Manhattan Street Locator

by

02/27/2022

Neighborhood: Manhattan, Midtown East

In the Manhattan telephone directory “white pages,” there used to be a page that came just before alphabetical listings of names, addresses, and phone numbers. Along with a list of Post Office addresses and a map of City zip codes, it featured the Manhattan Address Locator. 

A simple looking table, it performed a kind of magic, allowing you to take an address on one of the City’s numbered avenues (or Broadway) and identify the cross streets that it would fall between. The algorithm—a word I would never have used in those days—went like this: Drop the last digit of the address, divide by 2, and add the given number listed in the guide. And there you would be, more or less.

The locator was useful if you were looking for an office, shop, or restaurant (not that I went to restaurants much in those scrimp-and-save days). I can’t remember who first introduced me to it, but I know it was in the mid-1980s while I was working at a small publishing house, Chanticleer Press. Actually, we were a “packager,” mostly producing nature guides of different kinds that would appear under the imprint of larger houses, including Knopf, Random House, and Harper & Row. Our offices were on the 8th and 9th floors of a nondescript building at 424 Madison–using the guide: 42 divided by 2 = 21; add 26 = 47. In fact, it was between 48 and 49, but close enough.

That location, like the Chock Full O’ Nuts at street level, was a holdover from the days when that part of midtown was the heart of the New York publishing and bookselling world. Most of the publishers by then had already moved their offices elsewhere and the bookstores had closed down. Luckily you could still walk over to Fifth Avenue and browse in Scribner’s ornate, galleried bookshop, which is now a Sephora shop.

In those days, I had a Rolodex on my desk, along with a phone with two lines. Behind me was an IBM Selectric II, the gold standard for typewriters. Starting out as a lowly editorial assistant, I spent days retyping edited copy on manuscript pages with the margins already printed in light blue, which helped to estimate word counts. When I was occasionally asked to take a package to one of our writers or copyeditors who worked somewhere nearby, I would jump at the chance.

A favorite was the offices of the Audubon Society and magazine at 950 Third Ave. (95 divided by 2 = 47.5; add 10 = at 57 St.). On my way back to the office, I would stop at P.J. Clarke’s pub for a hamburger and half-pint of Guinness. A luxury I could just barely afford.

When I described the street number guide to a colleague as coming at the last page of the directory’s “front matter,” she laughed. I had used the publishing term for all the materials that precedes that main text of a book: title page, copyright, table of contents, acknowledgements, etc. I was right though; the street locator guide occupied a place of honor, making it very easy to find, because it was that useful. (In addition, the front matter included international time zone conversions, first aid tips, emergency services numbers, and much more.)

That was how we navigated the city, along with fold-out subway maps (given out free at the booths where you would buy your tokens), address books, coins for pay phones, and tabloid newspapers or the Times folded so you could read on the subway. 

Today’s urban explorers have all that and so much more on their phones. They must look on us as we on did those who stared down at their compasses or gazed at the sky with their sextants.

***

David Allen is a professor of English Education at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). He lives in Staten Island.

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§ 4 Responses to “Manhattan Street Locator”

  • Joanne Davidson says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this great tool! I carried a card version in my wallet when I was a kind of messenger, dropping reports off at ad agencies around midtown in the summer 1977 or thereabouts.

  • Virginia Allen says:

    Your father would be proud of you – as a dedicated map-man – also your Uncle Jim who loved finding his way preferably on foot or the most inexpensive way – blood tells.

  • P. says:

    Yes I remember it. And I also had a pocket sized version, a laminated card from the Manhattan Savings Bank with a calendar on the other side.

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    thanks for the reminder of this method of getting around, which you explained so clearly. unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on the goal — i enjoyed the wandering-around- until-i-amazingly-found-it method of approachiung an unknown address. hence, often late for appointments, but happy with other discoveries. thanks, too, for the reminder of that particular Chock Full of Nuts outlet.

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