Today I did what I seem to do every few months - I was discombobulated.
I'd emerged from the subway and walked west toward 7th Avenue instead of east toward Union Square. After half a block I figured it out, but it was a half block too long in the cold rain.
Usually, I'm a homing pigeon on the streets. If you've lived here a while, you innately know where you are - you get out of the subway, know which direction you're heading in, and go. There's no need to consult street signs.
What's the trick? Basically you must keep in mind the cardinal points (north, east, south, west), and that Americans drive on the right side of the road.
If you're standing on the subway platform, turn your body so the subway rail is on your right. You will be facing the direction that the subway is headed. This works in all cases except when there is an express train and a local train together, in which case, the local train should be on your right. The express train on your left will be headed in the same direction.
When you emerge from the subway onto the sidewalk, turn your body so the subway entrance is again to your right. If you were on an uptown train, you will be facing uptown, or north. If you were on a downtown train, you will be facing downtown, or south. The same goes with a crosstown train like the 7 or L, it works the same way. You will be facing your intended direction when the subway entrance is on your right.
The only time this rule of thumb doesn't work is when you exit a larger stop with entrances serving more than one direction, like Union Square or Times Square. But it works, and you can use the subway entrances to navigate while walking around.
Uptown entrances are always therefore on the east side of the street. Downtown entrances on the west. Streets radiate east to west with Central Park as ground zero - eastward are Fifth, Park, Madison, Lexington, Third, Second and First. Westward are Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and so on.
As far as addresses go, numbers start out at Fifth Avenue on the east-west streets and increase as you go in either direction. So 34 East 21st Street is close to the middle of the island, while 339 West 21st Street is near the Hudson River. On the avenues, numbers are low near the southern tip and increase as you travel north.
It gets slightly confusing uptown when Ninth Avenue becomes Columbus Avenue, and Tenth becomes Amsterdam. And then Fourth Avenue comes out of nowhere, and Park Avenue suddenly disappears.
But really, these guidelines should serve you above 14th Street. Don't even try to navigate the West Village and you will be fine!
And in case you do get lost, don't hesitate to ask for directions. New Yorkers are more than happy to help!
Related posts: On How the Streets are Numbered in this City, On Shooting (Film) in the Park and Sundays in the Park.