26 May 2009 ~ 8 Comments

NYC vs Tokyo / Yokohama part 1

Another of my very responsive readers, XO-san, made the following request of me: …How about something on how the design of cities/transportation systems impacts life in Japan and how that compares to NYC?

I’ll give it a shot…anything for my loyal readers…

Well, the most conspicuous difference in design is this: NY was designed with a grid in mind and so getting around NYC is really simple. For example, the Avenues go north and south and the streets east and west. So finding 42nd Street and 8th Avenue on a map is like finding a point on a globe using longitude and latitude.

Manhattan2

Impact: If you ask most any New Yorker how to get to a place or where a place is whether you have an exact address or not, they can pretty much lead you in the right direction or give you directions with laser accuracy.

Try that in Tokyo.

Manhattan has to be one of the simplest cities to navigate (I should say north of Canal Street…to be honest. Below Canal Street, as the island narrows, can get a bit confusing if you’re from out of town.) Almost every street has a N-S-E-W  designation and, at minimum, a name and fairly easily discerned numbered buildings.

However this NY grid design mainly applies to Manhattan which is a rather small part of NYC. Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, which make up the bulk of NYC, I’m afraid, are not on a grid…The Bronx is a goddamn maze, Queens, though grid-like in areas, has the most fucked number system ever, and some of the major thoroughfares in Brooklyn were at one time Native American trails and the European ‘settlers’ pretty much stuck with them. Some of these trails skirted obstacles like hills and swamps, and though the hills and swamps are mostly long gone or hardly obstacles to motorized vehicles, these roads still wind and stagger their way around the borough.

For example: in Brooklyn, one of the major thoroughfares across the borough is called Kings Highway. It has a fascinating history which explains why its design is rather unique.

Tokyo, unlike Manhattan but similar of the other NY boroughs, is also very difficult to navigate unless you know exactly where you’re going. To put it mildly, it’s a challenge to the natives and a rather significant challenge to foreigners…sometimes impossible. And maps only ease this marginally. Though the main streets are pretty clear cut, which eases trips between neighborhoods, inner-neighborhood streets are ridiculously pointless sometimes, starting from nowhere and going nowhere yet containing important institutions. Usually there are no visible street names and building numbers are also a mystery to the less than savvy of us. And this is in the commercial areas. The densely populated residential areas are almost an impossibility to navigate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mail carriers get lost. Taxi Drivers, those guys and gals who should have a working knowledge of such places are sometimes at a lost to find an address even a few minutes from their taxi stand (and charge an arm and a leg in the meantime).

For comparison, in NY, a Middle Eastern Taxi driver with a limited English vocabulary could take you to anywhere on the Manhattan grid without your even having to repeat yourself. (However if you mention a Brooklyn or Queens address – and since Manhattan drivers are not fond of making trips to outer boroughs or above 11oth Street (Harlem) he might invite you to get out of his car or claim ignorance, and if you’re black or latino he might not even stop for you in first place.) In Japan, I’ve never had a driver refuse me or blatantly bypass me…a disturbingly normal occurence in the NY I grew up in!

Another thing about NY is that…well at least it used to have character. Each area of Manhattan had a distinct flavor…If you went to, say, Times Square you could expect to see bright lights, pimps, hoes, drug dealers, Kung-Fu and porno movies (and all the other vices ubiquitous of for human civilized and uncivilizations since time immemorial…hehe). Now it’s Starbucks Barnes & Nobles the Gap banana republic Old Navy Dunkin Donuts Baskin Robbins..oh and ESPN Zone, NBA Store and Disney on Broadway (as if we didn’t get enough of it in the movie theatres.) If you went  to Downtown Brooklyn you could expect to see African Americans peddling their wares on the streets, sneaker shops, barber shops, jewelery stores, discount clothing stores… now more often than not, that flavor is Starbucks, Barnes & Nobles the Gap banana republic Old Navy, Dunkin Donuts Baskin Robbins…In fact the above can be said about almost any neighborhood in NY.  You don’t have to go to any particular area to experience anything because the franchises have bottled the experience and brought it to you.

It seems the same thing is underway in Japan currently and it’s a shame, but currently neighborhoods in Japan still retain a little characters. If you blindfolded me and took me to Akihabara I would know I wasn’t in Shinjuku or Shibuya or Harajuku. Though the architecture mostly looks the same…unavoidable I guess- cheap and simple is the order of the day and there’s little innovation or creativity done on the cheap in Japan (or NY for that matter)- the vibe is definitely different. Though these places are still thriving on the rapidly emptying tank of what they once were NY is running on the vapors of what I feel to be its glorious past.

The impact this shift in NY had on me was that I lost all pride in being a New Yorker. Frank Sinatra once said “If I can make it here I ‘d make it anywhere…” Well, NY has become just like anywhere. So the song’s lyrics would have to be changes to “If I can make it anywhere I can make here!” NY is much…softer now. Warm and fuzzy and tourist friendly and manages to retain it’s rep only because of Hollywood and HipHop. If you B.A.’d me and stuck me in a Mall in Santa Monica or even Las Vegas (though the slot machines might give Vegas away) I might have a hard time distinguishing it from NY. (For all of you non A-Team fans, B.A. (Mr. T) had to be drugged or knocked out before he got on a plane because he was afraid of flying)

I pity the fool that didn’t know that! (-:

Loco lite as a feather

…to be continued (more to come on impact of city and design)

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8 Responses to “NYC vs Tokyo / Yokohama part 1”

  1. XYD 26 May 2009 at 9:22 pm Permalink

    That layout is really…simple like you put it. It is similar to Sacramento in layout. But once you head towards the Greater Sacramento Region, it begins getting bent here and there and everywhere. Downtown Sacramento is probably one of the easier places to navigate if it wasn't for it's one way streets pointing you in one direction and two way directions being set all over the place (requires you to make a complete circle if you miss a point.) Other than that, the lightrail here is the only close relevance to the subway system, and it alone is easy to navigate as it only encompasses 2 separate light rail zones (though you may need to get on and off to get to your destination… and even use the bus …. which is a pain in itself.)

    I do admit that while Sacramento does have it's oddities like Time Magazine stating that Sacramento was the most ethnically diverse when it comes to percentage wise of the population and it being one of the cities with the most trees (and one of the worst city for those with allergies) It…really feels like just any smaller sized city.

    But I really do like how simple Manhattan is. Even if it is crowded it is simple and seems a lot easier doing daily routines.

    Globalization is a shame… especially with big name brands.

    • Locohama 26 May 2009 at 10:30 pm Permalink

      XYD, thanks for the shout! I've never been to Sacremento but it sounds typical of gridded cities.
      yep globalization is killing my city…whatchagonado

  2. matic 26 May 2009 at 10:07 pm Permalink

    this is a good read. i'm also an NYC native and when I visited Tokyo last year that was some insane layout to get used to. real quick question, are there any job agencies for non-Japanese out there?

    • Locohama 26 May 2009 at 10:27 pm Permalink

      Thanks for the shout matic-san
      sorry but I don't know of any job agencies for foreigners )-:

  3. XO 28 May 2009 at 4:39 am Permalink

    Wow, thanks for doing my request, looking forward to part 2!

  4. Mythirdeye 30 May 2009 at 1:18 pm Permalink

    Wow I’ve been thinking the same thing lately about Manhattan. First of all it’s been my dream to become fluent in Japanese and immerse myself in their culture, and it’s great to hear from someone as articulate and open-minded as Locohama.
    In every travel book I have read so far, its always been said that the address and street system of japan can be a complete mind fuck.. So how do the natives deal with it? I wonder if they have a different way of recognizing landmarks subconsiously? Hmm. But yeah Manhattan…
    When I was a kid some 20 years ago, NYC was a place full of character and personality. Lately it seems like one big mall, especially mid-town around times square like Loco said. The people are another story. People on the train used to talk about how their kids were doing well or about how they’re going to see their family in Brooklyn.. . now it’s mostly “I can’t find a job, it’s incredible. I have a good resume!” I guess my point, if I even had one, is that I totally agree with this post and it’s a damn fucking shame. I miss New York.


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