich person ever asked for a skyscraper.
So the next time you stop in Times Square to buy a print of the city’s stunning skyline, consider the history behind it. Just make sure to observe another New York tradition as you do it: Negotiate.
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