Slight error in the mental map, but still…

This article by Caroline Campion about dog runs in Alphabet City shows a phenomenon peculiar to New York City. In this phenomenon, knowledge is not propagated according to its accuracy, but according to its utility. The incorrect information can lead to a useful conclusion as easily as correct information can. The surrounding neighborhood has always been characterized by ethnic—and later racial—diversity; residents were first German and Irish, then Jewish and Eastern European, and most recently Puerto Rican and African-American. This mix, combined with the volatile politics of various eras, and the neighborhood’s relative isolation (the nearest subway is at Astor Place) created a charged and highly individualistic community. Contained within that paragraph are lines which touch upon so many layers of New York City history, a Sisyphean layering and relayering of the human cake, that it is easy to miss the one factual error: The nearest subway to Alphabet City is not at Astor Place. There are two that are closer, depending upon where you are in Alphabet City. The First Avenue stop of the L train on 14th Street is closer if you are at the northern end of the neighborhood. The F and V trains at First Avenue and Houston are closer if you are near the southern. But knowing those two subway stops are closer requires you to understand certain things—and Campion probably does, since they are so basic to New Yorkers—and forgetting to include them requires you to understand other, complementary things: First, understand that street blocks are shorter than avenue blocks; approximately 20 north-south (street) or four east-west (avenue) blocks equal a mile. This means that Astor Place, at its shortest from Alphabet City by three avenue blocks, is roughly the same distance as the entire 14-block north-south length of Alphabet City running from Houston to 14th Street. Second, it requires you to know that although the subway maps show the F train stop to be “Lower East Side Second Avenue,” you may actually exit the station closer to First Avenue, which, while Second Avenue is close enough to still beat Astor Place for distance, is better by nearly a quarter of a mile. But the reason it is easy to dismiss those other two stops, even forget about them entirely, is because uptown-downtown lines—one of which the Astor Place stop serves—are generally more useful than east-west lines, of which the L is one. The Astor Place stop serves the 4/5/6 trains, which, with the N/R/Q/W, are arguably the most useful in the city, except at rush hours. The F/V lines, however, are hampered by MTA tampering in Queens and by their lame connection through an avenue-long tunnel to the 1/2/3/9 trains. In addition, particularly as it is one half-block further east than the Astor Place station, one might be compelled to note the Bleecker Street stop of the 6 train as useful. It isn’t, mainly because one cannot connect to the 4/5 express trains, and because the uptown side of the station does not permit transfers to and from the F/V lines, or the Grand Street Shuttle, as the downtown side does. The “damaged” nature of the train options at this station mar the mental map and make it unavailable for instant, likely consideration for neither arriving nor departing, even though for departing it is vastly more useful. So there you go. An error in fact, but an error more useful than accuracy would have been.

Posted March 17, 2003

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