queensboro photo

Queensboro Bridge, with Long Island City in the background. Photo by Maëlick

New York, meaning Manhattan, was laid out by the genius Commissioners of 1811. They designed a city that didn’t exist yet. In those days New York was a village at the southern tip of the island. But the result was that everybody knew where the streets would go and where the property lines would be. Accordingly, you knew where to build the front door, the subway lines, install utilities, and so forth, even though none of that was built until much later.

Other cities have not been so lucky. In Manila, for example, it is nearly impossible to retrofit the city for modern conveniences. Accordingly, that city which is approximately the same size as New York, has precisely two expressways and three subway lines. And enormous traffic jams.

But New York’s geography is perhaps a bit boring. The Avenues run North and South. There are twelve of them, with First Avenue along the East River, and Twelfth Avenue along the Hudson. Spaced approximately six blocks to the mile, Manhattan is typically two miles wide.

The streets begin at Houston Street–then the northern boundary of the village–and run crosstown, East and West. They are spaced roughly 18 blocks to the mile. Today 220th Street marks the northern tip of Manhattan, approximately 12 miles north of Houston.

So if you’ve ever been to New York you already know this. Avenues go Uptown (North-South), while streets run crosstown (East-West).

jackson heights photo

A Jackson Heights street corner.

So I don’t know who laid out Queens, but they didn’t do a shabby job. Queens isn’t really a city, but rather a collection of small towns grown together. The post office honors that tradition–even today letters are addressed to Jamaica, NY, Elmhurst, NY, and Long Island City, NY, among others, and never to Queens, NY.

The one-time country roads connecting these villages have become major thoroughfares, and have names. Queens Blvd, for example, goes from Long Island City to Jamaica. Roosevelt Avenue connects Woodside with Flushing. And if you want to get from Astoria to Rego Park you’ll take Broadway.

So that’s a bit chaotic and disorganized (though not that hard to navigate). But superimposed on top of that aboriginal road system is a systematic grid of streets and avenues, copied after Manhattan. Except they got it upside down and backwards.

Queens is at the western tip of Long Island, bounded on the North by Long Island Sound, on the West by the East River (which is East of Manhattan), and on the South by the Atlantic Ocean. The Avenues in Queens run parallel to Long Island Sound, roughly East-West. They are spaced approximately six blocks to the mile, though that varies considerably depending on what neighborhood you’re in. The streets, meanwhile, are parallel to the East River, i.e., North and South.

So that’s the backwards part–with respect to compass points Avenues and streets head in different directions than Manhattan.

It gets worse. First Avenue runs parallel to Long Island Sound. Then the numbers get bigger until you’re at 165th Avenue in Howard Beach. So the numbers get bigger as you go South, which is completely upside-down from Manhattan. The streets, meanwhile, start at 1st Street along the East River, and increment up to around 270th Street at the Nassau County Line.

So Queens is upside-down and backwards compared to Manhattan. Not being native to the place, I still find that confusing.

Three more items of note:

  • Unlike Chicago or Salt Lake City, or even Manhattan, the Queens street grid is very irregular. Many numbers are missing, and sometimes streets which should be parallel actually intersect. They only approximately follow straight lines.
  • For all that, the numbering system is totally consistent. 39-22 64th Street, for example, will be between 39th Avenue and 40th Avenue on 64th Street. (Turns out that’s in Woodside.) You’ll find it eventually, even without a map. The whole borough is numbered that way–it’s very convenient.
  • My favorite neighborhood in New York–where I would live if I were living there–is Jackson Heights. The main intersection is at Roosevelt and Broadway, but you can think of it as 41st Avenue at 72nd Street if you prefer.