Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week's question comes from a New Yorker who wants to nail down Manhattan's geographical boundaries once and for all.
Dear Native New Yorker:
What is the uptown/downtown line of demarcation? I have always thought it was 42nd Street, but others contend it is 14th Street.
I imagine back in the day, when most of Manhattan was goats and and corn, anything above Canal was uptown. Or course we could have to factor in the golden age of jazz and Harlem, so maybe it was 96th Street?
Then if we are looking specifically for residential statistics, maybe it's 59th (Central Park South.)
Is there any one answer?
Dandy on East 80th
A native New Yorker responds:
All natives agree that "uptown Manhattan" begins at 59th Street. This is an indisputable truth, because the Park forms a natural border, and the neighborhoods immediately to the East and West of the park are referred to as the Upper East and Upper West Sides.
Where downtown begins depends on whether you recognize "Midtown" as a place, and if you do, where you draw its borders. Personally, I try not to think of Midtown at all: my mental map of Midtown is like a "Here Be Dragons" area on an ancient map—Port Authority Bus Terminal, MSG, Jacob Javits Center, furries fighting in Times Square, that Hamsterdam McDonalds, etc. I know it exists; many of you live and work there. I respect that! But it gives me the creeps and, as such, I don't have the clearest sense of it geographically.
When I was 14 and commuting to High School from Brooklyn, Stuyvesant was on 15th Street and First Ave, and I had a vague feeling that everything above 14th was "Midtown," and certainly everything below it was "Downtown." But 25 years later, having spent a lot of time between 14th and 23rd, I'm not so sure. Union Square is definitely not in Midtown‚ and I think most natives would agree that neither are Chelsea, Gramercy Park, and Stuyvesant Town. So I'm leaning towards saying that in 2015, 23rd Street is the northern border of Downtown.
A young Jake Dobkin mugs for the camera somewhere very far uptown, i.e. the Bronx. (Courtesy Jake Dobkin Private Collection)
I asked everyone in the office about where downtown begins and ends, and there was widespread disagreement. There was at least one vote for every major crosstown street from Houston all the way up to 34th, with 23rd and 14th being the most popular answers. I noticed the further south my colleagues live, the further south their answer was. This makes sense; if you live in Bay Ridge, everything above Houston Street probably feels like the Bronx.
You are right to also consider the historical angle. Back when there was a Wall on Wall Street, or a Canal on Canal Street, everything north of that was certainly "Uptown." As the city expanded, "Uptown" rolled further and further north, until the whole of Manhattan settled into its current configuration, probably not much more than 150 years ago.
And even today, when a tourist asks you for directions, we still use "uptown" and "downtown" as cardinal directions; "take the N uptown to 42nd" or "walk downtown 10 blocks from Washington Square Park to Canal." This is probably the source of a lot of the uptown/midtown/downtown semantic confusion, i.e. the Meatpacking District is uptown if you're standing in The West Village, but it is not "Uptown."
Some people are more comfortable with this kind of uncertainty than others. The Buddhist view is that reality is an unbroken, indivisible whole, and things like location and directions only exist in the realm of "relative" truth. In the higher realm of absolute truth, which is timeless and indivisible, things like that have no meaning. While this won't help you get an apartment downtown, it's something to think about the next time someone is giving you shade about your neighborhood being "worse" than theirs in some dumb, materialist sense. Obsessing about that kind of thing is really unzen.
N.B.: It's also worth considering the rise of other "Downtowns". Downtown Brooklyn, for instance. With it's current rate of development, I wouldn't be surprised if my kids someday say "I'm going downtown" to mean going to the Fulton Mall.
N.B.: Several people in the office found it pejorative to say that everything above 59th is uptown. "Jake, it's 100 blocks to Inwood! It's really reductive to lump all of those neighborhoods together!" True, but geography has always been dictated by money and power, and the money and power in Manhattan has always been weighted towards the other end of the island. Maybe we can deal with this after the revolution!
Ask a Native New Yorker anything via email. Anonymity is assured.