Observation Deck

Manhattan’s Address System Is Broken—Here’s How to Fix It

We’ve all been phoneless and lost in the city. Maybe Queens can help.

Photo by Anthony Rosset/Unsplash

Imagine this: You’ve just rolled into Port Authority, excited for your first trip to New York City. Your phone is dead, but you’re not worried. You’re visiting a buddy who lives in Manhattan, and all you need to do is get to his apartment. But as you remember his address, confusion begins to mount. Where the heck is 744 Tenth Avenue?

Manhattan’s current address system can be traced back to 1811, when the city adopted its famous grid pattern. In 1861, the system received a much-needed update when planners assigned discrete sets of 100 addresses to each block between every major avenue.

Unfortunately, the following 157 years were not nearly so orderly. Due to the city’s massive growth and the propagation of “vanity addresses” that began during the 1980s, a Manhattan building’s address now provides little to no information about its actual location on the island.

manhattan address system

As development continues apace, Manhattan’s address system needs a serious reboot before it becomes a jumble of meaningless digits. Luckily, I have a plan. All city planners need to do is take a jaunt across the East River. That’s right: Manhattan can solve its address woes by switching to the system used in Queens.

I know you’re skeptical. Queens: The borough where 21st Avenue intersects with 21st Road, which intersects with 21st Street, which intersects with 21st Drive?

I know you’re skeptical. Queens, the borough in which 21st Avenue intersects with 21st Road, which intersects with 21st Street, which intersects with 21st Drive? (Good luck with that one, Google Maps.) The borough of hyphenated addresses? Of east-to-west avenues and north-to-south streets? You think Manhattan should take its cues from that morass? I truly do: Allow me to explain.

manhattan address system
Photo via WikiMedia Commons

Yes, Queens’s address system is different, and to the uninitiated it may seem needlessly complicated. But within that pileup of hyphens and numbers is the most efficient address system in the country, a system that allows travelers to pinpoint a Queens address’s location all the way down to a single block without having to glance at a map or consult a GPS.

It’s simple, really. The standard Queens address is split into three parts: the first number, the second number, and the street or avenue. Let’s say you’re looking for 31-24 35th Street. The first number, 31, represents the lower cross avenue of the location—in this case, 31st Avenue. The cross street, of course, is 35th Street. And the specific location is denoted by the second number, so this address is located at number 24 on the block of 35th Street immediately above 31st Avenue. Easy, right?

manhattan address system
Photo by Ferdinand Stohr/Unsplash

Compare this to the aforementioned Manhattan address: 744 Tenth Avenue. This address provides precisely one piece of information regarding its specific location: the avenue. Since Tenth Avenue runs south-to-north along the entirety of Manhattan, that doesn’t really narrow things down. With that little information, you could guess this place is anywhere from Battery Park City to Harlem, since the building number doesn’t give any hints. Furthermore, there’s no internal logic connected to these numbers: 744 Tenth Avenue is located above 50th Street, while 744 Fifth Avenue is located above 57th Street, and 744 First Avenue is all the way down by 42nd Street. You’ve gotta be some kind of old-school cabbie or mapping savant to know that.

I imagine many Manhattanites would consider my proposal an absurd one, since, after all, city dwellers love to look down their noses at the folksy ways of the outer boroughs. But adopting the Queens system is just logical. So logical, in fact, that I’m not even the first person to propose it.

In 1940, in response to address-based confusion in Manhattan, New York City postmaster Albert Goldman recommended a switch to a three-part address format much like the system used in Queens. Under Goldman’s proposed system, 744 Tenth Avenue would become 50-05 Tenth Avenue—the fifth lot on the block of Tenth Avenue above 50th Street. Elegant, simple, and easy to understand!

Not only is my proposal logically sound, it has the endorsement of an esteemed New York City postmaster.

manhattan address system
Photo by Banter Snaps/Unsplash

Unfortunately, while Goldman’s plan received acclaim from many city administrators, it was opposed by a group of wealthy Manhattan residents who dubbed themselves the Fifth Avenue Association. According to this organization, “business records, stationery, machines, and products advertised by the street number…would have to be changed at great expense,” a “substantial hardship” for Manhattan’s business owners and socialites. Thus, motivated purely by greed, they lobbied against Goldman’s proposal, which eventually fell by the wayside, leaving the confusing mess we live with today.

So there you have it. Not only is my proposal logically sound, but it has the endorsement of an esteemed New York City postmaster. Eighty years ago, New York was on the brink of making this change, and the only reason it didn’t go through was because a few one percenters were too miserly to update their stationery. Why not finish the job in 2019? Sure, it’s a big shift, and it will take some getting used to. But we’re New Yorkers, and if there’s one thing we can do, it’s deal bravely with the new and the unknown.

If you’re a Manhattanite, I beg you to send this article to your city councilman or borough president. Write letters and emails and make your voice heard in order to enact the change that we know must be made. And if you have some free time, visit Queens and check out the beauty of its address system firsthand. It’s worth the trip.

Alexander Lee is a writer and editor based in Queens. His work has appeared on ESPN and in the New York Daily News, and he is a staff writer at GameTyrant. Follow him on Twitter @alexleewastaken. He previously wrote about Sound Voltex for WSWD.